Writing on photography

Review – Holy Bible by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

Anyone who follows this blog or my practice will know my mixed relationship with Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s work. I’ve been critical of their projects in the past, and before I start this review I’ll restate the reason why. I think the way they often meld relatively traditional documentary subject matter with visual strategies more familiar to fine art photography is really important. For anyone interested in seeing documentary photography move away from a very literal notion of showing, and towards a way instead of evoking and indicating what cannot be shown, they are important as perhaps the most high profile examples of this approach. For these reasons when they leave their work open to easy criticism (as I think they did with War Primer 2) it really bothers me because it often seems to become as a way for people to criticise this approach to photography in general.

Moving on then, for the follow up to their Deustche Boerse winning War Primer 2, Broomberg and Chanarin have chosen another book project, and again one inspired by the work of the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. Throughout his life Brecht added cuttings of photographs and notes to a small bible, now held by his archive in Berlin. Inspired by an essay by Adi Ophir, which connects the tyrannical workings of the divine with the functioning of power in modern states, Broomberg and Chanarin have created their own bible in the style of Brecht’s, using photographs from the esoteric Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC), and extending Adi Ophir’s thesis from god and statehood, to photography’s apparent predilection for destruction and suffering.

Ophir’s essay, which provides Holy Bible with its basic argument, is included at the end of the book. To simplify, Ophir argues that after initial moderation, God became increasingly violent and oppressive in dealing with his people, wiping out entire cities and ‘all their inhabitants, men, women, and little children’. In effect cataclysm came to represent him (think of the phrase ‘an act of god’ used as a synonym for a natural disaster) and the destruction wrought by him comes to have an educational and moral function. These appearances become vital in shaping the first nation, Israel. In time the institution of laws (commandments) regulates his wrath, and this economy of moral violence transitions to human hands, wherein it continues to function in a similar way.

Broomberg and Chanarin’s book explores this argument and add some ideas of their own. Throughout it’s many pages small parts of the text are underlined in red, selected to jar with photographs printed opposite. These photographs are a broad mix, there are the predictable pictures of guns, ‘I will seek to destroy all nations’. Then there are more subtle choices that echo some of the very clever photo-epigram matches of War Primer 2, like a man in an iron lung ‘between blood and blood, between plea and plea, between stroke and stroke’. Equally there are some that perhaps seem mainly intended to rile, for example bloodied corpses ‘arrows drunk with blood’. If this image-text juxtaposition formula sounds rather repetitive, it is, but there is just about enough variety to sustain interest, and a few reoccurring motifs help to pace your passage through the book, like the regular and initially quite amusing appearances of magicians and performers with the words ‘and it came to pass’.

The approaches at play here are several. Amongst the most interesting for me is the way the artists set out to demonstrate differing attitudes to images and words. A bible passage describing the destruction of a city would be treated completely differently to a photograph showing the same thing. It’s a pertinent issue, just look at the way so many of the world leaders who clamoured to launch a strike on Syria described being moved by photographs and video of chemical attacks (not by their prior knowledge that such attacks were almost certainly happening). These images galavanised action against things we previously had a pretty good idea were happening, but had little visual evidence of. As a book concept it’s also a great idea and very well executed. Holy Bible is gaudy and rather cheap feeling, in other words a perfect facsimile of a King James Bible, right down to the gold edging on the toilet paper thin pages.

The main thing that bothers me about the work is the choice of the bible as subject matter, it feels too easy. The bible has been appropriated, rework, investigated, or sometimes just mocked by a long list of artists, but rarely with a particularly interesting point to make. Relatively rarely does anyone do the same thing with another religious text. Aside from the deviation it would have required from Ophir’s essay, it might have been more interesting (and certainly I think braver) to have explored similar themes with the holy book from another Abrahamic religion. Considering the artist’s Jewish backgrounds, and their long running focus on the War on Terror, the Torah or Koran both seem like obvious choices. However for all their controversial credentials I sense this would be the wrong side of edgy. Better to pick a familiar, fashionable target without likely repercussions, than one which might genuinely offend, frighten, or provoke.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography