Broomberg and Chanarin

Posted on February 17, 2013


 I came across Adam Broomberg and  Oliver Chanarin’s Trust (Broomberg & Chanarin 2000) whilst researching reference sources for my Urban Artists at Work  series. Trust is relevant to my own work as it is an investigation into ‘absorption’. It is a series of photographs of people emersed in various activities such as video games. I have posted a review of this work earlier here.

Apart from the relevance of the subject matter, two things struck me about what they had done. First was the systematic way they had structured their work. This reemphasised the lesson I had learned from DiCorcia that photography can be an exploration of process (see my previous post). Second was their ethical stance towards the portrait subject and their absolute insistence that their subjects should agree in advance to having their photograph taken. They made me think more about the way in which photography is in effect the exercise of power of one person (the photographer) over another (the subject).

In this post I briefly review some of their other projects and comment on extracts from their texts. I have concentrated on material which is particularly relevant to my own work. Broomberg and Chanarin are prolific and their oeuvre spans a wide range. Documentary photography is however at the heart of all their projects which are underpinned by strong moral and ethical standards.

Throughout the post I have included photographs. These have been published with the kind permission of the photographers -my thanks to them for allowing me to do this.

Broomberg and Chanarin’s concern about photography as a means of exercising power extends to a critique of what might be called ‘classical’ photojournalism. They have referred to Bertolt Brecht’s view on this:

“The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about conditions in this world. On the contrary photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth. The vast amount of pictured material that is being disgorged daily by the press and that seems to have the character of truth serves in reality only to obscure the facts. The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriter”
– Bertolt Brecht,1931

This unease with the path photojournalism continues to take is also echoed in this quotation taken from an article on the Foto8 website  (Broomberg and Chanarin 2008). (They were talking about the images they had reviewed when they were on the judging panel for the World Press Photo award in 2007.)

‘Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkies’ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.’

In their own work they have tried, sometimes controversially,  to break free of the traditional photojournalistic approach. Their series Red House they  photographed marks and drawings made on the walls of a building now known as the Red House. This was originally the headquarters of Saddam’s Ba’athist party in Iraq. It also served as a prison and a place of torture and often death for the imprisoned Kurds. Many of those incarcerated there wrote on the cell walls as this was their only means of expression.

Red House #2, C-type print, 60" x 47", 2006 ©Broomberg & Chanarin

Red House #2, C-type print, 60″ x 47″, 2006 ©Broomberg & Chanarin

When operating as embedded photojournalists in Afghanistan, they did not take cameras. Instead they carried a roll of photographic paper with them. The paper was exposed to light at times when a conventional photojournalist would have been out shooting a significant event. They later exhibited the paper in gallery space along with a video film of the roll of film being transported home on military transport.

The Day That Nobody Died, Installation view, Unique C-type, 76.2x600 cm ©Broomberg & Chanarin

The Day That Nobody Died, Installation view, Unique C-type, 76.2×600 cm ©Broomberg & Chanarin

Their strong ethical approach has given me much food for thought and reflecting back on my work it is interesting that since researching Trust  I have avoided candid photography in favour of a more collaborative approach. Whilst I am proud of my candid portrait series  Museum and I believe that I have been respectful in this work,  I have always had a sense of unease about whether I was taking advantage of my subjects.

Trust is a series of photographs of people absorbed in activities such as video games, watching TV and such like. Whilst all of the subjects had agreed to be photographed they appear fully absorbed in the activity commanding their attention. It is as if they did not know they were being photographed. The portraits are head-shots and appear as objective studies of the face, a subject with which we are all fascinated. Our face is our principle means of expression and in a sense, defence (our reading of the facial expressions of those approaching us gives us early warning if someone is ‘out to get us’). My own Urban Artists at Work  series follows a similar line of enquiry. It is a series of portraits of artists absorbed in their work. Hopefully it is similarly fascinating for the viewer.

Trust (c-type print, 12x16", 2000) ©Broomberg & Chanarin

Trust (c-type print, 12×16″, 2000) ©Broomberg & Chanarin

I followed up my research into Trust with a review of two other books, both of which include significant elements of portraiture: Ghetto and Mr Mkhize’s Portrait & other stories of the new South AfricaThese books gave me further insight into Broomberg and Chanarin’s photographic/reportage style and their political and social engagement.

Ghetto is a fascinating book (Broomberg & Chanarin 2003). The promotional blurb describes it as ‘… a journey through 12 modern ghettos starting in a refugee camp in Tanzania and ending in a forest in Patagonia.’. This is precisely what it is. The book contains individual stories, which are  set out in an easy to read journalistic style, alongside portraiture and contextual text and image. It is reportage of the highest order – engaging, concerning, heartwarming and sometimes shocking. Broomberg and Chanarin undertook many of the assignments which provide the material for the book when they were with Colours magazine.

The ‘ghettos’ reported on in the book are very diverse, from refugee camps to a retirement community for rich Americans. Each is fascinating in its own way. These communities are on the fringes of society and those living there have developed their own social structures and codes of behaviour which govern how they operate. Broomberg and Chanarin asked the same questions everywhere they went. Questions concerned with how people came to be there, the power structures which govern how things work and personal questions about relationships and privacy.

They were particularly sensitive about the use of photography in institutions such as psychiatric hospitals and prisons because: ‘ The history of photography in those places is one of surveillance and asserting power, right? So we went in and tried to upset that, often through the writing and the people we collaborated with’ (Burbridge 2011). One of the ‘ghettos’ is a psychiatric  hospital in Cuba. Here they allowed the portrait subjects to operate the camera’s cable release and thereby choose the moment when they were pictured. This is an interesting strategy. I wonder however whether those photographed really understood what was happening. That said I get the feeling from the portraits that they took the opportunity to express how they felt.

Rene Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba, C-type print, 16 x 12 inches, 2003 ©Broomberg & Chanarin

Rene Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba, C-type print, 16 x 12 inches, 2003 ©Broomberg & Chanarin

The text is part narrative and part quotations from those interviewed.  This allows the point of view of those pictured to be properly expressed – subject of course to the editing process. Whilst Ghetto is serious book it is not without humour. I couldn’t help smiling when I saw a series of images of Kurdish lorry drivers pictured against brightly coloured photo studio backgrounds. The  two photographers had actually commissioned this particular background themselves. Although amused, I also learned that the 30 million Kurds are the largest minority in the Middle East without a state of their own!


Cizre, Kurdistan, C-type print, 16 x 12 inches, 2003 ©Broomberg & Chanarin

Mr. Mkhize has been photographed twice before in his life. The first was for his Pass Book, which allowed the apartheid government to control his movements. The second was for his Identity Book, which allowed him to vote in the first democratic elections in 1994. Ten years later, we took his picture for no official reason. (Broomberg and Chanarin 2004)

Mr Mkhize…  is an excellent little book. The work on which it is based was commissioned for an exhibition to launch South Africa’s new Constitutional Court in 2003. In style it is similar to Ghetto. It presents a mixture of contextual text/images, quotations, and portraiture. It is exactly as the title says – a series of short stories about people in the new South Africa. The text is brief, highly readable and informative. The only concern I had was whether the stories are representative of the country as a whole, concentrating as it does on the margins of society.

The story of Mr Mkhize himself is a good illustration of how the book works. Mr Mkhize’s personal decision to allow Broomberg and Chanarin to photograph him marks the key change in South African society today  – people now have the freedom to make such decisions.

The portraiture is compelling, sensitive and dignified.

Mr. Mkhize, Alexandria, S.Africa (c-type print, 30x40", 2004) ©Broomberg & Chanarin

Mr. Mkhize, Alexandria, S.Africa (c-type print, 30×40″, 2004) ©Broomberg & Chanarin

The portrait of 23 year old Tessa Davies is particularly arresting. This young woman lives in ‘Eldo’ (Eldorado Park), one of the most dangerous areas in Soweto. She was raped when she was 16,  but is now literally fighting her way back.

Tessa Davis, 23, S.Africa (c-type print, 30x40", 2004) ©Broomberg & Chanarin

Tessa Davis, 23, S.Africa (c-type print, 30×40″, 2004) ©Broomberg & Chanarin

Broomberg and Chanarin’s approach to reportage is very interesting. The mix of contextual text/imagery and quotations from interviews seems to give the portrait subject a voice. I found myself viewing the portraits from the subjects’ perspective (if that makes sense). I will return to these books when deciding on the path I plan to take for the OCA Your Own Portfolio course. A reportage approach of this nature might work well for my East End London project.


Broomberg and Chanarin Website Chopped Liver  Available from: [Accessed on 12th February 2013]

Broomberg & Chanarin (2003) Ghetto London:Trolley

Broomberg & Chanarin (2000) Trust London:Westzone Publishing

Broomberg & Chanarin (2004) Mr Mkhize and other stories from the new South Africa London:Trolley

Broomberg and Chanarin (2008) UNCONCERNED BUT NOT INDIFFERENT FOTO8 Website Available from: [Accessed on: 12th February 2012]

Burbridge B. (2011) The Postgraduate Photography Research Network: Interview with Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin Available from: [Accessed on: 12th February 2013]