At major airports around the world, aircraft often burst into flames, get buried in buildings, and are burnt black. But don’t worry, the fiery wreckage isn’t real, it’s intentional. In his “Airside” series, photographer Richard Mosse captures the disaster-response training practice of setting life-size model airplanes on fire. Mosse’s pictures demonstrate that, in a post-9/11 world, an image of aircraft on fire, for any reason, can stoke fear.

A recent graduate of Yale’s photography MFA, Mosse was awarded the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Performing and Visual Arts. Born and raised in Ireland, Mosse studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths and English literature at Kings College London. His work has been exhibited at Tate Modern, the Barbican Centre, and Art Chicago. “Airside” is at Jack Shainman through December 20, 2008. All images copyright © the artist, all rights reserved

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I had no idea this happens—how did you find out about the plane simulations?

I was flying into JFK and, as usual, my body was wracked with adrenaline as the plane tore down the runway, struggling to halt. While this was going on, I spotted just to the side of the runway a charred oblong structure vaguely related in form to an aircraft but very obviously not one. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What purpose could this sinister machine serve? Was it a totem of my own fear? Had I imagined it?

I’m amazed by all the work and preparation that goes into the simulations. What are they for? Training? Learning? What’s the point of setting these crafts on fire or embedding them in buildings?

They’re to make the firemen more comfortable with air disaster, if such a thing is possible. The modern day airliner is a formidable juggernaut in itself. When it goes wrong, it will take some amount of courage to step close enough to the mess in order to put out the fire. I suppose that’s the objective. When the water sprinklers are turned on and the roar of the inferno begins, it’s hard not to feel hot and terrified. But these devices help the firemen put those feelings aside and learn to run into the flames.

To me, these photos are surprisingly beautiful. What about the pictures of the simulations resonates with you as a photographer?

I love the scale of these machines. They are not unlike model toys, but they’re fully life-size. I wanted to represent that in the image by enlarging the print as far as it would go. I made this work with an 8x10-inch camera, which is a very large film format capable of holding detail to an impressive scale. I want the viewer to be overwhelmed by the machines, as well as to be able to get lost in their details.

Is there beauty in destruction or fear? Does disaster have an aesthetic?

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that there is beauty in destruction. These are very different things. But sometimes they overlap, and when they do an opportunity arises with which it is possible to confront the viewer with an ethical dilemma, forcing the viewer to see how he perceives disaster, how disaster is consumed. And what is consumed must also be produced.

In some ways, it’s like watching a horror movie. The picture is sort of terrible, but we know it’s not real, so we feel an emotional distance. Are these pictures removed from other iconic crash images—the World Trade Towers being the most obvious comparison—or are they more connected than we’d initially think?

I believe these structures are intimately linked to 9/11. They make our fear concrete in order not to assuage it but to articulate our worst nightmares, so that we may ritualize our helplessness. I believe these structures are proof that, on some level, we are terror’s willing victims, that we are its producers.

How much do region or location matter in the “Airside” photographs?

I found it very interesting that the simulators in Europe were a far grander, more opulent affair than their American counterparts. I suppose that’s because European governments have more cash to burn, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Are you documenting a particular characteristic or fact of modern culture in general?

My project is an attempt to locate the air disaster in our cultural imagination. When I say that I mean that the air disaster is a potent image and speaks to all of us. It’s not just something that we feel when we board an airplane, or when we’re caught in turbulence. It’s something that pervades our lives these days. The air disaster is an altogether different class of catastrophe to the car crash. It is a mythic symbol of modernity’s failure and unstoppable globalization.

Are there explicit links between this project and other work you’ve done—your photos from Gaza or the “Nothing to Declare” series of photos of people’s discarded belongings at the US/Mexico border, etc.? Is there a consistent or unifying idea that guides your choice in subject matter?

All my work relates to history, how we write the world. One of the things that I keep returning to is the problems we have with history, since it’s always written from the victor’s point of view, and ossifies into received and coherent forms. We might be able to explain people’s suffering, but we can never truly understand it. I cannot feel your pain. Pain is something that we have terrible trouble communicating. When we do we resort to a kind of pre-linguistic language of writhing and screaming. Pain is something that cannot be represented. And this is precisely the realm of contemporary art. Art is capable of making visible what cannot be seen.

You mentioned traveling to Thailand to take photos. What are you working on now?

Phuket’s extraordinary coral reefs were taken out by the tsunami. In order to restimulate the reef environment, the Thai army is dumping the hulks of old U.S. Air Force plane wrecks onto the seafloor. These aircraft were given to Thailand by the United States upon withdrawal from Vietnam at the end of the war. Rather than transport all of this equipment back to America, they simply gave it to Thailand. Over the coming week four enormous C-47 bombers, six attack helicopters, and various other aircraft will be dumped into the sea. I managed to get permission to film this from underwater and will be making a new video art work around the event.


TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka