Ideas Series: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, War Primer 2, Interviewed by Sarah James

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s current project is an intervention in and reworking of Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, originally published in East Germany in 1955 and republished in the UK in 1998.

Brecht’s still surprisingly neglected book was essentially a photo-essay comprising of 69 images or photographic fragments that Brecht had collected since being in exile in the 1930s. Most of the images refer to the Second World War – there are images of Hitler, Churchill cast as a gangster, bombed out British cities, and dead Japanese soldiers – and the sources of the majority of the images were the mainstream press, with many pictures taken from the American magazine Life. The book was both a Marxist critique of the war, and a pedagogic manual on how to properly read photographs. Brecht was extremely sceptical of photography’s straight-forward truth-telling capabilities, and critical of the dangerous ideological instability of the uncaptioned image. Unsurprisingly, the version of photographic realism that he attempted to articulate in his War Primer was a much more complicated interventionist and collaborative kind of realism – one in which the spectator of each photograph was forced to experience the kind of alienation and estrangement that was so crucial to Brecht’s theatre. This demanded an equally nuanced kind of reading, which Brecht termed ‘complex seeing’.

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Consequently, on each page of his War Primer the photographic fragment, often still with its original caption, was surrounded by black and accompanied underneath with a four line poem. Brecht referred to this combination of short poem and image as a ‘photo-epigram’. Broomberg and Chanarin have set out to produce a new version of the primer. It draws on images of conflict since 9/11, and the complex ways in which the representation of conflict has changed since Brecht’s post-war, cold war photo-essay.

Sarah James: Could you tell me a bit about War Primer II? How did the idea first come about, and how has the project developed?

Adam Broomberg: The project is on the one hand a hijacking of Brecht’s War Primer, a parasitic activity. On the other hand, it’s almost a kind of republishing, because Brecht’s book is so rarely seen and it’s really not well known. With this in mind, we wanted to make sure that as much as possible of Brecht’s original War Primer remained visible.

Oliver Chanarin: We started off by looking at actual newspaper clippings, trying to find contemporary images that resonated with Brecht’s original poems. In a way, we were planning to replace his pictures with our pictures, all of which deal with the proliferation of images of conflict since 9/11.

SJ: So you’re leaving Brecht’s texts completely intact? I thought the original idea was to write your own poems for each of the images?

AB: Well the project’s gone through about ten incarnations. There’s this great quote by Brecht: ‘Don’t start with the good old things, but the bad new ones’. We suddenly realised that if Brecht were doing this now, he’d start with the internet instead of looking through the broadsheets. So we started searching online and thinking about conflict post 9/11 and how it has been imaged. We’ve had a team of people going though thousands of images. What is fascinating is who is producing images from these conflict zones. There are some very obscure websites with soldiers producing their own imagery, soldiers’ blogs, insurgent blogs, activists sites.

OC: So most of the images we’re using are essentially screen grabs, what you’d call poor images. In some cases they are very well-known images that have been recycled on different websites, and we’re just making screen grabs of them. Often you’ll still see the watermarks on them.

SJ: So very in-keeping with Brecht, retaining the original caption of his photographic fragments, as well as emphasising the social function or historicity of the images?

AB: Exactly.

OC: And a lot of these photographs are about the relationship between images and human suffering, they dwell on that.

AB: There’s a lot of difficult material here, I mean it’s been quite a hard few months, because we’ve been looking at a huge amount of images of violence. It’s also probably one of the most subjective projects we’ve ever done. We worked for quite a while trying to formulate a system we could just apply to the project, like typing in the first words of the poem and seeing what Google images came up with. We’ve tried a number of mechanisms to help us remove our authorship, and at some point we realised, well let’s just give into it, and take it on, and be brave enough. At the same time we had to realise that there is an inexhaustible amount of images we’re potentially dealing with, so we had to set a period of time, a reasonable cut-off point.

OC: What we want to do is create a new relationship with his text and our new images.

SJ: And so your images entirely replace the original photographs?

AB: No, it’s important that the new image is literally montaged on top of his original images. In a few cases, it entirely covers the original, but in most of them you have this new juxtaposition, which is also a very Brechtian idea. In this sense, it’s also a formal game; we’re working with this idea of collage, montage and the formal relationship between the original and what we’ve imposed upon it while, at other times, there’s more of an explicit link with the text.

SJ: And you are aiming at a resonance both on a formal level, but also in terms of the political content of the images?

AB: Yes, so, for example, in Brecht’s original Primer there is a page near the beginning with an image of women sunbathing with oil on their hands, and the poem reads: ‘Women are bathing on the Spanish coast. They climb up from the seashore to the cliffs and often find black oil on arm and breast: The only traces left of sunken ships.’ And the image we’ve added is of the incident in 2006 in Tenerife when an illegal immigrant ship from Africa washed up whilst tourists were sunning themselves. So there you get the idea of how it works in terms of political and historical resonances, as well as formally.

OC: What we’ve tried to do – not exclusively, but in many cases –  is to look at the way that a lot of the images in the Primer speak about images, about image production and the way image production in conflict has changed. Our War Primer II will show the many similarities between images that Brecht collected, of the Second World War and contemporary conflicts, but it will also interrogate the new ways in which cameras intersect and participate in war today.

AB: There are fundamental differences between the images we now have access to, compared to the ones Brecht was able to acquire. To begin with, there was far less ambiguity in the images of conflict he was using. Although Brecht was problematising any obvious reading of images, with photographs of the Second World War or the Spanish Civil War it is obvious who the two sides were and who to side with. Today, clearly, it’s far more ambiguous.

OC: Yes, so one of the problems we encountered was what image to use when thinking about the very opening of the book.

SJ: Originally it opens with a picture of Hitler gesticulating like a robot?

OC: Yes, and the poem is about sleep walking, and so we had the choice of whether to replace that with an image of Bush or of Bin Ladin, or somebody anonymous – it’s extremely subjective. Our allegiance sort of shifts back and forth.

AB: So as to make the representation of that war more complex, and to broaden its geographical, political and temporal frames.

SJ: One of the things that is most ambiguous in Brecht’s War Primer is the multiple perspectives, not only in the images – which literally shift from landscape, to aerial, to portrait – but I’m thinking more about the text, which moves from dialogue between protagonists, say for example, Hitler and Goebbels, and then to third person narrative, to the first person of the poet and then suddenly hailing the reader, so you are directly addressed.

AB: The way that war is now imaged is so very different. I think that is the meta-narrative of the project in a way. There are several images, for example, in which the subject is shown being photographed by a number of photographers.

SJ: How hard has it been to select that one singular image in each instance? Have you disagreed? And how many images are you working with? With the original 69, or the extended 85, as in the version of the book published in 1998?

AB: 85, and we’ve made literally hundreds for some of them. In some cases there is a direct link between the images, so we’re just updating them. For example, in the original Primer there is the image of the Japanese soldier’s skull, which is accompanied with the Brechtian line ‘Alas, poor Yorick’, and we’ve juxtaposed this with an image taken in 2003, originally published in Das Bild. It shows a German platoon near Kabul which did exactly the same thing – a soldier posed holding up a skull.

SJ: And what about the sources of the texts, where does that crucial contextual and meta-text emerge?

OC: We’re literally pasting that information over Brecht’s original notes in the back of the War Primer, so writing the sources of the image and its uses.

AB: And obviously sometimes this is also a crucial indication of the image’s political instability. For instance, a photograph of a white phosphorus explosion taken during Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2009 was then used by both Zionist and anti-Zionist websites.

OC: Yes, and for each of the images there’s not one link, sometimes there’s more than 80, so it’s fascinating to think about the various biographies of each image.

SJ: The ‘social life of the image’, which was also so crucial to Brecht?

AB: Exactly, that’s a good way to put it.

SJ: And in montaging the two images together, in a way it is far more Brechtian than supplanting the old image and text with new versions, because you’re entering into a dialogue with him.

AB: Definitely. Heiner Müller said if you use Brecht without changing Brecht, then you’re not using him correctly.

OC: We have never studied a book so closely. If you think of Brecht’s poems as these attempts to decode the images – which he called hieroglyphics – then one of our ideas was to develop our own means of decoding an image, our version of the photo-epigram. We have developed what is essentially a set of 20 questions that can be applied to any image in order to interrogate it. A set of questions you might ask whose answers result in an abstract assemblage, a set of wooden blocks coloured in different colours and sizes.

SJ: And this is the second part of the project?

OC: Yes. Each question has a Y and X axis.

AB: Say for example, that the X might be ‘the type of witness’ – ranging from civilian to soldier to drone, and the Y is ‘complicity’ – then the result addresses whether the event was incidental to, or performed for, the camera. So you then take the coloured wooden block which reflects that particular dynamic.

SJ: And that’s where the pedagogical aspect of the primer comes in?

AB: Yes, as it’s teaching a way of interrogating the image. We’re not sure exactly yet how it will be presented, but we were thinking of exhibiting the blocks alongside the primer, and each day to select a headline image from a daily national newspaper and subject it to this interrogation, and assemble the blocks accordingly. The idea is that you could reassemble an image from an abstract pile of coloured blocks.

OC: This destruction and then reassembly of images is the primer, the lesson in unpicking images. And the assemblage of coloured blocks is in a very real sense unstable, prone to collapse, which is what we want to spotlight.

SJ: That’s interesting, because in a lot of ways Brecht also embraced a kind of abstraction in his non-mimetic concept of realism. And the actual construction of the assemblage is also suggestive of the functional and cognitive axes of his kind of realism.

OC: We thought about many of these issues when we made The Day Nobody Died (2008), the series of abstract works we made while embedded with the British Army in Afghanistan. We weren’t ever saying that those abstract images replaced documentary images, we believe that suffering deserves a witness, but never-the-less there is a need to interrogate the image.

SJ: And where does this approach stand in terms of your previous projects? Because Brecht has a very interesting approach to realism, he has a dialectical conception of realism, which is both sceptical, but also refuses to stop believing in the capacity to represent truth.

AB: The fact is that this kind of interrogation is set up to fail. Through this process, we have learnt that you cannot do without the image, that an image is incredibly efficient at communicating certain things. Undoing the image and making it abstract fails for a number of reasons, and in that way the project gives you a sense of renewed belief in the use value of  images. [/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks Issue 17, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks

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