“How could God let that happen?”
Violence, calamity and the absurdity of war: For their most recent work “Holy Bible”, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin mined the photographic collection of “The Archive of Modern Conflict” with Israeli philosopher Adi Ophir’s central tenet in mind: that God reveals himself predominantly through catastrophe.
It’s a common reflex. Very human. Whenever something horrific happens, people tend to turn to God in disbelieve and ask themselves: “Where was he?” Unable to comprehend what can’t be put in words. Atrocities so cruel, they surpass all imagination. The Nazi Genocide of the Jews, the atomic bomb or the attack on the World Trade Center: “How could God let that happen?”
A question implying that maybe God sometimes is not present for a brief moment. On the other hand: How could an almighty God not be aware of everything happening on earth he created? Unable to find answers and having their faith put to a hard test, people try to make sense of the unspeakable.
“Right from the start, almost every appearance he made was catastrophic.”
But according to Israeli philosopher Adi Ophir it’s precisely in catastrophic events that God manifests his presence. In his essay “Divine Violence” at the end of the new book “Holy Bible” by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (2013) (co-published between MACK and the AMC), he opens with the following words: “Right from the start, almost every appearance he made was catastrophic.”
The two artists chose the “Holy Bible” to illustrate Ophir’s point. Black cover, and the title imprinted in golden letters: From the outside the book resembles a normal copy of a King James’ version of God’s word. Yet inside, Broomberg and Chanarin have created a horrifying testimony of what mankind has been capable of. It’s a visual journey through the darkest moments of recent human history.
Broomberg and Chanarin overlayed the original text with images and paired them with phrases underlined in red. By allowing elements of the original text to guide their image selection, the two artists explore themes of authorship, and the unspoken criteria used to determine acceptable evidence of conflict.
“The state has taken, or might seem to be taking his role as the chief author of destruction and the ultimate agent of providence.”
Just a few examples of these skillful juxtapositions: On page 719 Broomberg and Chanarin placed an image of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Highlighted next to it are the words: “Worship the beast and his image.” On another page one can see a marine soldier posing underneath a picture of Adolf Hitler hanging on the wall: “Behold, they are all vanity; their works are nothing; their molten images are wind and confusion.” The photos come from the London based “Archive of Modern Conflict” (AMC).
Very often the cruelties were committed in the name of a state or particular government. Violence as a means to defend a certain institutional order or set of values. Ophir writes: “On the one hand, the state has become a potential or actual generator and facilitator of large-scale disasters, and the destructive power of some states has been brought to perfection. On the other hand, the state has also become a facilitator, sponsor, and co-ordinator of assistance, relief and survival in times of disaster. In both cases, the state has taken, or might seem to be taking his role as the chief author of destruction and the ultimate agent of providence.”
The great flow of images – most of them showing atrocities, but every now and then mixed with portraits of clowns and people laughing – creates a sense of impotence in the viewer. Taken out of context and put together in a place were one wouldn’t expect it, they seem random. They leave the observer behind with a sense of helplessness regarding the course of history, entangled in a complex world full of conflicts and events man is incapable to decipher.
Inspired in part by annotations and images German writer Bertolt Brecht added to his own personal bible, Broomberg and Chanarin’s publication questions the clichés at play within the visual representation of conflict.
In this context one can’t help but think of what US-philosopher Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “Regarding the pain of others” in which she discusses two fundamental ideas regarding the role of photography – which may seem contradictory. On the one hand Sontag mentions the so-called “CNN effect”, referring to the power of images, especially documenting atrocities of all kinds, to mobilize people and causing a reaction in the observer.
On the other hand Sontag says that we live in a world “ultra-saturated with images”. Even being very strong, they still lose impact. Because of the vast amount of images circulating in today’s mass media, visual stimulation has lost its power. The ability to react to such a flood of images has decreased: one either becomes cynical and bitter at the obvious display of so much evil in the world – or indifferent. Sontag advises: “To make peace is to forget. And for reconciliation it’s necessary to accept that memory is faulty and limited.”
Whether Broomberg and Chanarin have also thought of Sontag’s words or not when putting together their latest book, they raise the same fundamental questions as to the use of photography – and how we position ourselves facing a chaotic world full of contradictions and its visual evidence. It’s not a typical photography book Adam Broomberg have put together. It’s deeply disturbing, artistically well done and highly thought-provoking. Highly recommendable.
“Holy Bible” by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (2013) Co-published between MACK and the AMC with an epilogue by Adi Ophir.