Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin Interview

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin.  From the Series People in Trouble laughing Pushed to the Ground (Dots).

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are familiar names in photographic art. They have been working together for 15 years and have seen their work displayed in some of the most important photography centres and collections in the world, including Tate Modern, V&A, International Centre of Photography, Musee de l’Elysee and The Saatchi Gallery, where they were recently part of Out of Focus.  It was here that I encountered People in Trouble for the first time in the flesh.

People in Trouble laughing Pushed to the Ground is Adam and Oliver’s response to a commission to spend time with and interpret the photographic archives of Belfast Exposed.  Belfast Exposed Photography was founded as a community photography initiative in 1983 and holds an archive consisting of over 14,000 contact sheets taken in Northern Ireland during the The Troubles.  The divide between Nationalists and Unionists being at it’s worst in the 1970’s and 80’s when political stances were tense and Northern Ireland was perceived as being an unsafe place, war torn.

These are photographs taken by professional photo-journalists and ‘civilian’ photographers, chronicling protests, funerals and acts of terrorism as well as the more ordinary stuff of life: drinking tea; kissing girls; watching trains.

It was of particular interest to me being from Northern Ireland.  I spent my teenage days in (what was then) a back street darkroom which has since become one of the fore-leading centres of photography in Ireland.  The photographs that make up the archive Oliver and Adam were working with were haphazardly tacked up around the place; crumpled black & white prints of paramilitary funerals, family feuds and community conflicts, some unfixed and torn, falling off the walls.  It fascinated me, and these images, and the photographers who took them (Mervyn Smyth, Sean McKernan, Seamus Loughran and Gerry Casey), were such a major part of my early photographic development.  It was with surprise and nostalgia that I was looking at them altered and defamiliarised, behind glass, isolated in white and presented in the setting of such a major International gallery.

I see this as a new categorisation of a destructive past, one which can be revisited and made into something edifying, productive and interesting.  It is by facing these images and defamiliarising ourselves from them, like distancing ourselves from a bad memory, that we are enabled to move on and see the past in a new light, one cleansed of it’s hatred.

Adam and Oliver are from South Africa, so have been saved the historical ties with the original work that I had.  I was interested to see how they approached the archive and they kindly agreed to an interview.

SB: What struck you most when you first saw the Belfast Exposed archive i.e. the original images?

AB & OC:  It’s hard not to be moved by this extraordinary collection.

“Interrogating the document” is one phrase that has been used to describe your approach to the archive.  Would you agree?

It’s interesting to think about what it means to use an archive. And of course what is the correct use.  What is expected of an artistic response to an archive, as opposed to say the response of a historian, academic, journalist, freedom fighter? The idea of the artist working with the archive has become so common place. You could almost say it was a legitimate genre of art practice. So we were weary of that. In the end our response was rather mechanical, and grew out of a physical engagement with the contact sheets and the hundreds of files of negatives.  People In Trouble laughing Pushed to the Ground came out of all that. But I am still not sure it is a legitimate or even useful response to the archive.

What do you think is the most important difference between the original work (contextualised as a document) and your reworking of it, which is presented and described as art?

The answer to that depends very much on your relationship to the images I believe. Even within the Belfast exposed organisation there were conflicting views on this. For some of the photographers, who had spent 20 years risking their lives to produce these images through a period of political and violent struggle, it was hard to see a difference. For others, say the amateurs (perhaps the concept of an amateur photographers is already defunct?) but anyway the non- professional contributors, the difference was stark. These anonymous images, retrieved from a dark box in a small dark room, taken fleetingly almost unconsciously, we’re now transformed in scale, in physical context, but also in conceptual context, in which the image resonates not just within a historical period in northern Ireland, but the history of conceptual photography. Sean O’Hagen reviewing this work for the Guardian described our approach as ‘conceptual pranksterism’ which might have been a little passive aggressive, although I could easily be being over sensitive! But his attitude does indicate how contentious the use of the archive is, and the conflicting feelings that co-exist about the difference between the photographic document and the photograph as art object.

It is such a vast archive, how did you begin to make sense of it all and interpret what you were faced with?    

We first encountered the Belfast Exposed archive with very little background knowledge. I do think this vacuum – a lack of personal connection to the material and only a broad understanding about the history of the Troubles – was instrumental in the work we ended up producing. We came to the material with a kind of cultural and historical blankness. If this has been an archive in South Africa say, dealing with the anti-apartheid struggle, we’d have engaged the material in a completely different way, with a more personal agenda perhaps. But in this vacuum our focus drifted towards more mechanical and formalistic concerns.

We turned the archive on its side, looking at what was above and below the surface of the images. So in this sense we used the archive in the same way that an archeologist ‘uses’ a burial site. To uncover new connections. And to connect disparate fragments.

About the Dots:

Whenever an image in this archive was chosen, approved or selected, a blue, red or yellow dot was placed on the surface of the contact sheet as a marker. The position of the dots provided us with a code; a set of instructions for how to frame the photographs. Each of the circular photographs reveals the area beneath these circular stickers; the part of each image that has been obscured from view the moment it was selected. Each of these fragments – composed by the random gesture of the archivist – offers up a self-contained universe all of its own; a small moment of desire or frustration or thwarted communication that is re-animated here after many years in darkness.

Some of the discoveries from underneath the dots are jarring, emotive, unnerving and poignant.  What was your reaction when you saw the isolated ‘dots’ exposed for the first time?  Was it a Eureka moment?

We’ve often described the process of printing these dots and leaving out to dry on the floor of the Belfast Exposed offices. One of the early founders of the archive, Mervyn Smyth, was perturbed. These are images with which he is very familiar, and at times the small circles detail instantly reminded him of the bigger picture. But there were other details that he could not be sure of. We’d watch his mind race through his internal catalogue trying to match this foot or that mouth or the corner piece of a pavement to a recognisable photograph. And he found it disconcerting that sometimes it was impossible to quite know for sure. So perhaps you could describe that as the opposite of a eureka moment. What would you call that? A moment in which you are struck suddenly by the murkiness of history and memory.

The final edit also includes every day imagery.  As you put it, pictures of “drinking tea, kissing girls“.  For the final edit of Dots, what were your main editing considerations? You could have gone for a totally random selection or chosen particularly emotive images or ones you deemed most powerful.  How did you establish what you wanted the work to convey?

The selection was made as the mages were made, in a mechanical way. We titled each image descriptively, as you mention Girl Kissing, Boy Falling etc… And then grouped the types of actions. Or the types of subjects. Essentially worked with the titles, independently of the images, to create a poetic form. And that extended poem determined the selection, the order and I suppose it conveys a specific mood too. I once read a part of this poem during an interview on Ulster Radio but I think it got canned.

Here it is…

People in trouble laughing pushed to the ground. Soldiers leaning, pointing, reaching. Woman sweeping. Balloons escaping. Coffin descending. Boys standing. Grieving. Chair balancing. Children smoking. Embracing. Creatures barking. Cars burning. Helicopters hovering. Faces. Human figures. Shapes. Birds. Structures left standing and falling…

Finally, you always seem to work as a collaborative.  What brought you together, how do you make decisions and what different aspects do each of you bring to the process?

We’ve been asked this one before….. and if you look at some past interviews you’ll probably find a history of conflicting answers to this same question. The surprising and wonderful thing is that it somehow endures beyond all expectation.

This interview includes excerpts from an interview previously published in Source.