The Architecture of War: A Look at Saddam Hussein’s Palaces

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Photographer Richard Mosse has recently returned from a month-long trip to Iraq to photograph what remains of Saddam Hussein’s dozens of palaces, now used by American soldiers as make-shift combat headquarters. This month, the American army is set to handover the last of the palaces back to the Iraqi army. Mosse, who has previously photographed war-torn areas of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, sat down with us to discuss his latest project and the deeply disturbing, though darkly humorous, aspects of the ongoing war in Iraq.

Flavorpill: When did you first become interested in photographing Saddam’s palaces?

Richard Mosse: I used to read out-of-date New Yorkers at the gym while I was a graduate student at Yale. I would sweat over the periodicals and carry some four year old magazine back to the Stairmaster. I chanced upon Jon Lee Anderson writing fresh from the US invasion of Baghdad way back in 2003. Anderson describes the US invasion in superb detail. I think his correspondence from around the time of the invasion is some of the best war literature I’ve encountered. Anderson described wandering through one of Saddam’s palaces and recounted a grand vision:

Children’s scooters lay on the floor in some of the downstairs reception rooms. In one bedroom, there was a brand-new McCulloch chain saw on a sofa next to the bed, its yellow box on the floor. There were four more chain saws, still in their boxes, in a walk-in closet.

[from ‘The Collapse’ by Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, April 21, 2003]

I thought to myself, for fuck’s sake, take a picture!

So then, in my final year of graduate school, I wrote a grant proposal under the working title, The Accidental Monument.  I proposed to photograph Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Iraq. I also wanted, vaguely, to photograph the bullet scarred remnants of Mussolini’s colonial architecture in Somalia, the moon-like urban landscape of Grozny, ruined World War II bombers in the Libyan Sahara, beached whales in Southern Tasmania, and other ciphers. I am interested in the layers of history and how they can be read in the landscape. Anyway, I got the grant, went home to Ireland and tried to work out what to do next. I had no idea how to get to Iraq.

FP: What was the turning point?

RM: That summer, the summer of 2008, it turns out that Jon Lee Anderson was the keynote speaker at a local arts festival in my hometown in Ireland, the Kilkenny Arts Festival. Of course, I attended the speech. After, I went over and told him that I was a great fan and could he help me out with getting around Iraq? He gave me loads of contacts, told me all about how to get around, what to do, and explained to me that in order to embed as a photojournalist I needed to get accredited.

What getting accredited means is that a newspaper basically signs a piece of paper that says that they are responsible for your actions while you are in Iraq and then if you die, they have to tell your parents that you are dead. Of course no one wants to do that. Every newspaper I met with loved my idea but no one was willing to accredit me. By a stroke of luck, I ran into a friend from Yale who told me that it was possible to get accreditation with the Yale Daily News. So I got to tell everyone I met in Iraq that I was shooting for a college paper. I got more respect from the Iraqis who never seemed to have heard the word Yale, and thought I was working for the Daily News.

FP: How long were you in Iraq?

RM: I was in Iraq for more than a month. Most of my time was spent waiting on the dusty bases. No drink, no women to look at, the food is like gruel, and you can’t exercise except in a tiny gym with glowering, steroidal GI’s who look at you like they are going to eat you. War photography is not glamorous.

FP: How did you make it to the palaces?

RM: After at least a week, the Lieutenant in charge tells me that they have a spare half day, and says, “Okay Richard, we are taking you out to the palace.” We pile into MRAPs (mine-resistant-ambush-protected vehicle), and we get there and he says, ‘You have fifteen minutes.’ I was like, you what? But I have learned to run on intuition, take the shot and not even think about it. I’ve tried my best to do this in other situations, in Gaza, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, New Haven… And I think it paid off. I’m learning to work quickly with a nineteenth century bellows camera on a tripod, kevlar helmet, flak jacket, ballistic goggles, and a cape. We were even shot at one night.

I would like to go back to Iraq. I made it to only six out of 81 palaces. Really only touched the tip of the iceberg.

FP: How are the layers of history represented in these photographs?

RM: Well you have Saddam’s palace, all of the marble, the artificial lakes, the grand columns, the plastic chandeliers, and the murals. Then the Yanks take over. You have the layers of US troops and their personal effects, their bits and bobs, baseball pennants, Wrestlemania posters, camouflage netting. You can see the military’s provisional plywood architecture within the gaudy vaulted palace domes. You can just see, very simply, the strata of history in front of your eyes, like archeology.

The thing with photography is that it is exactly what it is, you can’t be too subtle. The camera lens is the dumb optic par excellence. Contemporary art is all about the sublime, it’s about the failure of representation – what can’t be represented. The notion of the sublime is about pointing to that absence. Making the viewer feel what they cannot perceive, feel the limit of perception.

Why that is so important to the representation of suffering and war is that I cannot feel your pain. You can have pain. You can scream. But there is no way that I can feel your pain. I can feel compassion, but there is no way that I can understand or feel the pain that you are feeling. It’s incommunicable.

FP: How does photographing architecture address people’s pain?

RM: It doesn’t directly. But the traces of people are there in the interiors and landscapes that I choose to photograph. It’s like that saying, “Don’t look directly at the sun.” I take issue with the histrionics of a lot of press photography, the operatic emotions, the attempt to reduce very complex situations into black and white images of people crying and skinny people dying.

FP: Your images are very masculine.

RM: Why thank you. I must be compensating for something.

The first image I made that I really cut my teeth on, where I knew I was onto something, was an image I took in Sarajevo. It’s totally phallic. The building looks like a big willy. It was a press office, but all of the offices had fallen, shelled to wreckage, and only the central spine, the building’s staircase, had stayed erect like the Priapus, an absurd phallic metaphor of the Balkan war. I guess it has to do with the things men do. War is all about masculinity. It’s like football.

FP: The US army is set to hand the palaces back to the Iraqis this month. How do you think the images will change once the army withdraws from these buildings?

RM: The Iraqis will start gutting many of the palace buildings. They might even sell them to private developers. I know that one in Basra is earmarked for re-development as a national relics museum. I think it won’t be long before the whole American trace will vanish. Many will be condemned and demolished because they are dangerous to passersby.

One thing I found out about Al-Faw Palace is that when the Americans swept into Baghdad they searched this palace and found a secure bunker in the basement piled with lead that had been painted gold to make it look like bars of gold. And it was just stockpiled there.

FP: Isn’t it dangerous to have that much lead around?

RM: If you lick it.

Click through below for a slide show of Mosse’s work.

Photo credit: Richard Mosse from the series Breach