War, violence, terror, murder and genocide—a bloody path of brutality can be traced through human history. Conflict is a narrative deeply anchored in both the collective and individual consciousness, and since its invention photography has been drawn to these sites of human suffering and catastrophe. Artists Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin have highjacked two seminal books: Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, and The Bible, using them as vehicles to explore the documentation, dissemination, and currency of such images within in the media. The artists juxtapose passages of text, which contain concrete acts of violence, with images, that are often shocking in their violence or tenderness. Images mined from the Internet or The Archive of Modern Conflict function as a means to inhibit a simplified consumption of both text and image. In this way the artist duo challenge our viewing habits, and force us to become a critical observers, unable to passively lose ourselves in the spectacle.
War Primer 2 is a limited edition book that physically inhabits the pages of Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 publication, War Primer. The original is a collection of Brecht‘s newspaper clippings, each accompanied by a four-line poem that he called Photo-epigrams. It was the culmination of almost three decades of intermittent activity. Brecht was profoundly uneasy about the affirmative role played by photography within the political economy of capitalism, and referred to press photographs as ‘hieroglyphics’ in need of decoding. Broomberg & Chanarin’s War Primer 2 is the belated sequel. While Brecht‘s War Primer was concerned with images of the Second World War, War Primer 2 is concerned with the images of conflict generated by both sides of the so-called “War on Terror“. Broomberg & Chanarin have reinterpreted Brecht‘s original, giving us their critique of images of contemporary conflict, which is simultaneously a betrayal and homage.
Whilst researching War Primer 2 at the Brecht Archives in Berlin, Broomberg & Chanarin came across Bertolt Brecht’s personal copy of the Bible, which he had decorated with images cut out from newspapers. Inspired by this remarkable object, the artists embarked for the project Divine Violence on their own illustrated Bible, and for this they turned to The Archive of Modern Conflict in London. Broomberg & Chanarin mined this archive with philosopher Adi Ophir’s central tenet in mind: that God reveals himself predominantly through catastrophe, and that the power structures within the Bible correlate with those in modern systems of governance. Violence, calamity, and the absurdity of war are recorded extensively in this second project The format mimics both the precise structure and the physical form of the King James Bible. By allowing elements of the original text to guide their image selection, the artists explore themes of authorship, and the unspoken criteria used to determine acceptable evidence of violence.
In both series the artists transfer the Brechtian “distancing“ effect“ to visual media—or more specifically, to contemporary methods within documentary photography. In theatrical terms this effect is felt when the narrative is interrupted by characters stepping outside of their roles to discuss the plot with the audience directly; in Broomberg & Chanarin’s works it is the image that disrupts and, in doing so, creates distance between the viewer and the content, and a new level of reflection.