WHO ARE BROOMBERG AND CHANARIN AND WHY HAVE THEY DONE THIS?
By Gordon MacDonald
The oddity of the career path of Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg may go some way to explaining the peculiarity of their practice in the current visual arts scene. This is best illustrated by their publications, Trust (Westzone Publishing Ltd, Oct 2000), Ghetto (Trolley, Jun 2003), Mr Mkhize’s Portrait (Trolley 21 Jun 2004), Chicago (Steidl Verlag, Aug 2006) and this, their latest book, Fig. each of which show a development in the artists understanding of both the possibilities for a bookwork and for their own practice - as the pair seem to grapple with the problems of their chosen field of documentary photography. Neither artist has a had conventional training in photography – Broomberg holding a degree in Sociology and the History of Art and Chanarin one in Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence – and, unfettered by conventional photographic teaching, they seem to exhibit a freedom in their research process, their photographic style and their political and social engagement unusual in the world of photography. They, for me, are refreshing oddities in a field too often limited by conceptual and stylistic formulae. There is also the question of their working relationship and the undoubted benefits this has brought to their practice.
I first met Chanarin and Broomberg, and experienced their particular style of working, almost a decade ago. I was in Gothenburg to see the first in a series of exhibitions entitled Modern Times, curated by Val Williams for the Hasselblad Centre, and they were in town to discuss the plans for an exhibition of their project Trust at the same venue. We were sitting together eating lunch on the steps of the Gothenburg Kunsthalle, when a group of elderly Swedish Line-Dancers, dressed in garish western garb of red, white and blue, started to perform directly in front of us. One of the artist-duo – it is not important which – stepped forward and wandered in amongst the group while they danced, casually taking pictures of the dancers - the other circled and talked to the onlookers and supporters who seemed more than comfortable with the attention. Though an unusual experience, and certainly unexpected, it did not seem unnatural or rude. Quite the opposite, it seemed like I was witnessing either a performance that they had initiated to become part of, or that the dancers had set up exclusively for them to photograph. This scene, I think, is the perfect description of the working relationship of Broomberg and Chanarin - both with each other and with their subjects – a relationship that seems to step outside of the perceived image of the documentary photographer as a lone predator. This act seemed to be one of pure curiosity on the part of Broomberg and Chanarin, and the camera, which they borrowed from my wife for the 10 minutes of the performance, just a convenient starting point – a device allowing them to legitimately inquire and unashamedly stare. I still have the pictures; they have never even asked to see them.
Broomberg and Chanarin have described themselves to me, and to others, as ‘thinking with one brain’ and, I would add, ‘seeing with one vision’. The exact working of the process of negotiation between the pair is not easy to imagine. After some observation and thought, however, I have come up with the following template script for a conversation, between the two, on any given subject during the making of this project:
Broomberg – ‘I have seen this thing’
Chanarin – ‘Yes, I saw that too and think it would be interesting for us to look at it in more depth’
Broomberg – ‘Shall we go to the strange and remote place where this thing is?’ Chanarin – ‘Yes!’
Broomberg – ‘We are here now, lets ask everyone we meet as many questions related to this thing as possible’
Chanarin – ‘Great Idea! Bye the way, I’ve seen a red button over here with the stern warning DO NOT PRESS written underneath it. It looks official but I want to press it, what do you think?’
Broomberg – ‘Press it and see what happens! I have seen a line over here that has a sign next to it reading DO NOT CROSS. What do you think I should do?’
Chanarin – ‘Cross it and see what happens!’
The guardians of the big red button and the line appear, disgruntled and surly. Broomberg and Chanarin ask them questions about the thing they have come to look at and about the reason for the big red button and the line. The two subjects turn out to be unrelated in any discernable way, but Broomberg and Chanarin photograph the button, the line and the guardians and then continue their journey to the thing that first drew them to this location. Broomberg and Chanarin photograph many more objects, people and places on the way to the thing and finally arrive to find that the thing is probably not as interesting as many of the objects, people and places they have photographed along the way.
This, or a similar scenario, could easily have occurred fifty or more times during the creation of Fig. Journeys to strange and exotic places, mostly led by their own interests, but sometimes journeys made to complete an editorial commission for a magazine or newspaper supplement.
It is certainly interesting (and amusing) to consider the process of making and the rational behind taking the images, but even more curious - and maybe what clearly separates Fig. from their previous works - is the process of dissemination of the photographs and research, and the subsequent construction of this material into the narrative structure running through this book. Sometimes this narrative seems cobbled together, sometimes comical and sometimes tragic, sometimes close to an everyday experience and sometimes so far outside of the gamut of normal experience as to be impossible to believe. This shortcut edit of images, held together by text, has the effect of both drawing you in and knocking you off of your balance – a bit like a novice boxer falling for a Sugar-Ray Leonard sucker-punch. Connections are made solidly or loosely, with short steps or giant leaps - they can cause you to be either enlightened or perplexed and one is left with the sensation that Broomberg and Chanarin are playing with ones view of the world and how it is held together.
Fig. could also be seen as either an antidote or compliment to contemporary artists’ fascination with the (re)appropriation of the, often archival, document. Rather than starting with an archival document and subverting its original intention (in the style of Sultan and Mandel’s Evidence for instance) or creating images by mimicking an archival aesthetic or mode (Sputnik by Joan Fontcuberta is a good example of this), Broomberg and Chanarin create new archive of documents that, when positioned alongside text, vigorously question their own authenticity – the text being constantly in tension with the images and visa-versa. This marks Fig. out as a departure from both the conventions of documentary photography and their own practice to date. The tight narrative structure, contrived by Broomberg and Chanarin for Fig., is designed to simultaneously suggest connections and to confuse them. They would seem to be offering a new alternative to photojournalism - a place where we are able to consider how little we know about the world and how easy it is to accept a convenient deconstruction when it is presented to us. The world is a complicated place and Fig. offers no attempt to make easier to negotiate and no solace. Genocide, slavery, imperialism, power mongering, racism, paranoia, jingoism and all manner of global inequities are indicated and tacitly linked, though never explicitly shown. Poverty and war – two of photojournalism’s favoured topics – are considered, but no photographs of bodies or starving children are displayed. Instead, Broomberg and Chanarin guide us through a collection of acute observations, only really connected by their own experiences and interests, and, in the process, emphatically highlight many of photography’s shortcomings – surprisingly aiming much of the criticism at their own (documentary) practice.
Gordon MacDonald 2007
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