PHILADELPHIA — There is no hiding, even under the cover of dark. With a range of 18 miles, a heat-sensing camera transforms the landscape into a veritable panopticon. On the wrong side of the lens, having body heat marks a target. Classified as a weapon under international law for this piercing gaze, and used for both border enforcement and search-and-rescue missions, this machine embodies the contradictions of the European response to refugees from the Near East, Africa, and Eastern Europe, particularly since the onset of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
In Richard Mosse: Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, the Spruance Art Gallery at Arcadia University presents three bodies of work that show the artist’s appropriation of military photographic equipment. Included are selections from the pink-hued series Infra (2010-2015), as well as recent projects Heat Maps (2016-ongoing) and Incoming (2014-2017), in which the artist hacks the reconnaissance purpose of this thermographic camera. By depicting the vast scale of refugee camps throughout countries bordering the Mediterranean, Mosse turns a critical eye towards governments’ insufficient responses to a humanitarian crisis.
In “Ventimiglia” (2016) and “Tel Sarhoun Camp, Lebanon,” (2017) impossibly wide panoramas contain a frightening amount of detail. Made of thousands of images stitched together, these gargantuan landscapes may look inhospitable and alien at first glance — but over time it becomes glaringly obvious that the inhuman factor is the camera’s cold eye. The central mechanism of these images is that objects that are cool register in darker tones, heat in light. Therefore, Mosse’s landscapes mimic nature: objects in the sun are warmer and therefore brighter. Tents and roads look more or less as expected from a distance — but upon closer inspection, textures of cloth or brick, or the rusty surface of a barrel disappear. Details melt into surreal visual soup — in “Ventimiglia,” a wide swathe of foliage looks like a wall of flame.
These landscapes are populated by little figures. From a distance, each is a bright outline, devoid of identifying characteristics. This camera abstracts living beings far more efficiently than it does architecture. Reduced to heat signs, skin color is not visible, thus people are de-racialized — which would be exciting if the mechanism weren’t so complicated and seem so sinister. Instead, we see people who are overheated from labor distinguished from those who are hypothermic. In states of emergency, heat is correlated with survival, and thus these images become like directories for triage.
In six video stills from Mosse’s video installation “Incoming” (2016), aid workers are shown alongside refugees. Light and dark carry poetic weight: in one image, hands wring out a cloth; the cool water stains their hands like ink. Particularly arresting is “Still from Incoming #281” (2016). I can almost make out the specific contours of a woman’s face, but it’s a blurry, phantom image. It is one of the most beautiful contradictions of these photographs that she remain anonymous, but gives us this invisible and intimate knowledge of sensation: that she feels cold, but her eyelashes are warming up.
Printed on metallic paper with a strange, inverted quality, these photographs feel like an afterimage burnt into my retina. I feel implicated in each unsettling scene. As the onlooker, I am also behind the camera, the one who surveils. This work is an urgent reminder that photographs are rarely apolitical when they depict political events, even though objectivity is so often the guise of photojournalism. Representation is frequently weaponized. To look is often to objectify. Poignantly, Mosse’s photographs of the surveillance state reveal our own innate and deeply human capacity for surveilling others, whether involuntarily or otherwise.