The Amazon rainforest has suffered unspeakable loss since Jair Bolsonaro was named president of Brazil in 2019.
In the first three years of his presidency, more than 34,000 square kilometers (8.4 million acres) disappeared from the Amazon—up from 4,600 square km in 2012—according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. That’s an area almost as big as The Netherlands. Of course, it wasn’t just deforestation rates that went up under Bolsonaro’s presidency. He also slashed spending for environmental agencies, weakened Indigenous land rights, and fired environmental experts, including the director of the Brazilian agency that monitors deforestation. As a result, illegal invasions of Indigenous lands by gold miners have increased by 180 percent. Now, as Bolsonaro gets ready to face off former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—who won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election on October 2—at the run-off election on October 31, the fate of the Amazon hangs in the balance.
It is no coincidence, then, that photographic artist Richard Mosse, who has spent half a decade photographing the decline of the Amazon, started work on his latest multimedia project, Broken Spectre, in 2019. By virtue of its subject, Broken Spectre is both an urgent body of work and also deeply distressing. By combining a range of technologies, including multispectral cameras, botanical studies, aerial cameras, and heat-sensitive analogue film, Mosse has created an immersive 74-minute film that, alongside photographic works, speaks to the criminal intentions fueling the climate crisis, while asking us, the viewers, to reconsider our own complicity in the violent systems that are destroying our planet in pursuit of profit.
Below, Mosse speaks with Atmos about Broken Spectre—which has been published as a book by Loose Joints and will be on view at 180 The Strand in London from October 12—and the representational challenges of depicting the nuances and the scale of the sustained attack on the Amazon Basin.
Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
Broken Spectre, like Tristes Tropiques, is about the devastating effects of climate change and ecocide on the Amazon. What keeps bringing you back to the Amazon rainforest? And in which ways does Broken Spectre build on previous projects?
I’ve actually spent five years in the Amazon rainforest. I started with these rather eccentric ultraviolet portraits of the rainforest biome in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru in 2018. That was quite a restorative project for me. I was looking for a bit of peace and quiet after a very intense five years spent on the previous project about refugees across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. The photographs I made in Ecuador—these geographic information systems maps titled Tristes Tropiques—were very much a personal project for myself. But then in 2019 the Brazilian Amazon began to burn exponentially, so I decided to expand on it and brought on my close friends and collaborators: cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, and composer and sound designer Ben Frost, whom I’ve been working with for more than a decade.
So, we started collaborating on Broken Spectre in 2019 after years of exploitation by environmental criminals looking to turn the rainforest into pasture land for the cattle and beef industries made the burn season particularly devastating. We’ve reached the point of no return now whereby man’s willful actions on a sociological and economic level but also on an international globalized level have produced an environmental reaction that we can’t stop. But how do you depict that as a storyteller? That is very challenging because it’s a subject that we can see manifestations and expressions of locally, but we can’t really see the whole subject. And in a way, it’s beyond human perception itself. With Broken Spectre, we were really struggling to find the right language.
Yes—for me, what’s fascinating about your work is in part that it grapples so explicitly with the representational challenges of capturing ecocide at scale but also at a minute level. For instance: you put microscopic imagery side by side with aerial maps. What do these different perspectives achieve in terms of the message you are trying to convey?
We had to constantly shift media, which makes for a slightly chaotic project. In Broken Spectre, there aren’t just shifts in scale—from the microscopic to the aerial—but also spectral shifts. And by spectral, I mean the wavelength of light, but also the wavelength of sound. We’ve been recording across different parts of the light spectrum, which in the case of photography means from ultraviolet all the way up to infrared and back into the visible spectrum. We’re doing this in order to really foreground this problem of representation; the fact that the story is so complex on so many different levels. Typically, you might see images of Amazon deforestation from the air. And in that case, you miss the Indigenous communities and the ways in which ecocide impacts their lives. If the focus is on Indigenous communities and their lives, you might miss the non-human—the biome itself.
We didn’t want to exclude any of these sides of the story. So we made a film that constantly shifts gears and slams these different media together in ways that can be very disarming for the viewer. That was very deliberate on our part.
“We’ve been recording across different parts of the light spectrum to really foreground this problem of representation; the fact that the story is so complex on so many different levels.”
You deliberately use the term “slam” when describing the editing process of the 74-minute film, I imagine, because the narratives the film follows are so fragmented. Especially as the film itself was captured over three years. What has informed the decision-making process of what to include—and what to exclude—in the film, and how has it evolved over time?
This was not an easy film to make because of the vast scale of the Brazilian Amazon. We had to cover many miles during a pandemic, and you can see the impact of deforestation everywhere. It’s normalized, and it will continue to be normalized as Jair Bolsonaro continues to defund the IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency. In fact, according to a recent study by Mpabiomas, 99% of deforestation-related economic activities in the Amazon are illegal. I’ve seen my fair share of depressing landscapes during my career, but looking at a rainforest that’s now little more than charred scalp across the hills is deeply sad; trees as far as the eye can see have been turned to carbon. Regarding the film, I spent months driving around on my own with my translator, making maps and scouting the subject. It’s a research-based process. It’s only when I feel I’ve found something that’s worth flying Ben and Trevor in for that they hop on a plane and we start the shoot scheduling.
For example, as I was driving, I heard that the Yanomami community of Roraima State in Northern Brazil, which lies on the border with Venezuela, was facing an increasingly challenging situation. They live along the Uraricoera River, which is a very beautiful river that belongs to them as their ancestral territory—and which is also full of gold. As a result, illegal gold miners, garimpeiro, have been invading their land for years. And this is a lawless place, there are no police there. These garimpeiros would come into the village by boat at night, shooting randomly with automatic weapons and throwing gas grenades. Once I heard about this, I tried very hard to get there as soon as I could. I drove to Boa Vista and I managed to get permission to go in. The Yanomami community were extremely grateful to see us and naturally also very angry—they were very disappointed with the lack of justice and the lack of protection from the Brazilian state. By the time we arrived, they had been harassed almost every night by armed groups. And while they didn’t have many guns, they were in defense-mode using spears and bows and poison-tipped arrows.
In the film, a young woman named Adneia gives this extremely powerful speech. It’s about nine minutes long and we didn’t edit it whatsoever. In it, she confronts us as photographers about what we’re doing in the village. What are we actually going to do? What change will really come from us filming? She’s very straightforward in confronting the photographers, us, and by extension the viewer, you.
The film will be screened alongside an exhibition of your photography, which is characterized by fluorescent colors and deep monochromatic tones. How does your focus on the senses, on sound and color, help to communicate the extent of these environmental crimes that you’re describing that are taking place in the Amazon basin?
The stories I work on always involve very complex situations and narratives. In order to tell these stories in ways that are meaningful and honest, I try to invite the viewer to—alongside myself—meditate on their own complicity. For this reason, I have a frustration with conventional photography. When we see one picture of a rainforest in flames, it can feel like we’ve seen them all. There’s no specificity there, it doesn’t really tell us more than this particular bit of rainforest is burning. And that’s just the nature of conventional photography. It’s quite hard to dig deeper with a normal camera.
But actually, photography does have this extraordinary power to help us understand the Amazon’s velocity of deforestation and, using that data, we can model the future of the Amazon to better understand those tipping points. For instance, multi-spectral cameras can capture discreet bandwidths of reflected light that’s bounced off the earth or the terrain below, including foliage. These cameras, which are highly technical, are geared towards revealing specific environmental changes, such as stress to plants. To the human eye, a plant that’s hanging on for dear life might look the same as the one next to it. But, a plant that’s in a state of degradation will appear on a multi-spectral camera in a different color space. This is what we call false color imaging. Multi-spectral data can show us—and has for decades shown scientists—a lot of information about the Amazon. I was very interested in that, but I wanted to harness it and employ it as an artist.
Color is something that we psychologically react to. This perceptual psychology of the color red or pink is very different to how our brain responds to the colors green or blue. Aesthetically, the colors in Broken Spectre can have a disarming quality, a defamiliarizing effect, forcing us to think about what we’re looking at in different ways. In this sense, the viewer is also actively involved in participating in the construction of meaning. So, I’m always looking for aggravated media, photographic technologies that have an active role in constructing the story that I’m telling.
Your description of multi-spectral cameras has made me think of the notion that art is both a mirror that reflects our reality, but also a hammer that shapes our reality. What role can environmental art play in holding us accountable for our own complicity in these extractive systems?
The globalized trading system means we’re all directly impacted—and also impacting—what’s happening in the Amazon. As you drive along the Trans-Amazonian Highway, there’s millions and millions of cows—there must be at least 90 million head of cattle in the Amazon. The produce from these cows are then sold all over the world. The leather seats in your car could come from the Brazilian Amazon. Also the cheap beef we eat in places like Burger King or buy in supermarkets can often be traced back to the Amazon. As storytellers, we want to make these links clear, which can be a challenge because for viewers in the West it can feel very far away.
One of the ways we bring this point home in the film is by referencing the iconography of the Western film. A lot of the ranching is done by cowboys and they are often on horseback herding their cattle wearing 10 gallon hats and holding big whips. They look just like the cowboys we see in Hollywood’s Western films. Ben realized that one way we could drive that message home for the viewer in a way that problematizes it and complicates it is by sampling the music of Ennio Morricone from Spaghetti Western movies. So, that is what we did. The familiarity provides the Western viewer an ease of access, so they can more easily relate to what they’re looking at. It’s also very fitting because this notion that man rules over the wilderness, that the rainforest is something to be tamed and turned into pasture, is a very European mindset.
Broken Spectre by Richard Mosse is published by Loose Joints in collaboration with 180 Studios and Converge 45.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for purposes of length and clarity.