The vandalism of photography

The Critter, 8 April 2015

As with the news, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking photography represents objective fact. It’s an image produced by a machine; how can a machine be subjective? But consider how Kodak film was standardised to Caucasian skin back in the 1960s, showing some of our best friends as indeterminate black blurs.

Teju Cole wrote about this in The New York Times recently, but South African-born London-based artists Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg explored this in an exhibition back in 2012. These questions of how ownership, curatorship, technology and power frame a photographic image have remained at the heart of their work.

Divine Violence, their newest exhibition showing at the Goodman until 11 April, constitutes cabinet frames with the pages of The Bible pinned like butterflies – one chapter per frame. On each page, phrases and words are underlined with a red ballpoint pen and an image from theArchive of Modern Conflict is attached. These were the original collages the duo put together to print their book Holy Bible, which won them the International Centre for Photography Infinity Award last year.

The Archive of Modern Conflict collects photographs from wars as far back as the Crimean. However, it’s “not interested in the big iconic images of these battles that we all have in our minds. What they’re interested in are the unofficial stories.” Chanarin explains that an entire shelf is dedicated to family albums of Nazi soldiers, for instance, an unnerving expose of their everyday humanity.

Yet, even though the pictures are not of guts and napalm, the expectation given by the exhibition’s title, as well as seeing the sacrilegious dissection of “the holy book” splayed and pinned, created a heightened adrenal state, my heart pounding in my chest with the promise of spectacle, sensation, shock. The works are the literal embodiment of “using spectacular images and language to disrupt the flow of the spectacle” – philosopher Guy DeBord’s definition of detournement, described in his iconic Marxist critique of mass marketing, Society of the Spectacle.

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images,” Debord writes. And elsewhere: “The society whose modernisation has reached the stage of integrated spectacle is characterised by the combined effect of five principal factors: incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalised secrecy, unanswerable lies, and eternal present.”

In this society, Christians are not outraged, freaking out on the front page of the newspapers about what Chanarin and Broomberg have done to their book. Of course, we could never get away with such a “vandalisation” (their word) of the Koran. Yet, in a post-Charlie Hebdo world, there’s no need: we’re all thinking that. Beneath this dismemberment of The Bible lies the spectre of the Koran. Just as the spectre of minorities, multiplicities and terrorism lies beneath the Western hegemony in which it is “The Bible” not a bible. As Debord writes: “The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive… compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.”

For Holy Bible, the contents of the frames have been rescanned, printed and bound to form a bible-simulacra – replete with red-rimmed tissue paper, a black embossed cover and ribbon bookmark.

“You can buy it and take it home to read on the toilet, which is by the way the best place to read it,” says Chanarin who, with Broomberg, came upon the idea when they saw socialist poet and playwright Bertoldt Brecht’s bible, scrawled with notes and filled with press clippings.

This is not the first of Brecht’s books to inspire Chanarin and Broomberg’s detournement. Winning them the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2013, War Primer 2 (that you can download free here) entailed them hand-screenprinting images appropriated from the internet in 100 copies of Brecht’s original War Primer. Published in 1955, Brecht’s book was an interrogation of photos of World War II being a “shortcut to empathy”, that stops us thinking about what they really mean.

Recasting this in the 21st century, what does a picture of a torture scene inside Abu Ghraib mean, after the initial emotional response? As Chanarin and Broomberg discovered in attempting to republish the image legally, Associated Press, a commercial news agency, owns the right to charge for and distribute every single photo of the notorious prison. “How the hell does a photograph taken in a prison by an American soldier of torture end up belonging to a news agency who are then trading on that picture?” asks Chanarin.

“The role that photography plays in the theatre of war, how images have a life in terms of recording other people’s suffering and what happens to those images after they’ve been made?” are the types of issues that have prevented Chanarin and Broomberg from themselves reaching for a camera in years. Nonetheless, many South Africans will always remember them as being the creators of the first photographs we saw of the numbers gangs in Pollsmoor, back in 2000.