The photographic duo Broomberg and Chanarin has become photography’s version of a household name, after courting much controversy with their uniquely non-traditional approach to documentary photography. Adam and Oli, as they are also known, have been working as a team for over a decade and are bait for self-styled war photographers. Their outspoken comments* in the light of last year’s World Press Photo awards – for which they were judges – caused ripples among the photojournalism community, which they criticised for outdated and uninspiring modes of representation.
Broomberg and Chanarin’s exhibition at Paradise Row in east London, The Day Nobody Died, will no doubt raise a sneer from the desert-scarf fraternity. While the pair ticked all the boxes by being “where it’s at” – the frontline of the conflict in Afghanistan, indeed during the deadliest month since fighting began – the similarity between their work and that of other embeds ends there. The first departure from the traditional approach was evident in their decision to not take a camera. Instead, they hoiked around a 50 metre long, 72.6 cm wide roll of photographic paper, protected in a lightproof cardboard box. A seven metre section of the photo paper was unrolled and exposed to the sun for 20 seconds as specific events were taking place – a press conference, the day one hundred people were killed, the execution of a fixer and The Day Nobody Died. The documentary aspect of the work is not about what “happened” at these events but about another way of being able to document lived reality, producing artifacts that serve as a kind of evidence to certain events. Just being there is not enough.
The six, 600 cm long panoramic, framed works adorn the walls of the gallery, which are arranged parallel to each other. Walking inbetween the parallel walls becomes an experience of trying to discern similarities and inconsistencies in the subtle colourings and gashes of light invading the frame. And, unlike with photographic prints, looking at the work involves a conscious acknowledgment that these objects were present in the time that they want to communicate.
In addition to the panoramas, Broomberg and Chanarin also produced a short video, made up of stills, of the roll of paper being transported by the British military from London to Helmand, the box itself being part of the performance of war. The exhibition also includes a separate room displaying random snippets from their career together, which despite looking like an afterthought, provides a solid context to the Broomberg and Chanarin thought process and way of working.
The work in The Day Nobody Died may not be visually informative or even arresting but the stimulating aspect is the process and the debate it will engender about photographic representation; even the future of documentary photography.