After studying social and economic history, Jan Banning went on to pursue photography, with the book and exhibition Bureaucratics as one of his most recent projects. His main themes are matters of state power and the long-term consequences of conflict.
Banning’s other work includes Traces of War: Survivors of the Burma and Sumatra Railways (2005), a book and exhibition about the experiences and aftermath of forced laborers during World War II; Vietnam; Doi Moi (1993), a photobook about post-war social and economic changes; and Burma Behind the Mask (1997), a book featuring Banning’s photography, with texts by Jan Donkers and Minka Nijhuis, and an introduction by Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2010, Banning completed Comfort Women, a book and exhibition featuring portraits of Asian women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during World War II.
Banning’s work has been widely published in magazines and books, exhibited in four continents, and is included in a number of public and private art collections in Europe and the United States. While most of his projects are self-initiated, Banning has also worked on assignment for clients such as the Rijksmuseum (the Dutch national museum in Amsterdam). Banning’s photography has received many prizes, including a World Press Photo Award in 2004.
Bureaucratics is a book and exhibition that explores the culture, rituals, and symbols of state civil administrations and the people who work within them in eight countries across five continents. I aimed to bring the heart of an anarchist, the mind of a historian, and the eye of an artist to my portrayals of civil servants at work in Bolivia, China, France, India, Liberia, Russia, the United States, and Yemen.
I visited hundreds of offices of functionaries in different agencies and at different levels. My visits were unannounced and I was accompanied by the writer Will Tinnemans who interviewed each subject and kept them from tidying up or changing the office from its natural state. This technique allowed me to pose each subject behind his or her desk and create photos showing what a local citizen would be confronted with when they called upon their government.
The photography has a conceptual, typological approach reminiscent of August Sander’s Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century). The photos all have a square format (fitting the subject), are shot from the same height (that of the client), with the desk—its front or side photographed parallel to the horizontal edges of the frame—serving as a bulwark insulating the representative of rule and regulation against the individual citizen. The images are accompanied by information such as the subject’s name, age, function, and salary. Some of the images reveal the way the state proclaims its power or the bureaucrat’s rank. Others contain details of a more private nature that provide clues about the individual behind the desk.
While these photos often highlight the humor and absurdity of bureaucracies, they also seek to demonstrate compassion toward those who work within the state’s paper labyrinth.
—Jan Banning, June 2010