The eye of the Leviathan

The crisis of European states in the emergency migrants in the photographs of Richard Mosse

“If your photographs are not good enough, you are not close enough”

Robert Capa's golden rule could not fail to find his exception sooner or later.
Death of a Militian Loyalist, photographic icon of the twentieth century, is today pure ideal form, impossible to imitate in wars fought through remote-controlled drones; so Richard Mosse, photographer born in 1980, decides to face one of the greatest tragedies of recent years through a look as far as possible from the emotional aesthetics of the founder of the Magnum agency, trying to follow the war in Syria and the subsequent desperate flight of the its people to Europe from a distance that can allow a new and unexpected analysis.

Jumped to the headlines in 2014 for his Infra, an eclectic and dramatic work on the war that has for several years caused damage to the Eastern Congo, in which he criticized the way of reporting war today through the use of photographic (and military) technology now in disuse (Kodak Aerochrome film, characterized by a colour rendering of greens in shades of magenta, indispensable in the past for identifying camouflaged objectives in forests), Richard Mosse decides to go further in his technical-artistic experimentation, once again exploiting a technology particular, which has little to do with Capa's old Leica.

A 23kg camera, containing a sensor capable of recording the traces of heat in a single black and white, controllable only by a portable computer adapted for the purpose, with a lens, composed of a complex system of germanium lenses, rare mineral crystallized in the laboratory, able to catapult those who look at you through worlds up to 30.3km away: the most advanced military technology, able to identify targets and monitor borders, becomes an artistic and documentary medium.

“In terms of storytelling, we began to learn how complex, ambivalent and powerful a tool like this could be. [...] This was a new grammar we were learning to speak, a new visual language was emerging.”

Thus was born Incoming, an epic video and photographic poem thanks to which, once again, Mosse manages to shake every aesthetic foundation of photography and manages to strike every documentary prejudice.
The plastic perfection of the Capa’s Militian and the human intensity of Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother are challenged by an abstraction that overcomes every humanization of the drama, focusing not on the tragedy of living (and dying), but the profound crisis of a society, the European/American one, illusory of being the illuminating beacon of the whole world.

Everything is transfigured, everything becomes enigmatic and disturbing: the dark sky is illuminated by infernal rains that hit the cities, the seas are made of a black so dense as to seem immense and dangerous pools of oil, masses of creatures with eyes without pupils, covered with a black stickiness. Those who should human beings present themselves as monsters, real aliens, extraneous to the humanity to which we are accustomed, unable even to express emotions.

As Mosse himself states, one remains confused, displaced and the world suddenly takes on absurd, unfamiliar characteristics.
The huge Frontex mission ships look like burning mountains where demons reach out to monsters of the same nature, wholly similar to those that on the USS Theodore Roosevelt prepare those terrifying titans able to fly at supersonic speeds with destroyers, practically equal to those who set fire to the French borders in Calais.

A mass of creatures to watch and oversee, with a telephoto lens, with the big eye that peers at distance and dehumanizes, making all of which is not experienced directly a danger to be terrorized: the eye of European governments, Fortezza Bastiani in crisis, between a sense of pity, solidarity, good practices, hatred, sensible and senseless fears, new slaves and old slaves.

“Quite by accident, the device produces a beautiful monochrome tonality, subtle and dazzling. Human skin is rendered as a mottled patina disclosing an intimate system of blood circulation, sweat, saliva, and body heat. [...] We are portrayed as vulnerable organisms, corporeally incandescent, our mortality foregrounded. Before this device, we are ciphers.”

The image of Mosse then becomes ambiguous, paradoxical, representing alien humanity yet equal to that known, bringing it back to the flesh, to an intimacy impossible with other types of photography, to its essence, all through a technology used to identify and kill. Thus the dilemma of the concept of refugees and its relationship with the sovereignty of states and its citizens is presented.

The refugee is a figure who places himself at the limit of modern sovereignty, officially sanctioned in white in the 1789 Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights.
With the French Revolution, sovereignty, which was first of royal order and belonged to an entity linked to the divine (the monarch), became of national order and passed to the citizen, a figure that came to be formed in Roman law but resurrected, otherwise, precisely with the French Declaration. We are citizens, therefore sovereign and have rights ("every man is born with inalienable rights"), from birth and therefore the principle of natural life and the principle of sovereignty, separated in the ancien régime (but also in the classical world with the concepts of bios and zoē), unite in the sovereign subject, founding principle of the National State on which the European (and not only) modern society was based.

Precisely because of this union, the National State is based on what Giorgio Agamben calls biopolitics, taken to the extreme by the Fascisms that tried in vain to clearly define the "outside" from the "inside".
The refugee questions the continuity between "natural man" and citizen and brings to light just that gap, becoming the man described by the Declaration and yet, for this very reason, politically difficult to define and, therefore, to understand.
The crisis (which is not dealt with adequately by politics and the Western intelligentsia) lies precisely in the fact that, with today's legislative and cultural means, it is not possible to overcome a past ethics and social conformation. As Hannah Arendt puts it in The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man, human rights, although universal, are substantially guaranteed by state-national structures, which, however, have the aim of guaranteeing sovereignty and rights exclusively to citizens. Since migrants are natural men by birth but not citizens as stateless, without a state that guarantees their sovereignty, European politics fails to give valid answers, leaving humanitarian organizations free to devote themselves exclusively to natural men, picking at will unintentionally the only power capable of cementing people against capitalist atomization, that is precisely that "enemy" that NGOs would like to fight.

The artistic act of Richard Mosse becomes political, precisely recognizing, through the use of a lethal technology, this crisis, represented by the immense migrating masses: the stripping of the subjects to pure living beings, simple traces of sweat, saliva and blood, indistinguishable by skin colour or social and cultural status, men who turn into ghosts without identities, who vanish into the desert, into the sea and into the dense jungles of our cities.

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