Jan Banning undertakes a photographic study of administration and public servants across eight countries in the world.
This story was originally published in February 2012.
When a Dutch magazine asked me to showcase the decentralisation of administration in Mozambique, I thought that it was the most boring assignment I had ever received. In fact, I thought it was practically unphotographable.
Later, I realised it could be interesting to put a face to the people behind bureaucracy. A one-off assignment transformed into a four-year project, across eight countries in five continents. The aim was to be a photographic study of governance and public servants across the world.
I asked Will Tinnemans, a journalist friend of mine, to accompany me for the assignment. After getting the necessary permissions needed to interview a particular bureaucrat, we would show up unannounced at the office, so that I could capture the office space exactly the way it is supposed to be. While Will interviewed the officer, I would set up the lights and decide my composition.
The interview was an effective tool in our exercise because it provided us an insight into the individual, such as their rank, duties and age. It would also give us a general idea of the administration of the country, as a whole. Along with getting information, the interview was also a ploy to distract the officer, so that they did not have the time to clean up their office space.
We chose countries based on their political structure. We also considered the historical and cultural impact so that the project can be a window to bureaucracy around the world. For instance, I shot in USA, the world superpower; India, the largest democracy; Liberia, an African nation emerging from a civil war and so on.
The camera was kept at a height of the average local of that country. This gave an impression of what greeted a layman entering the office. Since bureaucracy is generally associated with structure and boredom, I used a square format for the images to create a rigid feel. Once the frame was set, I would turn to the subject and askthem to simply look into the camera.
Photographing a Political Body of Work
- The process of getting the necessary permissions may be long and unending, but do not give up.
- Political subjects can lead to some bland orboring photographs. It is important to find a wayto humanise them. This could be done by using humour, or by taking down personal stories.
- Choose a style of portraiture that continues throughout your images. It could be a frame that uses the surrounding area or could even be a tight close-up, but the series must flow consistently.
About Jan Banning
Jan Banning studied social and economic history at the University of Nijmegen, Netherlands and has been working as a photographer since 1981. He dabbled with painting and music before taking up journalism and photography.
To view more such images from this series and Banning’s other works, log on to www.janbanning.com
Tags: Photo feature, December 2011, Jan Banning, Political, Bureaucracy, Political Structure, Government Officials, Square Format, Offices, Public servants