Together with Oliver Chanarin, Adam Broomberg illustrated the Bible with archive photographs, used a roll of photographic paper to raise the issue of war and three-dimensional facsimile of faces created by a special facial recognition system – to speak about «citizens of the XXI century». He is an artist, a thinker and a lecturer – the only photographer in conversation with whom one can mention God and revolution, Trump and giraffes.
Since Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s times the question: “What is to be done?” has never seemed so burning as now. And there are not only scientists and politicians who are trying to find an answer. The challenge has been accepted by the artists working with the medium of photography. Unlike bright public figures, they do not provide us with ready-made answers, but the critical projects they make definitely allow us to develop a different perspective on many phenomena. The creative tandem of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin is the most striking and productive duo in conceptual photography, whose project “Spirit is a Bone”, according to many, marked the beginning of a new photographic era. In the interview for «Bleek Magazine» Adam Broomberg, one of the participants of the tandem, speaks about anxiety and violence, irony and curiosity, God and Kafka.
Bleek Magazine: When I left “C/O Berlin” hall where your and Oliver’s big exhibition with two projects was shown, I should confess, I physically felt unwell. I felt like Mila Jovovich in “The Fifth Element” where her character had to watch the history of the humankind squeezed in 10 minutes, after which she realized that it was all about violence, wars and aggression. Don’t you feel totally depressed when working with such “heavy” topics?
Adam Broomberg: War is like a Petri dish for the study of the effects of armaments on the human body, how best to outmaneuver another group, technology… Collateral damage is not measured up in that equation unless it upsets the economy. So, no – looking at images of pain and anxiety do not affect me much. Being there definitely has a different affect. The fear and adrenalin alone mark it out of time. But all the violence happens within a set of orders that drizzle down from various hierarchies. So, by the time ten orders are passed on my Chinese whisper, a deed is performed which can only be assessed as well-performed or not.
Bleek Magazine: And where do you find the energy to continue and come up with more and more ideas for your projects? Do you also get your impulse in the dissatisfaction and anger with the State and System, in the wish to provoke and challenge them?
Adam Broomberg: A heavy topic itself is a source of energy. How do you get energy to get out of the bed in the morning? You just have to go and change a tire. So, I would not find it very difficult – you know what I mean?
I think it is a very privileged place to be – not only to have a sense of curiosity, but also to be able also to satisfy it. There is a big difference between us and some kind of archive research or critical theorist practitioner because we suffer from terrible curiosity. Our main impulse is to actually experience the event and that hardly ever comes out in the work. And people sometimes complain that there are no commentaries from our side on the work…
The project we made in Afghanistan had an immense political agenda, but came out from deep concern that we were having. But also I wanted to experience what a war was like. As a human being I genuinely wanted to understand what all those places were like, to see how they functioned.
So, I do not find it very difficult to motivate myself. I have a million other questions, but not about why to get up in the morning. Sometimes I cannot really get up but it has nothing to do with your question.
I grew up with a kind of a fantasy land notion that the war was over and liberalism of one form or another would increase – I felt I was living in a super interesting time. And my way of dealing with anxiety was just in kicking it into action and identify those “weak leaks”.
Bleek Magazine: As for me, I grew up in the Soviet Union and it was also, on the one hand, about living in a fantasy land, but when the fairy-tale collapsed people felt nothing but emptiness…
Adam Broomberg: … which is very lonely…
Bleek Magazine: And scary!
Adam Broomberg: I cannot imagine. My grandmother came from a place up and down between Lithuania and Russia, a part of the Soviet Union, too.
Bleek Magazine: Belarus??
Adam Broomberg: Around, yes. And I remember going there and looking at the landscape around, thinking, “My God! To grow up under that level of totalitarianism, in conditions when your spirit was not even counted!” So, I am not being arrogant in comparing myself to that at all. I just want to say that my grandparents had to get on a boat to go to South Africa in 1933 and three weeks ago I was on a boat from Libya to Europe full of 600 African men, women and children and I explained to them the irony of the situation – that only 70 years ago my grandparents were doing the trip the opposite way. And that does not excite me. On the contrary, it depresses me, but I feel compelled to act.
Bleek Magazine: What qualities, in your opinion, would be among the central ones people would have to train in themselves in order to remain people, and not the puppets of the State and System? Recalling the famous Capa’s paraphrase of Tod Papageorge’s, “If your pictures are not good enough, you aren’t reading enough”, should we apply it to a broader audience than just that of photographers’? How can people be willing to “read enough” if the System is working so hard to keep them simple and ignorant, just lazy to think and ask questions?
Adam Broomberg: I am not sure I can agree with the quote any more. The problems is that there are so many worlds now. Somebody said to me the other day at the exhibition, “What do you predict for the future of photography? When will it end?” And I said, “If I was a writer, would you say to me, “What do you predict for the future of writing? When is it going to end?” There are so many types of writing. Shitty woman’s magazines, menus for “Burger King”, price tags, propaganda, newspapers, fake news, novels… And each occupies the space. The same with the imagery! There are so many layers and they cross over.
The problem now is that you can look at shit and you can read shit. And thus I do not think that reading more will make you a better photographer.
The languages the left and the right use today are different in the way they treat complexity. The left cannot live with themselves without mentioning the complexity of the situation, whereas the right wing wants to narrow it down. I would argue the same with the images. To show a single image which is very powerful and emotive is like a war cry of Donald Trump, “Build a wall! Build a wall!” And so, images become as dangerous if they lack any complexity, if they do not ask for any questions. Thus, I think a quote needs a bit of updates.
Bleek Magazine: But it also depends on how we define the very process of “reading”. I personally see it not only as a mere action of putting letters into syllables, but as a complex string of mental activities – comparison, analyses, reflection, etc.
Adam Broomberg: Of course! Unfortunately, with images everybody feels that they can “read” an image. And that is the problem. I agree with you that reading critically is essential but how we communicate that must be more subtle… I am very involved in the education at the moment and it is really blowing my brain. The very way it communicates essentially is such an important thing! Those notions of the “up-down” hierarchy, the master and the student structure… I find it too disturbing for me, because I am becoming more and more convinced that the way we do things (whether it is a web-site or a book or a conversation on a telephone) needs to affect the content as well. The way one is taught and takes part in a teaching process defines is the outcome.
If you said if I could be alive in one different moment in the world it would be to listen to Marcel Mauss’ lecture in the 1920s in France which was the same birth of surrealism as ethnography and anthropology. I find that just an unbelievably powerful moment in time!
Bleek Magazine: So, do we come to the conclusion that in order to reach any tangible changes we need to restructure and rethink the whole system of education?
Adam Broomberg: Yes, sure. For that reason Oliver and I have really refocused our practice towards education. We have professors running MA and BA in Hamburg and we are developing an MA program in The Hague and setting up independent studying program which will not have any institutional background. Together with Oliver we are also building the site “Hands off our revolution”. But as for me, my reading recently has been a lot about this and about how liberation can function.
A lot of the other genres like painting or sculpture require daily practice and work, whereas photography is almost the opposite. In photography it does not matter how young you are, you might want to publish a book and a book is so much associated with imparting knowledge. And so there is almost a lack of meditation in doing it. You know what I mean?
Bleek Magazine: Yes, writing a book used to take years and now one can hardly be ready to spend years on preparing a photobook…
Adam Broomberg: And does the book challenge the notion of the book itself, or is it about celebrating its “bookness”?
Bleek Magazine: That can also be said about many others spheres of life. Everybody wants a quick result.
Adam Broomberg: Yes, but especially photography, because it was built for quick results.
Bleek Magazine: In the interview Sabine Mirlesse had with Oliver and you for “Bomb” Magazine, the process of your work on a project is described as first entertaining people with inquiry and irony which would lead to their starting to reflect on the bigger issues. Would you agree that a sort of intellectual curiosity and irony can be named as the 21st “survival kit” units? If yes, then how those can be developed in people, especially in the younger generation?
Adam Broomberg: Curiosity is hard one to learn. But if you start revealing the layers and layers of meaning behind something, those that get it will never be satisfied with the peel.
Bleek Magazine: What about irony? Is it an indispensable unit of the future “survival kit”?
Adam Broomberg: Absolutely! But unfortunately our leaders are using irony, too. They are laying claims to the sense of humour and irony, as well. I can imagine someone like Woody Allen having a terrible time because the humour that has always been meant to be the bastion of relief because people were always using it to make fun at power and now power is making fun at power. And so – what the fuck are they leaving us? What is ours?? What is sacred anymore?
The very notion of the state is up for grabs now. We are entering a new era. The West is nodding its head in the 19th century gestures of decorum while the East plots. This is the rise of a new type of capitalism, outwardly racist, bigoted, chauvinist, homophobic!
But to answer your question I would say, yes – we must be more ironic, more aggressive in our humour, it must become more maleficent.
Bleek Magazine: Would you really vote for Kafka as a president?
Adam Broomberg: I do not want a president anymore.
Bleek Magazine: Rob Hornsta in the interview I had with him during his visit in Minsk, said that the thing he hates about the contemporary world and photography in particular is its selfishness, adding that “The world is dominated by simple minds now”. What is the thing that irritates you most of all about the world today? And are you doing anything about it?
Adam Broomberg: I do not agree. Firstly, today we speak about the existence of numerous photography worlds, just as there are many art worlds. If you are just looking at fairs, well you know what John Baldessari said about that… “An artist going to a fair is like watching their parents fucking. Not a good idea”. Within the photography world there are so many cultural, critical, aesthetic strategies to take, it is a fine moment when they all converge for a meaning and the right time.
Bleek Magazine: If God had the camera, what do you think He (or She?) would photograph?
Adam Broomberg: The giraffe. I hear there are only 97,000 of them left.
Bleek Magazine: How do you and Oliver see the function of your photography? Is it about making people more aware of the things that are happening around them? A sort of “eye-opening” role? How do you understand that the purpose every project has was reached?
Adam Broomberg: God knows… We put one foot in front of the other each day. We do not feel smarter or wiser or more capable than anyone. We have failed many times and will continue to. Honestly, I do not believe the press.
Bleek Magazine: But in there any particular indicator thanks to which you realized that the aim has been reached? Or you just do your job, make the statement and leave it up to all the people to decide for themselves what they see and what they do not see.
Adam Broomberg: I think you have answered the question. I hope I have had a tiny influence not in my work but more in the talk about the work where it speaks about the need to be critical about ourselves even if we consider ourselves fearless photographers. I see my work more about creating discourse, the language that goes around the work, not about a product as such.
I think that if you can speak that language, it is like having a child in the house. You can talk to you child saying, “Oh, you are so cute, so fantastic!” Or you can empower them to take decisions on their own somehow even if they do not know it. I hope that is a part of it, I really do.
But I make more mistakes every day, so I am not a perfect example.
Bleek Magazine: Nobody is perfect, and if someone feels they are such they are the first to be mistaken.
Adam Broomberg: Oh my God, yes!
© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich.