THERE were at least three occasions in the Republic of Congo when, had fate not intervened, photographer Richard Mosse would have lost his life.
There was the plane he missed by oversleeping that crashed and killed all its passengers and the hotel he left early that day was attacked that very night by 12 men armed with kalashnikovs.
He was in the middle of negotiating a trip into rebel territory when the group there massacred 45 unarmed villagers.
Unimaginably terrifying for Mosse, but everyday life for many of the Congolese, five million of whom have so far been killed in the conflict.
The Dublin-born photographer, whose first UK solo exhibition, Infra, launches at the Open Eye Gallery tomorrow, uses infra-red film to document the war zone.
A now defunct military surveillance technology, it was jointly developed by Kodak and the US Army for camouflage detection, but in Mosse’s hands lends a surreal hue of lavender and pink to images of violent rebels and perilous landscapes.
“I was looking for new forms to represent a very old and tired war which no-one really cares about anymore,” says Mosse.
“The idea was to photograph it in a way that would engage not just with the subject of the Congo but with photography itself – to really examine, deconstruct and question the genre of photojournalism.”
Determined to move away from the low-fi style of traditional war photography, inspired by Magnum Photos co-founder Robert Capa, he landed on the Kodak Aerochrome film.
“Photojournalists tend to avoid the dilemma of ethics and aesthetics – the problems that arise when you make aesthetic images from human suffering,” he says. “Very few people consider any alternatives to the Capa low-fi, grainy, black and white approach, whereas photography has huge aesthetic potential, you can make extraordinary beautiful images which are very powerful.”
The contrast between the candyfloss-coloured world created by the infra-red film and the pictures’ content is what make Mosse’s work so compelling. One image, Men of Good Fortune, appears to show a scene straight out of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yet the landscape is one of the most violent places in the world.
“It helps the viewer when they feel this tension, this dilemma, when they’re drawn in by this beautiful image and then they catch themselves and realise they’re enjoying consuming a situation of human suffering,” says Mosse, who is based in New York.
Another picture, General Fevrier, shows a rebel soldier staring at the camera. He is a violent man with a fierce, defiant gaze and yet, with his uniform apparently dyed pink, there is something camp in his pose.
“The look he’s giving the camera is vulnerable yet at the same time sinister. At the same moment as defying the camera he’s posing for his hero portrait,” says Mosse.
“But at the same time, when the film turns the surrounding weeds into pink flowers and his suit into a lavender jumpsuit, it becomes like gay iconography photography.
“It becomes almost a violation of his masculinity and by extension it becomes a violation of the photographer’s own machismo.”
Mosse shot the images on two cameras – one medium format and the second a wooden 8x10in large format camera, which he had to lug around the jungle on a tripod. With no paved roads it was impossible to drive between locations, so he had to travel with all his equipment on foot.
“You can’t walk down the street without getting arrested and brought into a little room and shouted at and intimidated to extract bribes. It’s just hugely frustrating,” he says.
“But you go slow and you don’t do anything stupid and you keep your ear to the ground.
“You have to go into the jungle and walk for days to get to a town. Then you sit down and talk to its chief and ask what’s going on in the next village.”
Just as challenging was dealing with the infra-red film, which has to be stored in a freezer. Kodak halted its manufacture in 2009 and, with very little of it left in existence, Mosse was forced to limit himself to using just one or two sheets per day.
“It only lasts seven days at room temperature so to take it into a Sub-Saharan African war zone, where power is patchy to say the least, is kind of crazy,” he says.
“Infrared light is invisible to the human eye so I was trying to photograph something I couldn’t actually see. Another preposterous idea! It’s like photographing ghosts. This is the last of this film ever in history and here I am and I can’t see what I’m taking.”
RICHARD MOSSE: Infra is at the Open Eye Gallery from tomorrow until June 10.