Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are artists living and working together in London. They were recently awarded the ICP Infinity Award for their publication, Holy Bible. Holy Bible takes the physical form of the King James Bible with potions of the original text overlaid by images selected from the Archive of Modern Conflict. -LS
Q: You started working together long before you endeavored to make Holy Bible. How did the two of you come to work as team? How does working collaboratively affect your process?
A: Many years ago when we met in a small town in the desert in South Africa. We were friends before we started working together and the friendship is still more important. The fact that their are two of us is pivotal. It means that neither of us owns the work, it is in a way anonymous.
Q: The format of Holy Bible mimics the physical form and includes text of the King James Version of the Bible. How did you decide to work with the Bible? What made you chose the King James Version?
A: During our reserach on Bertolt Brecht for our war primer project (in particular, a visit to his archive in Berlin), we discovered his personal copy of the Bible. He’d appropriated it as a kind of notebook, sticking in pictures, underlining parts of the text, and annotating it. That made us start thinking about the way in which people use the text. Later, we read Adi Ophir’s text ‘Divine Violence’, which relates particularly to the Bible, and the ways in which God reveals himself within the text through violence and catastrophe. This in turn finds parallels, albeit more oblique ones, within contemporary power structures.
Q: To illustrate this, you selected images from the sizable photographic collection of the Archive of Modern Conflict. How did you decide to use appropriated images for the project?
A: Photographs, since the inception of the medium, have been used both transparently and more insidiously, to support and reinforce dominant models of power. This is something we have given a great deal of time and thought to within our practice, particularly within the realm of conflict and war imagery. This is something we explored in our work, The Day that Nobody Died, when we were embedded with the British Armed forces. In that situation it’s the Army, the governing body, that has complete control of the images that are released. You’re not allowed to show images of wounded soldiers, dead soldiers – basically images of conflict. At the end of each day, you hand over your camera, and they censor your work. We went along with this, and then later ritually deleted all of the images. As a performative act of resistance we also took a 50m roll of photographic paper with us, and co-opted one of the military vehicles which we turned into a makeshift darkroom. Every time something happened that would ordinarily be a ‘photographic event’, we’d unroll a section of the paper, and expose it to the light.
Images of conflict are more ubiquitous than ever, but the fact remains that each conflict, each event, ultimately ends up with it’s own iconic image – an image that becomes synonymous with that catastrophe. We often talk about how history coagulates around certain images. We wanted to explore the other images, the images that had been consigned to the fringes of photographic history. The AMC is the largest archive of its kind in the world – it holds a unbelievable array of images, from images of extremely violent or sexual content, to more banal vernacular images. The facts is, they are all contextual – some of the images, of husbands and wives kissing, of family parties, children playing – are from the Nazi soldiers personal albums. They show a very different side of war than we’re usually exposed to, because these images don’t fit with the narrative determined by those in power or by their victims.
Q: What was your strategy for pairing the Archive of Modern Conflict’s images with biblical passages? Did you choose the images with which to illustrate the Bible based on passages, or did you choose biblical passages based on the images you discovered in the archive, or both?
A: We spent months in the archive, poring over images, and some seemed perfect matches instantly, others took a little more time. By the end of the process, we had around ten thousand images that we’d collected, that spoke to us in some way. So it was just a process of going through the text again and again to refine those. We read and re-read the text to find passages that we felt spoke either directly or indirectly to Adi Ophir’s position and that chimed with one another.
Q: You mined the archive keeping in mind the Adi Ophir’s idea that “God reveals himself through catastrophe and that the power structures within the Bible correlate with those within modern systems of governance.’’ How is this idea about the Bible and its relationship to contemporary violence better understood through this imagery and your pairings?
A: We were both raised reading the Bible every day, and it’s a very different thing to come back to as an adult, than it is as a child. Some of the text is so unimaginably violent, and as a child, that extreme language becomes a form of propaganda. Reflecting upon that now, it struck us as strange that people are so much more affected by violent images than violent words, so the juxtaposition on the page, of these two things that weren’t intended to sit together, but where there now exists a contract of sorts between them, that was interesting for us.