IIn his 20s, Irish photographer Richard Mosse made his first foray into photojournalism capturing postwar Balkan nations. This experience led to the realization that the medium was not suitable for capturing complex and layered narratives. “You have to put the thing in front of the camera, and when that thing is an abstraction, much larger than a human figure, it is very difficult to do,” he explained in a recent podcast with Monocle.
The topics he found himself covering over the next two decades were just as abstract and complex as the first, from the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the refugee crisis in Europe. However, in his search for ways to subvert the medium and bend it to his will, he eventually managed to create his own unique brand of photography, characterized by the use of infrared film and other technologies rooted in military recognition.
In 2019, this long-standing interest led him to a conflict of another kind and to the beginnings of his latest project, Tristes Tropiques. News reports from that time about the fires that ravaged the Brazilian Amazon after years of deforestation caught Mosse’s attention. Intensive ranching and soy cultivation had devastated the rainforest and a large-scale ecological crisis was unfolding. He began to wonder how he could push the limits of his craft again to capture a subject as large as this. How can a modest camera tell such a hideously complex story that unfolds over many years, involving numerous processes that can often be very difficult to perceive in time and space? How can I find a wide enough lens? he asked himself. The answer came in the form of a multispectral camera.
Mounted on a drone, he was able to fly this camera over sites of destruction and environmental crime, imaging the ground to capture bandwidths of reflected light, many of which are invisible to the human eye. These spectral bands, which contain environmental data, could then be interpreted using geographic interpretation software (GIS) that maps them to the visible RGB color space of the final image. By experimenting with different color combinations by remapping the bands, Mosse was able to create vivid topographies that reveal traces of damage and environmental degradation.
“Some are incredibly aesthetic, producing rich lipstick reds and purples along the banks of a charred forest, clearly showing the stress of the remaining plant life, some of which was half burned and in the process of dying. The colors are usually quite electric, however, articulated over such detailed organic landscapes, the resulting images feel very fragile. This work transmits fragile organic matter dominated by extractive violence at the hands of man. They are living maps, showing signs of life, but evoke regressive death, tipping points and ecocide, ”he writes.
This advanced technology, generally used by environmental scientists to study the effects of climate change on the rainforest, is also employed by large agribusiness corporations seeking to profit from the land, and it provided Mosse with a unique way to engage with the topic: “I I felt that this technology would help me to look at aspects of deforestation in the Amazon in a powerful way, as it is at a crossroads between extractive environmental exploitation, on the one hand, and the powerful remote sensing tools that we depend on to mobilize people. the international community. [to regulate deforestation] on the other ”, he explains. By harnessing this medium to tell stories, Mosse could transcend the usual depictions of the burning Amazon and instead reveal to us the more gradual processes of destruction that are taking place in the region.
These processes, which sometimes take place over several years, include land clearing for “endless farms” and “soy fields without a single hedge that are intensively harvested three times a year.” However, it is not just deforestation that damages the surrounding area: Mosse’s images also show how hydroelectric dams, along with Brazil’s growing gold mining industry, have devastated river systems and marked the terrain, often ripping apart protected national parks and indigenous reserves. The project also includes a map of the Norwegian-owned Hydro Alunorte plant in Barcarena, a small municipality in northeastern Brazil, which is one of the largest aluminum refineries in the world. In 2018, The Guardian published a report on the plant that suggested it was responsible for the contamination of local water sources and the poisoning of fish and other products. In the Mosse Alumina Distillery diptych, the upper image shows the extensive layout of the main site, located near the edge of Marapatá Bay, while the lower image shows the connected reject basin, colored in a sickly pink hue. .
“This mineral rejection basin is said to have overflowed, allegedly polluting the water aquifer and poisoning many people and the environment,” Mosse explains. “So in choosing which bands to reassign for this diptych, I wanted to create a powerfully aesthetic image that evoked the shape of a diseased organ that overwhelms the neighboring community.”
Images like these show us the ways in which the excessive extraction of natural resources is damaging one of the most important ecosystems in the world, but they also help to identify the main contrasts between how indigenous communities use land and how indigenous peoples use it. West. Alongside this diptych, images such as Intensive Cattle Feedlot depict the invasive architecture of meat production that dominates large tracts of land in the Amazon: “The intense rectilinear rib cage shape of this map shows successive ponds dug for processing the combined mass of 40,000 head of cattle. ” Mosse writes.
In contrast, Aldeia Enawenê-nawê maps the layout of the Enawenê-nawê tribe people, who live in harmony with their surroundings, eating only fish and vegetables and creating very little waste. He continues: “I think these forms, which reveal the lived environment, show us a lot about diametrically opposed approaches to land use and the effects they are having on the Amazon basin.”
It was this kind of observation that led Mosse to title the Tristes Tropiques project. Taken from a book of the same name by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, it translates as “ sad tropics ” and may be a reference to a progressive western influence that had reached the Amazonian tribes that it found in the Brazilian interior in the decade 1930. “I was very moved by his observations and, to my great surprise, I found that his travels were quite similar to some of mine, almost a century later, in terms of the axes he traveled along,” recalls Mosse.
“While he predicted this future, I wonder how he would feel if he could get back on track today and face what these parts of Brazil have become.”
Mosse’s reflection on Lévi-Strauss’s work and its parallels with his own reveals how much has changed since the anthropologist roamed the Amazon and, at the same time, how little. It is a sad realization that these words, taken from his 1955 book, are as relevant now as they were then: “For those of us who are land-bound Europeans, our adventures in the heart of the New World have a lesson to teach. us: that the New World was not ours to destroy, and yet we did destroy it; and that no other will be granted to us. By understanding these truths, we come face to face with ourselves. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism