Photography is about curiosity

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are about to set off for Perth, Australia where their latest exhibition of photographs is opening

Rather than touch on the mechanics of the trip that lies ahead, Broomberg offers the following: “Do you know that Perth is so far away from any other inhabited place, that when the Mercury mission orbited the Earth, they asked Perth to put all their lights on? They could see one dot in the middle of all this blackness. That’s where we’re going.”

The pair have a fascination with stories – the way that photography can aid the telling of both fact and fiction is something that lies behind much of their work. In talking to them, as with looking at their photographs, you think they’re going in one direction and they take another. “Photography is about curiosity,” says Chanarin. “The camera, for us, is like a passport – letting us into places, allowing us to meet people and explore the world.” Together they’ve been unearthing stories and taking pictures of countries, people and objects for just over ten years.

Their latest book, Fig. (published by Photo­works/Steidl), is an encapsulation of the way they work. As a collection of photographs, the book reads like a museum catalogue with each image, or series of images, displayed at 5×4in and labelled with an explanatory caption. While disparate in content, a narrative thread links the various incidents, events and mythologies depicted. Fig. becomes both a critique of the colonial impulse to collect, quantify and order things and at the same time a collector’s archive in itself; where the skeleton of a ‘merman’, a series of Italian Ex-Voto (votive offering) paintings, and portraits of Casualty Union volunteers (with fake injuries) intriguingly sit side by side.

Both Broomberg and Chanarin are from South Africa (they first met in a small town in the Western Cape and discovered, recently, that they’re actually distant cousins) and began working together at Colors magazine. Broomberg had been at Fabrica and while working under Oliviero Toscani invited Chanarin to join him on Colors’ editorial team. (Neither had studied photography: Chanarin read philosophy; Broomberg, art history and sociology). But the pair soon became disillusioned with the magazine’s way of sourcing images: find a concept, think of a photographic illustration, contact the agencies, pore over slides that fit the theme – “it felt abusive,” Broomberg recalls. “We’d get these pictures of traumatic events, where you wouldn’t know who the person in the picture was and we’d just use it as illustration, not thinking about their family or anything. We got progressively more disenchanted with this mode of working and that’s why we left and started taking pictures ourselves.”

The pair worked for a year like this (a book, Trust, was a result of their time out from Colors) and then returned to the magazine determined to change the way they worked with photography.

“We felt like we wanted to meet the people who were going to be in the magazine.” says Chanarin. “We wanted to talk to them. If there was a picture of someone, we’d want to know who they were and have their name in there. By having that relation­ship, inevitably there’s a built-in responsibility. And there was this strange prejudice about captions: that a truly brilliant photojournalistic image should exist without needing an explanation. We thought, no, words are important, context is important.” Broomberg believes they were responding to a larger crisis in photojournalism. “It had lost its impetus and its use,” he says. “So we tried to hark back to the older forms of representation in media, like Life magazine, Picture Post, where it was slowed down, much more responsible and engaged.”

This way of working has influenced all their projects since, be they editorial, documentary or commercial (they photographed a series of small UK businesses for Yell’s The People Behind the Numbers poster campaign, as well as visiting Detroit on a photographic commission for adidas). They also spent a lot of time in the locations depicted in Fig. – from an intolerable week-long stint in the Kalahari desert with two British hunting fanatics who had each paid £12,500 to kill a lion, to visiting two peculiarly English institutions; the Booth Museum in Brighton and the Hunterian Museum in London, where much of the more esoteric contents of Fig. comes from.

“Fig. began with an interest in the process of taking pictures – going somewhere and coming back with this piece of evidence,” says Chanarin. “You go somewhere, you expose light onto this piece of plastic, you process it and it always struck us that this small piece of plastic was such a pathetic little record of the experience of having made this journey. We archive them, collect them, but what do they really mean? How do they relate to reality? So we started looking at other people who collect things, like museums, to build up a comparison with photography as a form of collecting.”

While Fig. looks at how photography is, histori­cally, built into colonialist notions of discovery, capture and – ultimately – ordering and classifying, much of Broomberg and Chanarin’s previous work has looked at more specific political tensions that relate to a particular place. Their second book, Ghetto, was a series of portraits of the institution­alised, from a Cuban psychiatric hospital to a South African prison; while a set of editioned prints from 2006, entitled Red House, featured a range of drawings made on cell walls within Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist party headquarters. For their book Chicago, the pair photographed the epony­mous artificial Arab town built by the Israeli Defense Force for urban combat training and made a series of portraits of insurgent’s bombs reconstructed by the Israeli Police and housed in a museum (chillingly, the bombs are designed as everyday objects: a melon, a beer can, a paint tin).

Taking a highly emotive political issue and focusing on the empty streets of a fake town, or the mundane familiarity of something that is solely designed to kill is typical of their approach. While they take documentary pictures, they’re not photo­journalists. Broomberg puts it another way. “Take the photographs that make it onto the shop front of a photo agency – they’re the most riveting, most dynamic images. But what does that really mean? That they’re the most painful, the most gruesome, the most extraordinary. We’re looking for the opposite of that – the ordinary, the small details of people’s lives. Their pride and dignity, rather than their poverty.”

For Chanarin, the pair simply use different strategies for telling stories. “Many photographers perhaps take pictures without realising that they’re actually using a particular strategy,” he says. “What we realised in our work was that we can use any strategy for any subject. So if you look at a book like Chicago, it looks like the work of three different photographers, a still life photographer, a landscape photographer, an architectural photographer – but we’ve taken different strategies and applied them to different subject matters. You can create a lot of power in a picture by using that.”

Working as a pair means that dialogue has become a significant factor in the way that they produce work; from deciding how best to communi­cate an idea, to working out where to go, who to meet and, ultimately, what to shoot. “We always say that the photograph is the result of many, many decisions and those happen in conversations between ourselves, with the subject, and in all the reading we’ve done up to that point,” says Broomberg. “The actual taking of the picture is the least important part of it. And more and more, after years of working, I want the experience of taking a picture to be a really valuable one because that’s going to really affect how I will feel about the work afterwards.”

And so to Perth where, with some fascination, Broomberg adds that the quokka – a marsupial unique to the islands off the city’s coastline – might well be something else to go in search of.

Broomberg and Chanarin are about to begin a project documenting the war in Afghanistan. Fig. is now showing at Fremantle Prison, Perth until May 4 and is published by Photoworks/Steidl; £20. See,
Broomberg and Chanarin’s site,, contains more of their work



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