What It’s Like Working with a Military-Grade Thermal Imaging Camera

Posted by on Friday February 24, 2017 | Fine Art

© Richard Mosse/Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and Carlier | Gerbauer

A still image from Richard Mosse’s project “Incoming.” © Richard Mosse/Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and Carlier | Gerbauer

In our February “Exposures” story about Richard Mosse’s new film and book, “Incoming,” Mosse spoke about why he decided to use a thermal imaging camera in order to create a body of work about the refugee crisis. During the same interview, Mosse discussed the logistical challenges of using a tool meant for military surveillance to create art.

Mosse calls the camera, which can detect people from nearly 20 miles away, a “deeply sinister technology…. It’s designed for weapons targeting, it’s designed for extreme border surveillance, for basically keeping people out, and controlling people, and revealing people who shouldn’t be there. The way the camera does that is through thermal technology, which can see by night and by day, married to an extremely long lens. Because thermal light doesn’t diffuse like visible light, you can see a lot further than the human eye.”


The camera “looks like a dustbin” and weighs more than 50 pounds. “It’s a bloody big lump of a thing,” he laughs. It’s equipped with a Cadmium telluride sensor and a lens made from Germanium. “The sensor is kept at minus 50 Kelvin, so it has a little freezer unit in the camera,” Mosse explains. “When the camera is on it does sound like a freezer.”

The manufacturer works with the buyer to create a custom user interface that depends on the user’s needs, but the basic, out-of-the-box operation happens via a “simple interface on a laptop.” For two filmmakers—Mosse and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten—working in the field, that wasn’t going to cut it. So Mosse and Tweeten begged “the guys who make it in the white suits at the weapons company…to reprogram the interface so it works with an Xbox controller, which they very graciously did for us.” (Mosse declined to name the manufacturer, but said they are “a company that makes cruise missiles and drones and all kind of very powerful tools of death.”)

They used an old-school Steadicam “designed for heavy 35mm [cinema] cameras that nobody wants to buy anymore,” and connected a media recorder to capture Apple ProRes imagery. “It took us about a year to evolve the workflow.”

Mosse first learned about the camera in 2014 from wildlife cinematographer Sophie Darlington, who had recently used it on a shoot, and she made introductions to the manufacturer.

Traveling with the camera is no picnic. It is subject to international arms regulations, which means that transporting the camera involved embassies and lawyers. “Say I was taking it to Mali,” Mosse explains. He would have to check with the Malian embassy and assure them “you’re not going there and selling it, you’re going to take it there for three weeks and come back.” Getting clearance “would take a little while usually, and I would have to work with a team of export lawyers,” Mosse says. “The whole process is really convoluted and annoying and expensive.”

The camera also, predictably, draws a bit of attention. Mosse recalls one instance when he and Tweeten were filming in southern Turkey near the town of Tilis. They were capturing a battle inside Syria from across the border, which Mosse says involved ISIS, the Syrian Arab Army and American A-10 aircraft. “We were amazed that we could see all of this detail,” Mosse recalls. That’s really what the camera is designed for is to reveal the battlefield in a very articulate way. We could actually pick out ISIS positions in the village and we could see where certain mortar fire was being fired off from and where they were targeting.”

Though they captured “pretty unique footage,” they also “had to pack up pretty quick” because they drew the attention of Free Syrian Army soldiers. “They cross that border very easily so all of a sudden we were being asked…whether they could buy the camera, does it work at night? So we packed up and got the hell out.”

For more about Mosse’s project, see our article here. His three-channel film installation, with a score by composer Ben Frost, is currently showing at London’s Barbican Centre Curve Gallery through April 23. A corresponding book is now available from MACK.



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