An Ongoing Conversation – Witnessing Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin at Work
I have always wondered how artistic duos could possibly function, especially when they are photographers. How on earth do they work together? How do they find subjects that interest both of them? How do they agree on what to depict, and how, and why? Who presses the button? What about authorship? Who gets the credits? Do they ever argue? What if one of them has a bad day? What if one of them decides to walk out? I could not possibly imagine myself finding enough common ground with someone else to make it happen. Witnessing Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin at work was therefore astounding. One day before the opening of their show at the Galerie Gabriel Rolt in Amsterdam, they invited a bunch of students to participate in a workshop at Foam. Only then did I begin to understand what makes this duo so interesting and successful, and why occasionally the whole becomes more than the sum of the two parts.
In the workshop Broomberg and Chanarin introduced their latest project War Primer II, in which they have reinterpreted the original War Primer by Bertold Brecht. The latter War Primer consisted of photographs printed in newspapers in combination with Brecht’s own poems. Broomberg and Chanarin searched for contemporary photographic equivalents on the Internet, added the source of these images as well as red rectangles to signify these photographs to the original Brecht images and poems. This then formed a leg-up to the true purpose of the workshop: a new project. As a result of their web searches Broomberg and Chanarin want to come up with a system that can be used to judge images in a supposedly objective way. Their goal is to construct various X and Y axes and to produce a code that could be used to reconstruct photographs without the necessity of seeing the images themselves. The students simply functioned as a focus group for this idea. The image that was used for this exercise showed American soldiers urinating on dead Taliban fighters.
Broomberg and Chanarin wanted the students to probe the image from all angles. Who are the people in the picture? Who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators? What’s going on? When? Is it a photograph or a still from a movie? Is it staged or real? What does it mean? What kind of device was used to capture the image? How did the photograph get distributed? Is there suffering in the picture? Is it visible or implied? What role do the graphics play in the image? What is the impact of the photograph? What is the monetary value of the photo? Is the picture beautiful? Is it iconic? Even though some of the students asked some of the questions, and supplied some of the answers, it was obvious that the conversation was really going on between Broomberg and Chanarin themselves. Quicker than the speed of light they were batting back and forth. One of the duo started sentences, the other finished them. One of them suggested something, the other ran with it. It was fascinating to see how much information they mined from this picture, how many little nuggets of gold they delved. They made everyone in the room take a step back and look much more critically.
This is what makes the duo so fascinating. Their goal as artists is to make images that are more intelligent, pictures that are critical and challenging. In their work they investigate notions of power and authority, censorship and conflict, hegemony. And they find it everywhere, be it in an archive of images of The Troubles, execution photographs in post-revolutionary Iran, images of white studio backgrounds or portraits of the mentally ill. Broomberg and Chanarin delight some and frustrate others. And since their work is the result of this ongoing conversation between them, this is what has made them such important groundbreaking practitioners currently working within photography.