Office Space

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Edgar Allen Beem


In 2002, Dutch photographer Jan Banning was on "the most horrible assignment I've ever had," trying to photograph the de-centralization of civil administration in Mozambique for a Dutch foreign aid agency, when he hit on the idea of telling the story by making portraits of local bureaucrats.

"I didn't care about the de-centralization of power," says Banning of the series of portraits of bureaucrats that has consumed him ever since. "What I care about was that this was the way ordinary citizens are confronted with state power."

Banning's "The Office" now consists of 25 to 30 portraits each from Mozambique, Indonesia, Liberia, Siberia, Bolivia, India, and Yemen with France in the works and the United States, China and the Vatican on tap. His Indian portraits won a World Press Photo Award for portrait series in 2004.

"The Office" portraits are structured and methodical images, each containing a single government official seated behind a desk in an office. Within this standardized format, however, Banning's photographs are wonderfully varied, revealing both the similarity of bureaucratic symbolism internationally and obvious cultural differences.

Indian officials, for example, tend to be buried in a chaotic clutter of paperwork, while many African bureaucrats occupy primitive "offices" devoid of accoutrements. The cumulative effect of the series suggests that Banning collects bureaucrats the way some people collect bugs.

While the portraits themselves are resolutely straightforward, there is a Kafka-esque element to them. State power, which all too often is the power to make the lives of ordinary citizens miserable, has been the subtext to most of Banning's work since the 1980s.

Banning, who is based in Utrecht, was born in Holland in 1954 to parents who emigrated from the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) after World War II. He studied history at the University of Nijmegen with the intention of becoming a journalist. He turned to photojournalism in 1981, however, because he found that photography allowed people to continue with their activities while interviewing people required that he interrupt whatever his subjects were doing.

Banning began his photographic career documenting the use of state power to evict squatters in the 1980s. Combining his visual, political and historical interests, he subsequently created several bodies of work dealing with the long-term effects of war—land mines in Cambodia, Agent Orange in Vietnam, the turning of weapons into art by artisans in Mozambique.

The culmination of Banning's exploration of the long-term impact of war was Traces of War: Survivors of the Burma and Sumatra Railways, a book of interviews and portraits he originally published himself in Dutch and which Trolley Books issued in an English language edition in 2005. Traces of War got to the root of Banning's lifelong interest in state power as it documented the experience his father and other survivors had as POWs forced by Japanese occupiers to work as slave laborers building the infamous railway.

Traces of War also marked the transition in Banning's work from straight reportage to conceptual photography. The black-and-white survivor portraits Banning made for the book all depict shirtless old men because that was the way the men worked building the railroad through Burma.

"I was trying to lay a bridge between the past and the present," says Banning of the topless portraits.

In his on-going "Office" series, Banning has been collaborating with Dutch freelance journalist Will Tinnemans, using a series of grants to underwrite the project. In each country they visit, Banning and Tinnemans first work to gain access to government officials, seeking to portray a bureaucratic hierarchy within a department (say, taxation or police), and endeavoring above all to avoid having to make appointments.

"We want to avoid making appointments and get general permission so we can drop in and grab them," Banning explains. "We want to avoid people changing the situation and cleaning up."

The banality of the bureaucrat portraits is intentional, re-enforced by the square sameness and an attempt on Banning's part to create straight lines within the picture frame. The photographs are all taken with a Bronica SQ-Ai medium-format camera using 400 ASA Kodak Portra film.

When his series on bureaucrats in India (published in Foreign Policy magazine and Web site, Newsweek, and in NRC Handelsblad, Holland's largest daily newspaper) won a World Press Photo Award, Banning says, "The Indians didn't understand why these incredibly boring photographs would be given a prize."

NRC Handelsblad editor Laura Starink understands why.

"Jan showed us pictures of the series about local government in Mozambique a couple of years ago," says Starink. "It immediately struck me as a perfect subject: people sitting behind desks, usually doing nothing, or pretending to work. Bureaucracy is something that is familiar to everybody all over the world. So Jan decided to make a project out of it, to give a picture of very different societies that have one thing in common: red tape. It was an immediate success. He just showed me the series he made in Yemen—beautiful."

"It's all a matter of perspective," says Banning. "You don't see what you are completely used to."

One of the unforeseen problems he has faced in trying to photograph government clerks, provincial authorities, civil servants and minor functionaries, Banning says, is simply finding them at work. On his recent trip to Yemen, in fact, he heard of many political appointees who had never been in their offices. And when Banning approached one Yemeni agency about photographing its employees, he discovered that they did not have offices.

"If we put them in an office," the head of the agency told Banning, "they stop working."

Collectively, "The Office" portraits tend to render bureaucrats around the world as specimens of authority. Individually, the subjects of Banning's photos have generally been pleased.

"There is some vanity involved," Banning explains. "Bureaucrats are usually approached by people who want something else from them. They are the barrier between the people and what the people want. In this case, it was about them."



Dealing with Red Tape

"Most journalists and photographers try to avoid bureaucracy, but we go looking for it," says Jan Banning of the often-frustrating process of securing permission to photograph government officials around the world. After four years of dealing with official red tape, Banning says, "It's different in every country."

In Liberia, for example, he found a local journalist who served as a "fixer." In Russia, he went through a very official press clearance procedure. In Bolivia, a member of Rotary International introduced him to a local governor who gave him a letter of introduction.

As often as not, Banning starts by e-mailing the Dutch embassies in foreign countries, asking both how likely he is to get permission to photograph and very specific questions about government offices such as the color of walls, what sorts of things hang on office walls, and what bureaucrats wear to the office.

In searching for an Arab country in which to photograph, Banning sent off e-mails to the embassies in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen and Egypt. The press attaches in Yemen were encouraging, so that is where Banning went. Those in Saudi Arabia were discouraging and he is still waiting for the embassy in Egypt to reply.

The closest he has come to an outright refusal, says Banning, is Cuba, one of the first countries he approached about permission to shoot. Cuba hasn't officially refused, it just keeps putting him off.

"It's very unlikely that a bureaucracy will say no," says Banning. "They simply don't answer."

—Edgar Allen Beem
 

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