ADAM BROOMBERG AND OLIVER CHANARIN: TO PHOTOGRAPH THE DETAILS OF A HORSE IN LOW LIGHT
30th September 2012, by Marco Bohr, Photomonitor
The exhibition âTo Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Lightâ by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin is currently on display at Paradise Row in London. The exhibition title is derived from a phrase that was used by the photo manufacturer Kodak to describe the capabilities of a new photographic film released in the early 1980s. The awkward yet rather poetic phrase camouflages an underlining dilemma for the photographic industry as film stock historically performed poorly in capturing black skin. A photograph of Kodakâs âShirleyâ vividly illustrates the industryâs racial bias as film was calibrated to capture the white skin of an imaginary proto-subject. Here, the âdark horseâ is in reference to the filmâs supposed ability to transcend this bias and photograph black skin with equal detail.
The majority of the work on display seeks to confront photographyâs troubled relationship with colonialism and the representation of the Other. In response to a commission to âdocumentâ Gabon, Broomberg and Chanarin photographed young children playing in the water in the series Magic and the State. Referencing the fallacy of photography as accurate representation of man (especially while bridging a cultural divide), the young childrenâs bodies are cut out to reveal another image of lush nature beneath the black and white print. The children are not as much captured in the photograph as they are represented by the shape of their bodies in relation to their natural environment. The series, like many projects on display in the gallery, has a strong conceptual and aesthetic affinity with French surrealism.
ADAM BROOMBERG AND OLIVER CHANARIN
Issue 139, May 2011, by Nick Aikens, Frieze Magazine
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarinâs People In Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground, a publication comprising more than 200 images- 33 of which formed their eponymous exhibition at Paradise Row-followed and invitation to respond to the archive of Belfast Exposed. Founded in 1983 as a community photography initiative, this comprises more than half a million images- a mixture of professional and amateur-which offer a history of the troubles in Northern Ireland as seen through the eyes (or lens) of those communities most affected.
Until 2003 the archive was largely uncategorized and remained open to the public to visit. As a result prints and contact sheets have been tampered with, either by archivists who used coloured stickers to indicate selected photographs or by people who sought to remove themselves from public record by scrawling over faces.
Based on these moments of demarcation and interference, the publication includes 196 untitled 10 x 8â prints, each with a circular image in the centre showing a blown-up image obscured by the archivistâs apparently randomly placed sticker. Scenes of tension sit alongside the everyday and indecipherable: masked men; a car set ablaze; teenagers kissing; a man jogging; obstructed bodies. The original photographer, the people and scenes documented and the reasons for their selection remain undefined- this is anonymous, fragmented and partial index of both the troubles and the Belfast archive itself.
Flicking through the book initiates a guessing game, a quest for actual events amongst a Morse code of dots without dashes- I felt what Walter Benjamin described as the âunruly desireâ to know the stories within the photograph. Read within the context of the South African, London-based artistsâ work, which has shifted from photojournalism to a wider practise that is now firmly situated within the art world (this month they will curate their large-scale exhibition, âPhotomonthâ in Krakow), prevailing discourses surrounding documentary photographyâs truth-value and contemporary artâs relentless archive fever, the dots are more investigation into the medium rather than political provocation. As foreign artists parachuted in to this loaded history, such a stance is probably wise.
At Paradise Row the 30 prints were presented in a single line of sleek Perspex cases. The selection was revealing: Untitled (Car on Fire), Untitled (People Saluting), and Untitled (Women Grieving) (all works 2010) convey the tension and emotion of the conflict.
Punctuating these were moments that were sometimes playful, such as a hoard of balloons escaping across the sky, or quirky, like Untitled (Chair balancing on a stick). Certain motifs reappear, such as outstretched arms or people covering their faces. The line of images balanced photographic and archival enquiry with astute formal choices, underscoring the aestheticization that takes place in the transfer book to show.
THE RED HOUSE
November 2006, by David Campany, Aperture Magazine, issue 185.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have photographed marks and drawings made on the walls of a fading pink building now known as the Red House. Situated on the slope of a hill in the town of Sulaymaniyah in Kurdish northern Iraq, it was originally the headquarters of Saddam's Ba'athist party. It was also a place of incarceration, torture and often death for many of the oppressed Kurds for whom the cell walls were the most immediate outlet for expression.
In 1991, prompted by the 'first' Gulf War there was a popular uprising supported by Washington. Iraqi Kurds stormed The Red House, freeing the prisoners, massacring up to four hundred Ba'athist officials and members of the security forces. The Ba'athists held out on the rooftop, striking out with mortar shells at the surrounding Kurds. The fighting was particularly bloody and savage. The uprising was eventually quashed but the ravaged Red House was deserted soon after. Falling into dereliction, the site is still thick with evidence. There are the remains of Ba'athist torture cells, lined with wood to muffle all sound. There is evidence of mass rape. There are hooks in the ceilings for securing prisoners. And beneath great concrete slabs, there are mass graves.
These are not the only records to have survived. That last gruesome battle was filmed by video cameraman Abbas Abdul Razza and it is said that the footage has been used in different ways. Ba'athists show it to their loyalists as a warning of what might happen if they don't fight. But for many of them it is a portent of a last bloody stand they feel is coming in the present war. The Kurds have used the film as a tool in the rally for independence from Iraq. Thus the Red House has become a complex and highly contested symbol of Iraq's relation not just with the Kurds but with the current occupying forces in the country.
What is the role of photography in such a situation? Does it still have one? We must accept that as a means of reportage it has been displaced by other media. This eclipse was well under way even in the 1960s. The war in Vietnam, so often thought of as the last 'photographer's war', was perhaps the crossover between still photography and video imaging. In the decades since the place of photography has been redefined, from within and without. Two new paths have emerged for the photographic reportage.
Firstly there is what we might call the nostalgic mode. The now distant 'golden era' of photojournalism looms large in the popular imagination, fuelled by its commodification. It is endlessly repackaged in coffee table books and the news media glossies. At the same time classic photojournalism has been institutionalised in education and photography history, usually as the work of 'heroic individuals' with their 'unique styles'. Rarely is it seen as the product and symptom of a particular moment in the intertwined histories of global economy, warfare and media technology. The result has been an emergence of a new brand of photojournalism that is often keener to quote and imitate its own illustrious history than it is to understand the present.
The second is what I have called elsewhere 'Late Photography' *. Many photographers have responded to the eclipse of their medium by seeing it as a new challenge and a new possibility. They approach the relative primitivism of their means of representation as an advantage, even a virtue. They forego the medium's prior grasp of events, leaving them to video and television. They opt instead to take as their subject the aftermath of those events. In a reversal of Robert Capa's call to get close to the action, proximity is often replaced by distance. Quick reactions give way to slow deliberation. The jittery snapshot is replaced by a cool and sober stare. Lateness replaces timeliness. The event is passed over for its traces. Here reportage takes a forensic turn and in doing so it openly accepts that it will be an insufficient and partial account of things. Most often it lands upon leftovers and signs of damage, both of which are highly photogenic but not easy to decipher. The image beomes a trace of a trace. More to the point this is an overtly allegorical mode of photography. The images present themselves as fragments not wholes, to be read through and against a backdrop of other media representations of warfare and international conflict. Photography becomes a second wave of representation, returning to look again at what was first understood, or misunderstood through television.
Broomberg and Chanarin approach photography as a form of conceptual ethnography. Much of their work has been concerned with the gathering of visual data relating to matters of human behaviour, often in places of political tension. Stylistically, they avoid the overtly creative, opting instead for a pared down, formal approach bordering on neutrality. They have no 'signature style'. For them the world is a set of highly coded surfaces or stages of action. The camera is used to isolate these things, to cut them out for interpretation and reflection. Their camera usually looks at the subject head-on and centre frame, raising the promise of immediacy or 'plain speaking'. Indeed photographically their images tell us quite a lot about what things look like. However the directness of their photographs is offset by the indirect and uncertain status of what it is they select and present to us. For example another of their recent projects looks at first glance like the documentation of a war-torn Palestinian settlement. Closer inspection and supplementary knowledge reveal it to be 'Chicago', the mock-up town built in the desert for the training of Isreali troops. What looks like a classic instance of 'Late Photography' turns out to be something else.
At the Red House many things could have been photographed. Indeed much of it has been, by various parties for various reasons. Broomberg and Chanarin have chosen what at first seems too incidental, too tangential to the history of the building. What are we to make of these marks made by Kurdish prisoners? They are unlikely to be the free and uncensored expression of the oppressed, given their surveillance by guards. Most of the marks are images, not words. Some figurative, some are incomplete and abstract, others are suggestive but illusive sketches. Some of it seems like fantasy imagery, some of it looks like the bored marking of time. We cannott tell what marks were made when and in what order. History presents itself as a palimpsest. If you wish you can sense in these photographs echoes of Brassai's surrealist images of scratched grafitti from 1930s Paris or Aaron Siskind's photos from the 1950s of daubs and tears made in hommage to abstract expressionist painting. But the context is more pressing and more fraught. The traces recorded by these photographs may relate to past events in the history of the Red House but nothing is settled in Iraq yet. While the photographs are fixed forever, these may not be the last marks made on these walls.
JULIAN STALLABRASS, OLIVER CHANARIN AND ADAM BROOMBERG
October 14, 2008, Paradise Row
JS: You have presented us with some extraordinary objects in the next room and perhaps you could tell us how they were made?
OC: This started way before we went to Afghanistan. Adam and I were invited to visit Hedley Court to photograph and interview soldiers who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq having lost limbs. We learned there that there are more amputees in Britain now then there were even during WW1. This is because military medicine has become so advanced that more are surviving. We met a number of soldiers, some of whom as young as 19, who had come back from Afghanistan some just a week or two before, some had lost an arm, some both legs.
AB: It wasnât just the type of physical injuries that intrigued us but also the psychological; the type of conflict that they are experiencing is also similar to WW1 in the particularly passive nature of injury or death that they experience. During WW1 they compared the psychology of fighter pilots to those who were stuck in trenches. Even though the fighter pilots had a greater chance of dying every day they would return emotionally more intact because, in the conflict, they had a greater sense of control, even if it was just over when they died. Whereas those stuck in the trenches had a passive sense of waiting which led to a particular type of trauma. This is the kind of shock we encountered in Hedley Court. As you know we have spent the last few years navigating conflict zones, always concerned with how to represent trauma in those zones and how complicit representation is in these conflicts.
JS: Are you going to use those images of the amputees?
OC: We realized immediately that the images failed and would always fail to represent any of the trauma. They were hopeless as representatives of that experience.
JS: Your previous response, as in Mr. Mkhizeâs Portrait, for instance, would have been to interview them, and use extracts alongside the photographs. There were people who were quite badly brutalised in that book. You now felt that inadequate?
AB: Itâs a different setting. Here we were talking very much about a conflict zone in which photojournalists are the image-makers. That is something we have never claimed to be, and it is a language we were taking head-on for the first time.
UNCONCERNED BUT NOT INDIFFERENT
By Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
âThe most political decision you make is where you direct peopleâs eyesâ
Wim Wenders, The Act of seeing.(ii)
âThe tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of
the truth about conditions in this world. On the contrary photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has
become a terrible weapon against the truth. The vast amount of pictured material that is being disgorged
daily by the press and that seems to have the character of truth serves in reality only to obscure the facts.
The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriterâ - Bertolt Brecht,1931(iii)
A recent photograph, taken during the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, captures the essence of the photojournalistic image as it was originally conceived by early pioneers like Robert Capa.
Taken an instant after the bomb detonated, at a distance of just 10 meters from itâs epicentre, it is not really a photograph at all, but a blur, a piece of smudged evidence that testifies to the fact that our journalist was there, as close as he could possibly be to the lethal action, when the shutter opened and closed.
Photographs hardly ever break the news these days. In Scotland Yardâs recent investigation into the series of events that lead to Bhuttoâs death, videos taken on mobile phones, rather than the work of professional photojournalists (like this one above), were used as evidence. In recent years some of the most striking visual images of major news events, such as 9/11, Abu Ghraib, the Tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina, have been captured by ordinary people who just happen to be there with their mobile phones or video cameras.
Where does this leave the photojournalist who has been acting as our brave proxy, sending us reports from the front line of life since the Spanish Civil War?
The World Press Photo has been handing out annual awards to professionals for the past 51 years, and has just announced its winners for 2007 (the photograph above won first prize for âspot newsâ). We were asked to participate as jury members in awarding the prizes this year; a good opportunity to gauge the vital signs of a photographic genre in crisis.
The impact of the awards on the industry cannot be underestimated. An exhibition of the winning images are seen by over 2 million people in 50 different countries and 45,000 copies of the book circulates in six languages. Clearly they have a profound affect on the way world events are represented by professional photo journalists. Flicking through the 81,000 images originally submitted a sense of deja vu is inevitable. Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkiesâ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.
âFIGâ- A CONVERSATION WITH ADAM BROOMBERG AND OILVER CHANARIN
2007, by Aaron Schuman, Seesawmagazine.com (Originally published in Hot Shoe International)
Several years ago, Photoworks commissioned the photographers, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, to produce a body of work in the southeast of England. After coming to a dead end with a series of cul-de-sacs, the partnership became inspired by the Victorian mania for collecting, evident in museums such as Brightonâs Booth Museum of Natural History, which houses amongst other things a collection of pinups, an osprey egg, the corpse of a merman, and a unicornâs horn. Noting the parallels between their own work and this obsession for both possessing and exhibiting such curiosities, Broomberg and Chanarin embarked upon the ambitious task of producing a collection of photographs that assumes a similar approach to the contemporary world. The resulting publication, Fig., simultaneously exploits and criticizes the colonial tendencies of Britain - and of the photographic medium itself - offering an challenging, playful and strangely seductive take on the dilemmas facing documentary photography today.
AS â To begin, what first inspired the concept for Fig.?
OC â Well, thereâs something quite strange about being a photographer. You go off, take these pictures, come back, develop the film, then have this set of contact prints that go into a box and then just sit in an archive. Adam and I have always said to each other how pathetic that little bit of plastic negative feels, in relation to the experience of having been there. Also, thereâs the strange habit of photographers - almost like collectors - where youâre accumulating all this evidence of your experience in the world.
AB - We read a lot about the psychosis of collecting. Photographers are very strange beings. I think that a lot of photographers suffer from that strange state which makes you think that youâve got to collect to survive.
OC - So with Fig. we started off by thinking about the act of collecting - or photography as an act of collecting, rather than as a process of making images - and comparing photographers to collectors.
AB â And also, about how collecting is a very colonial experience, and a very colonial practice.
OC â As is photography.
AB â Photography and colonialism grew up at the same time, and sponsored one another. So thatâs a very big theme within Fig.. Itâs very much a reflection of our experience of documentary photography, but itâs also trying to be critical of the genre, and trying to place it within this colonial history.
AS â But in theory, what you do is very old-fashioned, in the sense that you go off to faraway lands, âcollectâ obscure people, places and things, and bring them back to show to people in the West. Have you yourselves been criticized for assuming similar colonialist tendencies?
OC â Thatâs a very good question. This project originally came out of a commission by Photoworks, and the original brief was to make a piece of work in the southeast of England. We spent a year thinking about it, but weâve never made work about Britain, and our work has often focused on what you might call âexoticâ, very photogenic subject matter. I think the camera, as a personality in itself, seeks out the outrageous and the extreme. And we have been criticised - and weâve criticised ourselves - for finding that fascinating.
AB â But to be honest, I donât think weâve been given enough criticism. Ollie and I both read this book by Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, and she talks about the fact that when someone meets a journalist they should be most on-guard. But instead, they actually open up and respond to this person as if they were some kind of benefactor, rather than a malevolent figure. Weâve had similar experiences when weâve done portraits. Firstly, the fact that people agree to be photographed always astounds me. Secondly, itâs such a manipulative process, and because weâve been in these exotic places, with marginalized people, theyâre generally not aware of the power of a picture.
AS â Does your partnership add another dimension or degree to that manipulation?
OC â I think it does, because weâre two different people. We share a lot, but at different moments, we have very different morals. There have been a few times when weâve confronted each other - when something was very uncomfortable for one of us, and wasnât for the other. And at that point, weâve had to say, âDo we take this picture and discuss it later, or do we not take the picture?â Thatâs been a debate thatâs gone on since we started working together.
AS â So do you take the picture?
OC â More often than not, we do. Because I think that sometimes itâs hard to evaluate the morality of a situation in the moment; itâs much easier when you step back. But in the moment, youâve got to take the picture and you kind of go into automatic; itâs only weeks later, hundreds of kilometres away, that you can sit and really look at the image.
AB â We recently did some work in Ecuador with the artist, Gabriel Orozco, and there was this uncomfortable and quite critical moment when we took one picture. If Ollie and I were alone, we would have quite easily taken that picture because, first of all, weâre so used to that dilemma - being in that very uncomfortable place, but knowing that the final product is going to highlight the situation, and so itâs important to take the picture. But Gabriel got really upset.
OC â Maybe you should explain the scenario, otherwise itâs a bit confusing.
AB â Okay, so the scenario was that we were in the middle of the rainforest, and there are local tribes that have lived there for centuries. But since the oil companies have come in and built their roads, the brothels have come in, the alcohol has come in, the loggers have come in, and these tribal people are left with the choice of either to move, or to get conscripted into the oil companies and become workers in the oil fields. Hence, in a matter of minutes, they lose their culture. We were on an official tour with one of the oil companies, and at the end of tour some of these men came up to us in traditional costume. But they were wearing underwear, and you could see that they were uncomfortable; it was just this corporate theatre show put on for us. We were all aware of it. They were dancing in front of their prefab huts, and Ollie and I walked to the back of the huts and saw all of their Western civilian clothes hanging up. So the whole charade was clear to us. And Ollie and I had a two-second little banter, âShould we do it, or should we not?â And then Ollie said, âLets take them into the jungle. Letâs take this charade to the furthest point, and we can turn the jungle into scenery.â So it was clear to us; we hardly expressed most of that debate, but we still knew where we were going. But Gabriel and the rest of the team started freaking out. âDonât you realise that these guys are being exploited! You canât go into the jungle!â, and so on. And we were like, âYes, we know.â There was this excruciating half-hour while we took the picture, with everyone else really uncomfortable behind us. But in the end, thereâs something fascinatingly odd in that picture.
RECENT ACQUISITIONS: ADAM BROOMBERG AND OLIVER CHANARIN
January 18, 2011, by Erin Barnett, Wordpress.com
Since the founding of Israel in 1948, more than ten million pine trees have been planted within the countryâs shifting borders. This ongoing endeavor is largely overseen by the Jewish National Fund, which secures donations for saplings from around the world, organizes planting excursions for tourists, and often incorporates this green gesture into state visits by foreign dignitaries. Though many of the trees are planted as personal memorials to loved ones, the expansion of Israeli forests is broadly promoted with the slogan, âMaking the desert bloom,â an ostensibly ecological phrase that also functions as a metaphor for revitalized Israeli identity in the modern era.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have explored this general phenomenon in a series of color photographs titled âForestâ (2005). But the specific sites they have chosen to document are former Palestinian villages that were evacuated and destroyed at various times since 1948. Each razed village has since been planted with stands of pine trees that gradually colonize the reclaimed lands and obscure their histories of devastation. That this aspect of Israeli forestation efforts is rarely acknowledged is illustrated by the ongoing debate surrounding Canada Park, a West Bank picnic area that has flourished among the ruins of Imwas and Yalu, two ancient Palestinian villages that were decimated in the Six Day War of 1967. Recent petitions to describe this history in the parkâs informational signage have met with resistance.
In light of such events, one is inclined to interpret the depopulation stillness of the âForestâ series as a metaphor for historical erasure, and perhaps read the well-worn paths and rock-strewn grounds as traces of villages that are no longer there. Yet without prior knowledge of these sites, Broomberg and Chanarinâs photographs are rather opaque, and appear to depict a pristine wilderness of old-growth trees that has witnessed little human intervention. While underscoring the influence of contextual information, these ambiguous pictures also challenge our readiness to attribute mostly positive values to the growth and nurture of the natural world.