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Richard Mosse takes pictures with military-grade surveillance gear, but what he’s really out to document are the responses of various countries to the asylum seekers

Richard Mosse’s thermographic camera can image a human body from 30 kilometres away. It does not record visible light; rather, it senses infrared radiation and maps the field by temperature differentials. Under international law, the device is considered a weapon. It’s typically deployed at sentry points for purposes that include long-range border enforcement, tracking and targeting, and insurgent detection. The Irish photographer has chosen to focus its piercing lens back toward the castle walls – to reveal what is hidden just outside.

For the past four years, Mosse has travelled mass-migration routes from the Middle East and Central Asia into the European Union, documenting the refugee camps and staging sites that have mustered there, both legally and illegally.

The photo exhibition, titled The Castle, presents that journey as evidence, Mosse says, of the erosion of human rights in Western liberal democracies over the past decade. “Instead of actually dealing with the refugees – sharing them equally among European countries, finding them homes – the real money goes into enforcing borders, creating a sort of Fortress Europe mentality.”

He turns military-grade surveillance tech back toward the state, surveying encampments hidden in the borderlands and away from population centres. His subject is not the refugees per se. What he’s really trying to picture is the response of various states to the refugees, and the conditions those have caused. “If my viewer could feel only one thing, I want to give them an uneasy sense of their own complicity.”

His thermographic camera registers people as faceless, human-shaped incandescences. It is the haunting signature of Mosse’s project. Some criticize the gesture as a symbolic act of erasure inflicted upon peoples already forced into dehumanizing situations. Mosse, however, feels anonymity is imperative. For various reasons, including deportation under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, many refugees wish to protect their identity, he explains. It is a dilemma particular to the issue: Should photographers document the migrant journey to raise awareness and affect action or should they refrain from documenting at all, so as not to jeopardize any asylum-seeker’s claim? The heat map is his solution. “It sees the individual, but it sees them anonymously.”

The Castle is impersonal and bloodless in its depiction of refugee experiences. That’s strategic. It makes the viewer gaze through the cold, militaristic lens of the state. In that remove, what we see first are warm bodies. You can’t help but think what those warm bodies need – and what ought to be guaranteed them.

Richard Mosse’s The Castle is on view at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto through June 9 as part of Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival (

Idomeni Camp, Greece, 2016

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Richard Mosse, Idomeni Camp, Greece, 2016. © Richard Mosse. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

“Idomeni was home to between 13,000 and 15,000 people. It’s an illegal camp or staging site on the northern Greek border with Macedonia. To the top right of the frame, you can just about make out a fence, beyond that are Macedonian tanks and the border itself.

“Those tents are clustered around a pond in the foreground that’s full of human effluence. Very squalid conditions to be living in. Very poorly managed. I visited that site several months later and it was completely gone – all the tents removed, everything cleaned away. You have to understand, these camps are built to be buried very shortly.

“I visited Idomeni eight or nine times. On this occasion, I would have spent a couple of days poking around, trying to find the shot before bringing the camera in. It takes a while for the camera to capture each image. Maybe an hour. The images are composited from as many as 1,000 discrete cells which we stitch together later. Moving objects – humans or cars – sometimes get truncated by the edge of the frame as the camera moves through the image. I kept that in to reference the spatiotemporal conditions of the refugees. These refugees are stuck indefinitely in byzantine bureaucratic systems. It’s a bit like Kafka’s The Castle, which the show takes its name from: They’re stuck in this sort of mire in time and space and some never make it out.”

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 2017

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Richard Mosse, 'Bekaa Valley, Lebanon', 2017.© Richard Mosse. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

“One in four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. That is a lot of people. Each country’s response to the crisis is very different. In Lebanon, they’re very worried about refugees. They don’t like large camps. It’s sort of a bad memory of past trauma there. So what they do is distribute [the refugees] in much smaller camps all across the Bekaa Valley. That’s in order to keep them decentralized, I suppose, to prevent rioting and other sorts of confrontations. But it’s very expensive for those refugees. It’s not like the government finds them land; they have to rent it from farmers, often at inflated prices. They’ll have to pay $200, maybe $400 a month, which, for displaced families, who can’t really earn any money, is very expensive. That’s the valley. On the right, you have Syria, and on the left, Mount Lebanon. In the foreground, we have the refugees living in patchy networks. You can see the details of life. In the foreground, slightly to the left, there’s a man there who’s breeding pigeons.”

Hellinikon Olympic Arena, 2016

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Richard Mosse, Hellinikon Olympic Arena, 2016. © Richard Mosse. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

“Hellinikon was built for the Olympics in 2004. Not long after, the Greek government couldn’t afford to maintain the Olympic site and it fell into disrepair. They had a tidal wave of mass migration starting around 2014. They ended up using the facilities to house refugees. Very squalid conditions, particularly in the winter when the field turns to mud. They’re so bad that the Greek authorities try hard to conceal the site. They don’t like to let photographers visit, so you rarely see pictures of those camps. I particularly like the image because it speaks to the absurdity of the situation and the world we live in, the sort of dystopia we’ve created. The sense of spectacle of the mass migration or refugee crisis – in terms of media – we’re all just sitting in the seats watching it.”