The final of the four Deutsche Borse nominees and eventual winners are Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin - a duo that have taken a conceptual approach to the documentary genre. Their work "War Primer 2," takes the original "War Primer," a book by Bertold Brecht, and creates juxtaposition and montage by partly overlaying the original images with their own.
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin - War Primer 2
The subject matter of the Brecht book contained clipped images from the newspapers and four-line poems that questioned the truth of documentary imagery in the media. Bloomberg & Chanarin's overlays are also images culled from the media including world figures, the collapse of the twin towers and the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. The poems remain intact and provide a poignant link from the original image to the overlay. Sometimes the original is almost completely obscured leaving one to wonder what is underneath.
These are not reproductions. Broomberg & Chanarin took 100 of the original books and painstakingly took them apart. They added their own images, including printing text over the original on the facing pages, then reconstructed them back into book form. The name War Primer & War Primer 2 refers to the fact that a primer is a study text for educational purposes. For the exhibition the books were placed into glass topped tables and opened at different pages. The tables, arranged in rows, are similar in form to ones used in classrooms. On the wall at the head of the row a reference list of titles for each open book is displayed.
One of the images shows the twin towers and underneath is an overview image of Berlin on fire. The smoke from the Berlin image appears to be coming out of the top of the tower making the visual plane of both images completely at odds with one another. This technique is used over and over with great effect. Bodies can be seen that are lined up with the heads and shoulders of tortured prisoners as army personnel lean in and smile for snapshots.
This work has many layers to it and Adam Broomberg did a recent interview with BBC Radio 4 where he explained his creative input. He described images such as George Bush holding a celebratory turkey on a platter and pasted over an image of Adolf Hitler eating stew as "moral equivalents." He talked about how the political photo opportunity operates and the difficulty of working as an embedded documentary photographer when all process and output are government controlled. In fact in an earlier work Broomberg & Chanarin managed to get themselves embedded with the British army in Afghanistan and instead of recording images of war and suffering exposed a roll of photographic paper in a light box - creating a very powerful response to the question of documentary truth and government control. The work can be seen here.
The Day That Nobody Died
I think that on reflection all the four nominees deserve their place in the Deutsche Borse exhibition. They all bring different elements yet at the same time question the truth of what we see before us; Whether that be through straight documentary, appropriation of images, or the blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction.
Seeing all four exhibitions together brought up some interesting juxtapositions that made me think about the way that documentary photography has changed. At one time photojournalism was seen as a completely objective practice and the images that were supplied to the media depicted the truth of a situation. Now we are more critical of the media as we know that digital images can be manipulated to show subjective truths and even downright lies. What is sometimes forgotten is that the selection and manipulation of imagery for public consumption has been going on long before the digital age. The image can be very powerful though and we still have to be on our guard as we can still be all to willing to accept an image as "truth."