ON AND OFF THE WALLS: BUREAUCRATICS
Posted by Rollo Romig
Moving Walls 17, the Open Society Institute’s latest documentary photography show, the most improbably delightful has to be “Bureaucratics,” by the Dutch photographer Jan Banning. “It started with the most horrible assignment I ever had,” Banning told me when when he dropped by our office yesterday. The job was in Mozambique: Banning’s editor had asked him to shoot pictures for a story on the decentralization of the administration of Dutch development aid. “That’s not something that makes your heart beat faster as a photographer,” he noted. To make it interesting for himself, he decided to shoot portraits of the bureaucrats themselves. Little did he know that this would be merely the first leg on an absurd odyssey that would take him through thousands of government offices, a world tour of what he calls “the shop windows of the state.”
Content dictated form. “What is bureaucracy?” Banning asked. “First of all, it’s square, so I used a square format. Second, it’s straight lines, and in the middle of that grid you’ve got this round being, this human being. And the camera is a metaphor for the local citizen who enters that space. So I always put myself directly in front of the desk or at ninety degrees to the desk, to get that Mondrian structure.”
The element of surprise was crucial. Given any warning, the bureaucrats would try to tidy their workspaces, but Banning wanted to see each office in all its cluttered glory, just as an everyday citizen would encounter it. It helped, he said, to have a collaborator, the writer Will Tinnemans. Together Tinnemans and Banning took an ambush approach: after wrangling permission from some top bureaucrat to roam the halls, the pair would walk in an office unannounced, and, if Banning liked what he saw, Tinnemans would immediately start interviewing the resident bureaucrat while Banning set up his gear. Before the bureaucrat knew quite what was happening, the shoot was over. (In the Netherlands, the project has resulted in two books: one, called “Everyday Power,” emphasizes Tinnemans’s reportage about bureaucrats; the other is a photobook called “Bureaucratics,” which has also been released here, by Nazraeli Press.) See also
China: Jiang Ji Yuan (b. 1958) is chairman of the Art and Literature Association of Tai’an, Tai’an City, Shandong province. Monthly salary: 4,000 renminbi ($496).
France: Maurice Winterstein (b. 1949) works in Clermont-Ferrand for the Commission for the Advancement of Equal Opportunity and Citizenship at the combined administrative offices of the Auvergne region and the Puy-de-Dôme department. He also is in charge of the portfolio of religious affairs, Islam in particular. Monthly salary: € 1,550 ($ 2,038). The young lady next to him is Linda Khettabi (b. 1989), an intern pursuing training as a secretary.
India: Sushma Prasad (b. 1962) is an assistant clerk at the Cabinet Secretary of the State of Bihar (population 83 million) in The Old Secretariat in the state capital, Patna. She was hired "on compassionate grounds" because of the death of her husband, who until 1997 worked in the same department. Monthly salary: 5,000 rupees ($110).