Red House #2, 2006, C-type print, 1000 x 760mm 


Adam Broomberg & 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. Broomberg & 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.

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 cannot 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 - David Campany.

Full Text by David Campany

Red House is available from Steidl Editions.