On Patrol

Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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By Jeremy Borden

Irish artist Richard Mosse likes to photograph “spectacular and monumental” places and structures. His latest project, funded by a Leonore Annenberg Fellowship, took the photographer to the middle of Iraq to visit and capture on film Saddam Hussein's palaces.

Mosse spent 32 days embedded with the U.S. military, helo'ed from place to place under the cover of darkness, night vision guiding the way. He wasn't there just for the buildings -- he wanted to document the moment in time when U.S. troops and Saddam’s insular world collided.

Soldiers spend a few moments relaxing by what was once an opulent swimming pool for one of Saddam's sons. "It looks really like a Renaissance painting, where you have troops gesturing to each other in front of a beautiful landscape," Mosse says. "Within a second, I had a strong impulse to take a shot. It takes several minutes to set up the camera correctly. I thought I would lose it. But then the sun went behind the clouds and everything came together."A "Thank You" poster drawn by American children adorns a wall in Al Salam Palace. Mosse said the patterns on both the poster and wall are similar, "almost like they were intended to be together. Aesthetically, it's kind of ironic."

“(The palaces) became something totally different overnight,” Mosse said of when American troops first arrived. “I was looking for layers of history. I’m very interested in the sense of history that we don’t often think of ... something that is being written at the moment."

Many of Saddam's palaces now serve as offices, sleeping quarters, and makeshift weight rooms.

A service member lifts weights at Al Faw Palace, Command HQ. Mosse noticed the troops' smoking culture, and was struck by this service member lifting weights and smoking a cigar simultaneously. "He was there doing that anyway, and you get a sense of scale," Mosse said. "It's a cool way of living."A "Thank You" poster drawn by American children adorns a wall in Al Salam Palace. Mosse said the patterns on both the poster and wall are similar, "almost like they were intended to be together. Aesthetically, it's kind of ironic."

Mosse, a recent Yale University MFA graduate, originally born in Kilkenny, Ireland, said going to Iraq was a strange and intense  experience. He even found himself unwittingly in the middle of a firefight, recording it with a video camera that had night vision goggles strapped to it.

“All the troops dropped in the shadows and me and my assistant (filmmaker Trevor Tweeten) were in the middle of the street wondering what to do,” he said.

Mosse's work has taken him around the world to photograph the edges of history often missed. There's more to come.  Mosse hopes to capture urban landscapes in Chechnya and see what's happened to Mussolini-era colonial architecture in Somalia, for example.

A "Thank You" poster drawn by children adorns a wall in Al Salam Palace. Mosse said "the tension between these two cultural worlds" comes together in this photo, school childrens' poster adorning the otherwise opulent surroundings. The patterns on the wall above the poster are similar, "almost like they were intended to be together. Aesthetically, it's kind of ironic."A "Thank You" poster drawn by American children adorns a wall in Al Salam Palace. Mosse said the patterns on both the poster and wall are similar, "almost like they were intended to be together. Aesthetically, it's kind of ironic."

Mosse is excited to get back on the road, photographing history and changing how we look at the collision of our past and present.

"We always think that history can’t be rewritten, but every day we’re changing historical truth,” he said.

Richard Mosse will exhibit his work at a solo show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City, opening 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on November 19th, and continuing from November 20 to December 23, 2009.