I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
When I arrived in London this past September to meet Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin at their studio, the first thing we discussed was the power play between interviewer and interviewee. We had to decide what kind of conversation we would have—serious or funny, formal or informal, and how self-conscious? We agreed that we wanted a bit of all of that and for the next two hours we talked about many things: how they function as a duo, their distrust of power, whether there’s a necessity to explain the details behind their work, and what they envision on their tombstones.
The two South African artists have been working together for more than a decade. After starting out as magazine photographers, they moved on to other innovative ways of addressing the use and abuse of pictures as well as dynamics of authority through installations, curatorial projects, and books. Their work has been exhibited widely—in solo exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in the Netherlands and the Jumex Foundation in Mexico, among others—and will be on view at the Tate Modern this winter as part of the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition. They were awarded the ICP Infinity Award 2014 for their publication Holy Bible.
The two artists are self-deprecating enough to call themselves “two goofballs,” but behind the jest is a sober inquiry into the tragicomedy of life and a poetic kind of button-pushing in the hope of setting off some alarms. In the words of Lewis Carroll, whose Dodo in Alice in Wonderland gave the title of their most recent project: “There is a place, like no place on earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger. Some say, to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter. Which, luckily, I am.” Luckily, Broomberg and Chanarin are, too. The best people usually are.
— Sabine Mirlesse
Sabine Mirlesse How did you meet one another?
Oliver Chanarin It was a dark, dark night.
SM Is that how you guys were conceived?
Adam Broomberg We’re actually cousins and we only discovered that after fifteen years of working together.
OC We come from the same shtetl in Lithuania. So it’s not that surprising. We met in South Africa in our early twenties in a place called Wuppertal—a little missionary town.
AB Population of about four people, and us. Olly lived in London since he was seven, and then I left South Africa and came here to study at Saint Martin’s.
OC He called me up and said, “I’ve just inherited this IKEA bed from my brother but I don’t have a screwdriver.” So I brought the screwdriver ‘round and that was the beginning of our collaboration.
SM So you have an IKEA bed to thank?
AB Yep. We became friends many years before we started working together.
OC Adam dropped out of college and went to work at Fabrica.
AB I was part of the first generation at Fabrica, the communication research center in Italy. It was run by film director Godfrey Reggio who did the Qatsi trilogy, with music by Philip Glass. Reggio is a remarkable man. Eventually I was offered to take over COLORS Magazine.
SM So you had to live in Treviso?
AB No, we lived in Venice.
OC So Adam called me and said, “I know you’re severely dyslexic but would you like to come work on a magazine with me?” And I said yes. I came for two weeks and it turned into a year—
AB —which turned into seventeen years. We worked there for a year, molding COLORS magazine with Oliviero Toscani but we got very disillusioned with his format for it. So we came back to London, borrowed Olly’s father’s camera, set off, and made our first book, which was called Trust. Then we were approached by COLORS again; they told us Toscani had left and asked if we would come back and do whatever we wanted.
SM Was that in 2000, when you did Ghetto?
AB Yes, we came up with the concept of examining these gated communities around the world.
OC Although the magazine was radical in the early ’90s in the way it juxtaposed different cultures and described a multicultural global community that was very new back then, by the time we took over, it was starting to feel a bit like a tired trick. There was also something potentially abusive about the way the magazine was using photography.
SM What do you mean by abusive?
OC Most of the images we were using came from photography agencies and in ninety-nine percent of the cases we had no connection to the photographer and the subjects. That distance is potentially abusive—the photographs become detached from their context, from the people in the image. The subjects stop being individuals and become part of a visual or political argument. We wanted to resist that.
AB So we came up with this formula where we would go to these gated communities—for example, refugee camps, prisons, and psychiatric hospitals. We went with our 4x5 camera, always taking a writer who was not a journalist—often screenwriters or novelists—and we would interview everybody. We disclosed their real names and kind of upset that one-way flow of power that is inherent in traditional documentary photography. One example, which doesn’t necessarily work, is that last chapter in the psychiatric hospital in Cuba. We set up the lights, gave the subjects the release cable, and said, “Take your own portrait.” But, ultimately, the process, even in that documentary format, started troubling us more and more.
SM You’ve clearly stepped away from that as time has gone on. Was it because photography in and of itself wasn’t enough?
OC Earlier, before we started recording, we spoke about Janet Malcolm’s essay “The Journalist and the Murderer,” a work that was instrumental to us. Her question was: Why do people talk to journalists? So, we wondered: Why do people agree to be photographed? Is it vanity? Is it about being remembered?
We had one experience in a psychiatric hospital in Italy where we photographed a guy literally strapped to a bed. He was being restrained for his own safety apparently. You couldn’t be in a more compromised situation and, yet, when we asked him if we could take his picture, he said yes, which is illogical.
AB But it’s logical because it was the institution that gave us authority, and photography, historically and presently, is so tied up with that power relationship. It happened to us time and time again that people would see us as part of the institution and would say yes because of that. And then there’s another, slightly more subtle thing, a sort of false promise built into photography—
SM —that it will do something for them?
AB Yes. We were in a maximum security prison in South Africa. People went as far as telling us about crimes they had committed but hadn’t admitted to. There is this unspoken promise of absolution, that by communicating through this machine, you’ll be absolved of stuff you’ve done, or, in the crudest terms, you will be “heard” by the outside world.
OC We experienced it in our very first project Trust, in 2000, the last chapter of which is a series of portraits of people going under anesthesia.
SM Watching the video is definitely disturbing.
OC It’s disturbing because it’s like a miniature death.
AB It is like watching somebody die.
OC We got access to this operating theater. First we went around the ward and explained to the people who were about to have their operation that we wanted to take a picture of them while they were under anaesthesia. We did this for weeks and weeks and every single person said yes. We couldn’t understand.
SM Maybe it’s you guys. Have you ever considered that?
OC We figured out what it was. We were wearing theater scrubs. As a patient of the hospital you relinquish power over yourself and hand it over to the institution. We looked like doctors, essentially—and the patients were handing over control. Whatever we would have asked them to do they would have said yes. We realized from that point on that, as photographers going into these situations, our positions are elevated, and there’s an asymmetrical flow of power between us and the subjects.
AB The book, Trust, was a meditation on that exact issue—when somebody lacks control, not only over the way they look, but also over the dissemination, value, and political and cultural currency of their image, why would they still agree to be photographed?
SM Don’t you think it has to do with wanting a record or proof of one’s existence?
AB In this day and age? Where everybody is proving their existence every ten minutes online?
SM But this was fifteen years ago. A lot has changed since then.
AB Well, I was going to say, I don’t think you could do it today.
OC Photographs are so easily disseminated now, they slip out into the public domain with the tiniest gesture, a swipe, a click, and then it’s very hard to pull them back.
SM Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but when I first encountered your work, I felt there was something boyishly mischievous about it. But it seemed like a very sophisticated version of messing around, and you guys appeared to be highly entertained by what you were producing, almost winking at one another.
OC Messing around! I definitely take that the wrong way! (laughter)
SM I didn’t mean it as an insult. Nothing to do with the level of research or effort, obviously there’s a lot of thought that goes into your inquiries. But there is something in the tone—
AB No, you’re right.
OC It is very masculine. Our last project in Mexico, where we excavated a gigantic Second World War-era airplane, is about as macho as it gets.
AB It is also naive though, trying to fuck with authority. In that space lies its seriousness.
SM Of course. What gets people to consider the serious parts is that you invite them in by entertaining them a bit with inquiry and then, suddenly, with irony—through the back door—and before they know it, people begin to reflect.
OC Humor plays a part too. I think we took ourselves too seriously for too long. There was a disparity between the kind of people we are and the kind of work we were making. Slowly we’ve allowed more lightness into our practice.
AB There was a kind of worthiness that disturbed us. Politically correct nonsense. We got rid of that.
SM Do you think you could ever work separately again?
AB We’ve worked together for so long that even if we began our separate practices, our way of thinking is kind of enmeshed since we’ve grown up together as artists. We could make work separately, but our partnership would always be there.
SM How does that partnership function in terms of your practice? How do you choose your subjects? How do you go about balancing who does what? Does it just sort of happen organically or is it more organized?
AB It’s very organic. Normally the impetus for a project will come from one of us chancing upon a film or a sentence or a document or an object. Then a discussion starts and the research process begins. That’s the logistical side. The emotional side is that inevitably during projects you lose faith, and if there weren’t two of us, we probably would have abandoned quite a few projects. In a moment of doubt, the other person can say, “Step up, let’s carry on.”
OC Our practice used to be much more driven by the outside, in that we were sent on assignment to go take pictures. Now everything we do is generated from within. Giving each other confidence to progress is more important.
AB But even when we were commissioned to do things, and we still are (and we are always trying to upset their intentions), the way we deal with it is by engaging in a discussion. I don’t know why people still do commission us, because surely they know by now what they’re not going to get.
OC They don’t know what they’re going to get!
SM Wait, rewind. Please explain.
OC An example: we were invited by the state of Gabon, this oil-rich West-African country, to come and do a photo project. The brief was wide open, like “Do whatever you want,” but the subtext was: make us something beautiful and classic and inoffensive. We felt compelled to look under the surface of what was there, to engage with the politics of the place. We thought about our role as documentarians and how we could interrupt those desires.
SM One of the first works I saw of yours was The Day Nobody Died. I wondered how the hell you even got to Afghanistan to begin with.
AB It was during a time when they were still embedding photojournalists. We were very intrigued by this process, so we contacted them and said we were journalists and wanted to be embedded. We lied to them, but we had a letter from The Guardian or The Observer,because we knew people who worked there. When we got to Afghanistan, the whole thing became a performance. It took them about a week to figure it out and, by the tenth day, we were demoted down the ranks of importance, relegated from the frontline to the least interesting part of the conflict.
But the point is that lying to power is part of the project itself. Similarly, with the Israeli Defense Force, we phoned up and for eight months, literally, every Friday, we said “Shabbat Shalom” and “How’s it going? We’re doing a sympathetic piece on the security threat Israel faces.” Then, we went there and did something very different. That was the book Chicago. It’s not just about lying because in the process you’re having constant conversations and challenging dialogues, which are really important. When you make a soldier in Afghanistan carry a twelve-kilogram box of paper and it’s 45 degrees Celsius and he’s like, “Why am I doing this?” you have to explain it—that’s part of our work.
SM You were truly explaining the project?
AB Of course, we had to. Every time. We said we can’t open this box of unexposed photographic paper because doing so would destroy it. So we turned one of their vehicles into a darkroom and we went out to expose the paper. You can lie up until the point when you have access.
OC The project in Gabon we mentioned before was called To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light. The work became a meditation on the history of film and race and skin color. We were two white Jewish boys commissioned to go to Gabon to document the country, which was a ridiculous idea. We started reading about Jean-Luc Godard because he had been invited by the new Marxist government of Samora Machel in Mozambique to come and start a TV station. He did that with Jean Rouch—so two of the most radical filmmakers of the time. Godard got there and rejected film in favor of video. He said, “I refuse to use Kodak, it’s racist!” He was referring to the well-known fact that film stock was predicated on white skin and didn’t render the brown tones of black skin very well.
AB If there was something dark next to something light, film didn’t have the range to deal with it. Now, this was happening after the end of segregation and you had schools with both white and black kids together. If you exposed for the white kids (who were in the majority), the black kids were rendered as black faces with little white eyes and teeth and that’s it. Kodak eventually addressed the problem not because of that, but because their two biggest clients were the chocolate industry and the furniture industry, which complained that they couldn’t accurately render dark furniture or dark chocolate next to something lighter. So they came out with Kodak GOLD for consumers. We went on eBay and acquired unexposed film from the 1970s that predated that new film. We went to Gabon only with that type of film. We spent five days in the jungle, the primary rainforest, and witnessed one of the rarest Bwiti initiation rituals and photographed it entirely on this film. Back in England we found one man in the whole country who could process this film. He phoned and said, “Only one picture came out.” It was just this abstract pink rendition of a palm leaf because green pigment, the opposite of pink, is the most stable. So you can imagine that the people who had assigned the project to us were really upset. We were more than happy with what we got.
SM And your recent project involving Pussy Riot?
OC It’s called Shtik Fleisch Mit Tzvei Eigen. It means “piece of meat with two eyes.” It’s a Yiddish insult—
AB —which my grandmother called my mother every morning.
SM Can we talk about Jewishness for a moment? How important are your origins to your work?
AB It’s a big part of our identity. I went to a Jewish school in South Africa in the ’80s, which was quite an experience.
OC After the pogroms in Europe in the late nineteenth century, there were a lot of boats from Riga that headed to South Africa, to Durban…
SM Tell me more about Shtik Fleisch Mit Tzvei Eigen.
OC It’s about where portraiture is at in terms of photography as a genre. Our project began with the discovery of this camera developed in Russia. It’s essentially a computer for recognizing license plates on cars which was then developed into a facial recognition system. It works in such a way that you’re never aware you’re being photographed. You’re walking through the city and, as you encounter different cameras, they piece together a seamless portrait of your face. And it’s three-dimensional.
SM How did you get access to the camera/computer program?
OC It began with a commission, again. RIA Novosti, the state media agency in Moscow, invited us to produce a series about labor in contemporary Russia. That was shortly before the agency was shut down by Putin. Being very aware that it was a state media company, we wanted to do something that would be pushing back against their agenda. We were looking at August Sander, who documented society in the Weimar Republic period in Germany and categorized people according to labor. So our proposal was to reenact Sander’s entire life’s work in a week, using this specific equipment. Bizarrely, they accepted it and we began casting all the archetypes from Sander’s program—the painter, the butcher, the revolutionary, etcetera. We tried to find contemporaries of all those people. We photographed Pussy Riot because there is a revolutionary in Sander’s book.
SM Do you intentionally draw from your earlier work to bring things full circle? I see parallels from your earliest projects to your most recent.
OC There is a connection between Shtik Fleisch Mit Tzvei Eigen and Trust. There are very similar concerns—with the surveillance equipment, the subject is entirely passive in relation to the camera and that was very true of those portraits of people going under anesthesia. With this more recent work, the only way to resist recognition by the camera is to wear a balaclava. The pictures delivered by the machine are quite cold—like death masks, in a way.
There’s one last part to the work: Helmar Lerski was a contemporary of August Sander coming from a completely opposite perspective. Whereas Sander was interested in the subject’s humanism and always placed the person in the center, in this very heroic way, Lerski rejected that. He said that you could never tell anything about a person from a photograph, and that all you see is the surface. He would photograph a subject from like sixty or seventy different angles—
AB —and just their face. His portraits look remarkably like the collaged portraits made by the surveillance machine.
SM So wait, with each of the portraits you never actually met the people depicted?
AB We did, in Russia.
OC It was the most depressing experience of photographing someone, because they would just walk through the room and that’s it. The surveillance cameras were embedded in the room.
AB Part of the project is about alerting people to this technology—it is the most insidious threat to our civil liberty. We’ve made a Facebook page and got hold of groups around the world to knit these balaclavas for us. Every day we have another balaclava arriving to the studio.
SM When I read that you were doing something with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, I was like, Oh, of course.
SM When I think of your work, I think of these two elements—subverting power and the absurd, or the insane. To me, that’s the whole point of Catch-22.
AB Here’s the book for Dodo: it just came out. There’s the most perfect summary of the project inside, which we wrote. You won’t find that online.
SM Tell me something about Dodo that I won’t find online or in the book.
AB We first encountered a dodo in Alice in Wonderland. In the second chapter, Alice meets a dodo, and you know why? Because Lewis Carroll’s original name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he had a terrible stutter, and when he introduced himself, he would say “Do-do-do-do-dodgson,” so his proxy is the Dodo.
SM Until looking it up for this interview, I always thought that the dodo was a fictitious creature—like a unicorn. In fact, one of its claims to fame is that it was the first species to be made extinct by human beings.
OC You were talking about how our different projects come around in these loops or full circles. The story of the dodo first cropped up when we were working on a project called Fig. We went into one of the museums here in London and the curator showed us the skeleton of a dodo and explained that it wasn’t one dodo, but was made up of spare parts of many dodos.
AB Right, spare parts. So we went to Mexico where they had filmed Catch-22 in 1969. We wanted to find the plane that crashed in this brilliant scene.
OC We went to the filming site with the complete fantasy that we were going to unearth an airplane that had been buried there. We had organized for a group of professional archaeologists to come and undertake the plane’s exhuming. We had this vision of them brushing away the soil and revealing the airplane’s nose, and then brushing a bit more, and gradually unveiling this extraordinary piece of equipment. That was a complete fantasy. Nothing like that happened.
AB Paramount Pictures had filmed for six months because they only wanted to film between 12 and 2PM to have the brightest, burnt-out light. We wondered what happened to the outtakes, so we contacted Paramount. It took them about two years and then suddenly we got this email saying they’d found a trunk of about eleven hours of film. We chose only the nature shots, nothing to do with war. We turned a fiction film about World War II in Italy into a nature documentary set in 1969, in Mexico. The making of the Hollywood film had destroyed the whole coast of this area of Mexico. So our film now depicts that.
Jumex Foundation in Mexico, where we are showing Dodo right now, is five hundred square meters—it’s huge; over 5,000 square feet. One of the airplane pieces we got hold of is the propeller of a B-25. Propellers normally suck air, right? But we got it to blow air—so we erected the propeller here (draws a diagram of the space) and then had our film, made of all the outtakes, playing over here. The propeller blows the screen too, beautifully, which I love as a detail, and then there’s a whole other room dedicated to the artifacts.
SM It sounds a bit like a drive-in movie. Your website is incredibly self-explanatory and revealing. There are full descriptions of each project, and one can navigate through many images and texts.
OC It’s informative.
SM Right, informative. But what about “less is more”?
OC This is something we argue about with each other a lot: how much to say. For us, it’s an act of generosity—this is what it’s about, this is how we feel about it—but the other side of it is that we should shut up and let people draw their own conclusions. We don’t shut up very well.
AB Because we’re not painters. You do need some information, otherwise the work is just absolutely meaningless.
OC But why not strike the position of the painter in relation to work that is political?
AB My answer is that you put up a website to provide information. Why should you be shrouded in mystery? Yet experiencing the work in the space is an entirely different thing.
OC But when you give your explanation, you shut down the work’s ambiguity. That is my anxiety about saying too much. Too much art jargon. Perhaps we’re more interested in the world than in the art world.
SM Does that contribute to your being so successful?
OC I don’t think we are successful.
SM Guys. You can hire a team of professional archaeologists to go dig up a plane in Mexico at your whim—
OC Is that your idea of success?
SM —and you’ve got a work studio in the hippest part of East London, next to Brick Lane.
AB I’ve got a really shitty dentist.
OC I think we’re restless, and the art world doesn’t reward restlessness. It rewards continuity and consistency.
SM But you guys are consistently restless. What are you working on at the moment?
AB We are following up on our Bertolt Brecht project War Primer 2. It’s an unfinished opera that we are intending to finish. We are doing a first small
rendition of that in January, at the Tate.
OC Are we going to talk about the Yiddish theater?
AB Sure, why not?
OC Just opposite the entrance to our studio was the first Yiddish theater in Britain. There was an actor performing there called Jacob Adler who went to America and became involved in Method Acting. His daughter taught Marlon Brando.
SM Wait a second, Stella Adler? She’s super well-known.
OC The story of Jacob Adler is really interesting. In the late nineteenth century there was this guy called Abraham Goldfaden who invented Yiddish theater. Nobody had ever done theater in Yiddish before. Adler became his principal actor. They were very successful traveling through Russia up until the assassination of the tsar, Alexander II. After that, Yiddish theater was banned. The actors had to escape the pogroms that were literally happening inside the theaters, and they came to England and formed this place—but it burned down when secular Jews and religious orthodox Jews were fighting. So they all moved to America and became instrumental in the development of the Hollywood studio system and cinema acting. The directors of this Yiddish theater across the street went on to start Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It’s got this epic novel feeling—from the birth of Yiddish theater to the death of Hollywood.
OC We don’t know yet what form it will take.
SM Full circle. What are you going to do with that epic?
AB We’re still in research mode.
SM Would you ever move back to South Africa?
AB We visit, but to live, no. I wouldn’t even go back there to be buried.
SM Where would you want to be buried? Or, would you like your ashes to be scattered?
AB I think that’s up to whomever I leave behind.
OC We often think about that last creative act: what we’d like to have written on our respective gravestones.
AB What’s yours at the moment?
OC ”Dig me up and fuck me.”
SM Name something you know now that you wish you’d known ten years ago?
AB That I have genital herpes? (laughter) Promise us that’s going into the interview.
OC That’s gotta go in there. Keep those two jokes!
Sabine Mirlesse is a photographer and visual artist living in Paris. Her work has been the subject of features in The British Journal of Photography, Time Magazine’s LightBox, Interview Magazine and the New Yorker. She was chosen as a notable emerging phtographer of 2013 by The Magenta Foundation. Her first book, As if it should have been a quarry, a collection of photographs and drawings made in Iceland, was released last year with Damiani publishers.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee