Fig. is published by Steidl/Photoworks (2007)
Fig. features over eighty still lives, portraits and landscapes by photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, drawing together newly commissioned work made around the south coast of England and internationally, and traces links between photography, imperialism and the colonial impulse to acquire, map and collect. The publication’s diverse imagery harks back to an era of Victorian collecting, which resulted in strange accumulations of objects being deposited in local museums throughout the UK. As Broomberg and Chanarin have observed: ‘the history of photography is intimately bound up with the idea of colonial power. Documentary photographers today have a worrying amount in common with the collector/adventurers of past eras. As unreliable witnesses, we have gathered together ‘evidence’ of our experiences and present our findings here; a muddle of fact and fantasy.’ The images range from strange objects found at the Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton — such as a merman’s body and a unicorn’s horn — to ancient waxworks and a dodo skeleton; from floral arrangements found in the rooms of Hotel Rwanda to a single leaf blown from a tree in Tel Aviv by the blast of a suicide bomb. Elsewhere, pictures of beacons along the South Downs — designed in the sixteenth century to warn of invasion — suggest a geographic and emotional boundary between Britain and the rest of the world. "At a glance, this book of photographs and texts, with its quirky leaps from one theme to another, may appear to be a darkly humorous trawl through some outer reaches of oddity: fake mermen, obsessive egg collectors, big-game hunters, and those who numerically classify their collections of soft porn. The eccentricities of its arrangement are matched by those of many of its subjects. Yet the misapplication of control and classification systems regularly produce graver consequences that run through the book, a deeper pulse below the whimsy and amusement: in it, animal bodies are measured and displayed, human bodies—living and dead—are similarly dealt with, whether they are female models of different colourations, or giants or the remains of ‘natives’. Also, at the extreme, that depictions, especially in photographs, may be used to complement the type of classification— ‘Tutsi’, for example, written in a passport—that brings death on its subject. In conversation, Broomberg and Chanarin have said that, despite many horrific photographs of genocide, racialised mass killing still continues, and this book points to the other side of that remark—that because of depiction, it continues. - Julian Stallabrass.