Richard Mosse’s new body of work, Heat Maps, attempts to foreground the biopolitical aspects of the refugee and migration situation now facing Europe, the Middle East and north Africa. The project maps refugee camps and other staging sites using an extreme tele military grade thermographic camera that was designed to detect and identify subjects from as far away as fifty kilometers, day or night.
The camera itself is export controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations — it is regarded as a component in advanced weapons systems and embargoed as such — as well as being designed for border surveillance and regulation. It can be seen as a technology of governance, a key tool in what Foucault and Agamben have described as biopower.
The camera translates the world into a heat signature of relative temperature difference, literally reading the biological trace of human life, imperceptive to skin colour. Instead of individuals, it sees the mass — in Foucault’s words, “massifying, that is directed not as man-as-body, but as man-as-species.” It elicits a sinister and invasive form of imagery, but also occasionally intimate, tending to both dehumanize and then rehumanize the “bare life” (Agamben) of the human figure of the stateless refugee and illegal economic migrant, which the camera was specifically designed to detect, monitor, and police.
These images attempt to offer a way of thinking through the ways in which biology and politics have become indistinguishable in the contemporary era, especially in relation to immigration, borders, climate change, free trade, and the camps and liminal spaces where tens of millions of refugees and migrants currently find themselves in limbo, excluded from participating or contributing to our modern societies.
“Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West.” — Giorgio Agamben