Art & Photography

Deutsche Börse Prize: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

The photography duo tell Alex Jackson how typing Bertolt Brecht’s war poetry into Google influenced a very modern critique of war reportage

Left: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, War Primer 2, Plate 26, 2011. Right: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, War Primer 2, Plate 49, 2011

In exile form Nazi Germany, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht cut tens of press images of the war from newspapers and magazines, adding a poem to each – it became his War Primer book. Seventy years later, inspired by his insight, Broomberg & Chanarin have ‘hijacked’ 100 copies with images resulting from typing Brecht’s poems into Google search. Their publication, War Primer 2, is currently exhibited at Photographer’s Gallery, London, displays the “eerily prescient” results.

How does it feel to be on 2013’s shortlist?

Adam: Ten years ago, in a township outside Johannesburg, our then publisher rang saying we’d be longlisted for the Deutsche Börse prize. We’ve been longlisted every year since, so it feels really lovely to be here, finally.

Why did you embark upon War Primer 2?

Oliver: In 2008 we were with the British Army in Afghanistan and were shocked at their system of embedding photojournalists at the frontline. It’s ingenious: access to the theatre of war in exchange for access to us, all carefully designed to control what images are produced in conflict zones. We’ve now lived through 10 years of war [in Afghanistan] but, actually, we’ve a very censored view of it. We wanted to make a work that engaged with this problem, asking how images become a currency distributed by the media and how that currency relates back to the original moment?

When we came across War Primer, it became clear Brecht’s suspicion of the way press photographs are used – how they obscure the truth, as much as reveal it – chimed with our thinking. So we hijacked his book; we got 100 copies and silkscreened and pasted and silkscreened into them. It became a kind of a parasite, a continuation of Brecht’s logic and analytical and critical thinking.

“There’s an old Russian saying: ‘The bullet is a blind fool’ – but even weapons can see today”

Why, despite 70 years between Brecht’s work and yours, are we still so naive about the images we see?

Oliver: The number of cameras in conflict zones has increased radically through soldiers and civilians with mobile phones. There’s an old Russian saying: ‘The bullet is a blind fool’, but even weapons can see today. There’s a greater proliferation of different images coming out of warzones, their meanings increasingly convoluted, so we’re more confused than ever.

Can you elaborate on how you came to match the images you found with those of Brecht’s?

Oliver: We literally used Brecht’s poems in Google search, throwing up a number of images. We looked at how they related to the poem

we’d typed in and the there’d be one that felt prescient, almost as if the words were written for it rather than the original – quite eerie.

What were the biggest challenge to putting War Primer 2 together?

Oliver: Laboriously sticking in pictures and screen-printed over pages was a massive physical undertaking. The 100 books we made all sold out very quickly so we had borrow them back in order to display this exhibition! Our dream is to recollect all 100 in a few years’ time and show them again, all in one place.

Click here for more of Adam and Oliver’s work. The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW. Read our profiles with 2013’s other shortlisted finalists, Mishka Henner, Cristina De Middel and Chris Killip.

Left: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, War Primer 2, Plate 26, 2011. Right: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, War Primer 2 Plate 49, 2011