Broomberg and Chanarin – Trust

Posted on October 18, 2012

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I have decided to document on this blog the work of photographers who have influenced my own work, as evidenced by my assignments. My intention is to be able to bring these together into my Critical Review text document later in the year. The subject of my next assignments is Urban Artists at Work. This is a series of portraits of artists working, taken at several different events during 2012. In all cases I had asked my  subjects for their permission to photograph them. What is interesting is that despite this they  continued to be absorbed in the creation of their art and are seemingly oblivious to me the photographer. This work falls into the category ‘The Absorbed Subject’ as discussed in my previous post here.

Two of photographers who have influenced my thinking when making the Urban Artists at Work series are Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. They are South African photographers who work together and have a unique  and interesting take on documentary photography. In particular their work Trust  was of great interest for my own work. (Broomberg (2000)).

Neither Broomberg nor Chanarin had a conventional education in photography. Broomberg has a degree in Sociology and the History of Art and Chanarin one in Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence. Their  photography grew out of  their work with Colors magazine. They were originally picture editors and became dissatisfied with the exploitative nature of much photojounalistic photography. So they decided to take on the task of producing their own photographic content. They have developed a much more collaborative and empathetic approach. In general their work is characterised by a healthy disregard for some of the conventions of photography, a great social and political awareness, a strong social conscience, wittiness and intelligence, a deep level of research and understanding of the subject, coupled with a continuing interrogation of the medium of photography (Broomberg(2010), introduction by Paul Reas, Senior Lecturer in Documentary Photography).

In the video of the talk to Newport University students Broomberg states that as photographers we are …interested in telling stories and about documenting and witnessing and representing the world and the things we see …and thats what drives our work is that curiosity and the desire for representation (Broomberg (2010)). This struck a chord with me. In particular the notion that as photographers we are driven by curiosity and desire for representation. This I   believe is at the centre of Broomberg & Chanarin’s series Trust. 

Trust presents a series of portraits of subjects who are absorbed in different activities. The portraits are frontal headshots with no context whatsoever. The use of flash against dark backgrounds further isolates the subjects. We are aware that they are pictured engaged in different activities: in an amusement arcade; at the gym; at the dentists;  at a beauty parlour; watching TV; under hypnosis; in the operating theatre etc but we do not know which is the case for particular photographs. We have to read into the expressions what we think is going on. All of the subjects agreed to be photographed and were aware of the photographer but this is not apparent from the portraits themselves. As Val Williams in her introductory essay to the book puts it: the fact that they have agreed to be photographed but then are unable to compose themselves for the camera indicates the level of absence, the loss of self control, the vulnerability of the subject. (Broomberg (2000), introductory essay by Val Williams).

My personal fascination with Trust arises through my identification with the subjects. What I see are the involuntary movements of the subject’s mouths, the concentration or relaxation of the eyes, the ugly and unflattering nature how they look etc..  Thoughts like ‘do I look like that’  and ‘I recognise that feeling’ come to my mind.  I am also curious about what is it like to go through particular experiences such as being hypnotised or being on the operating table. By reading the faces of the subjects in Trust, I get a feeling of what this might be like.

I also have a sense that the willingness of the subjects to be photographed in these situations is a kind of confessional. Its  like  they are subjected their emotional self to public scrutiny. This is similar way to Gillian Wearing’s subjects in Signs (Wearing,pp 50-59) she photographed people in the street holding a white card on which they had written down what was going through their minds. In the case of Trust we are left to read the faces of the subjects. As humans we spend much of our time reading and interpreting the expressions of those around us. It is a constant source of fascination, joy and trepidation for us.

It is the combined elements of our identification with subjects (physically and emotionally), our inherent curiosity  and our preoccupation with reading faces which I hope will make my Urban Artists at Work interesting for those viewing the photographs.

Photographs from the Trust series are available on the Broomberg and Chanarin website .

Broomberg A. & Chanarin O. (2000) Trust  London: Westzone Publishing

Broomberg A. (2010) Talk to photography students at University of Wales Newport Available from: https://vimeo.com/16764387  [Accessed on 18/10/2012]

Wearing G. (2012) Gillian Wearing London; Ridinghouse

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