Armed and incredibly dangerous, soldiers from the deadly Congolese M23 militia stare into the camera lens surrounded by lush sub-Saharan jungle that is glowing bright pink. The extraordinary, unedited images were created using some of the last surviving rolls of Second World War era infrared surveillance film.
They were taken in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo by Richard Mosse, an Irish photographer who bought up Kodak’s last supplies of the film so that he could capture the invisible.
The film, which shows infrared light, was produced in conjunction with the U.S. military to help spot camouflaged enemy combatants from spy planes that have flown above battlefields all over the world since the 1940s. Mosse’s stunning use of the now-obsolete technology has landed him on an international four-person shortlist for the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.
Celebrating the opening night of the prize’s exhibition in London, Mosse said it has been exhilarating to cast new light on the conflict in DRC. “Some of the rebels, like this fucker,” he said, pointing at a man in black boots, fatigues, and a pink beret. “He's a war criminal - he's got blood on his hands. I’m representing him in a field of shivering pink, and he doesn't know that.
“It's a predatory gesture; it's a violation of portrait photography in that way--I'm feminizing his machismo, his swagger, and that’s a good thing because he's not a very nice guy and he does the same to other people.”
Infrared light does not have a color which means it cannot be seen by the human eye. When Mosse stands in front of his subjects with a yellow lens on what looks like an ordinary, if old-fashioned, camera they have no idea what kind of image he is creating.
“I’m trying to show this overlooked unseen humanitarian disaster with film that registers the invisible,” he explained. “It’s a huge humanitarian disaster that's been ongoing for decades - 5.4 million people dead since 1998. That's a lot of people, but you never really hear about it. This is about communicating what can't be communicated.”
“He's a war criminal - he's got blood on his hands. I’m representing him in a field of shivering pink, and he doesn't know that.”
Mosse said he was delighted to be appearing alongside Lorna Simpson, Jochen Lempert and Alberto García-Alix. The work of Spanish photographer García-Alix’s could hardly be more different; it features a series of intimate self-portraits taken since the 1970s. The black-and-white images verge from hyper-real close-ups of his face to an image of the artist urinating, naked but for a masquerade mask on his face.
“I never imagined I'd be shortlisted for this," Mosse said. "I don't care if I win it or not, I don't think I will, but Jesus Christ just to be here.”
As if to commemorate his ascent into the upper echelons of the art world, the genial Irishman was clutching in his hand a remarkable memento from his childhood: a battered Olympus OM1. “It's my mother's camera. She hates photography,” he said. “She tried her best in the 70s and 80s before she lost interest. so she gave me that when I was quite young. When I was a teenager I realized I loved photography.”
As his passion for photography flourished, he moved past the cheap old SLR. "I lent the camera to my first ever girlfriend. I hadn’t seen her for about ten years and she showed up to return it tonight,” he said. “It was dropped on a train platform and when you look through the lens there's mold growing but I don't give a fuck - it's my baby!”