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May 09 2012

Photographer Richard Mosse's best shot

'This is a pool at one of Saddam's old palaces. I had 14 minutes, then they barked at me to pack up'

I wanted to document the US troops stationed inside some of Saddam Hussein's old family palaces. There are 84 dotted around Iraq, but it was 2009, and the clock was ticking as soldiers were being withdrawn. You need media accreditation to get embedded with the US military and, although editors liked my idea, no one was willing to take responsibility for my safety. Eventually, the Yale Daily News agreed. It became a running joke among journalists in Iraq that I had a press card from my old college paper.

I spent a month riding within the US war machine, going from base to base. At one point we stayed at an oil refinery, a picture of hell with an overwhelming stench of crude oil. There was a military dog (it actually held the rank of sergeant) who detested me and would chase me down, savagely biting my heels. The GIs laughed, saying he only attacked insurgents.

We finally reached this palace in the Jebel Makhoul mountains to the north. It was used by Uday Hussein, Saddam's notorious eldest son. I was given just 14 minutes at the site. While setting up my camera for an initial shot of the palace foyer, I looked over my shoulder and noticed soldiers lounging around the empty, ruined pool. What I saw struck me as the long-lost hidden link between the 19th-century French painter Géricault and David Hockney.

Without quite believing my eyes, I intuitively spun my camera around. The subjects had arranged themselves better than I could have imagined: the soldier to the right is spreading his arms like a figure in a classical painting. I had to put my tongue back in my mouth and remember to press the cable release. It's so rare to have that "decisive moment" – especially while using a large, wooden 8in x 10in format camera on a tripod in a warzone. A cloud even passed in front of the sun to soften the hard desert light. I took a single exposure, then a few more elsewhere, before I got barked at to pack up.

The site overlooks the River Tigris: for me, there is something sinister and circular about an occupying army lounging around a toppled dictator's pool, in the area archaeologists call the "cradle of civilisation".


Born: 1980, Dublin.

Studied: English literature at King's College, fine art at Goldsmiths, London; photography at Yale School of Art, US.

Influences: WG Sebald, Werner Herzog, Caspar David Friedrich, Thomas Struth.

High point: Opening my show Infra, of shots of the Congo, in New York.

Low point: The moments between projects. They're like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.

Tip: Don't go to art school initially. Do a degree in something real like physics or music. Then you will have something to make art about. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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