SHARE

“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.”

Adi Ophir

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.”

Adi Ophir

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.”

 

Adam Broomberg - Oliver Chanarin: Holy Bible, 2013. Photograph: Courtesy Mack
Adam Broomberg – Oliver Chanarin: Holy Bible, 2013. Photograph: Courtesy Mack

 

Adam Broomberg - Oliver Chanarin: Holy Bible, 2013. Photograph: Courtesy Mack
Adam Broomberg – Oliver Chanarin: Holy Bible, 2013. Photograph: Courtesy Mack

 

Adam Broomberg - Oliver Chanarin: Holy Bible, 2013. Photograph: Courtesy Mack
Adam Broomberg – Oliver Chanarin: Holy Bible, 2013. Photograph: Courtesy Mack

 

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.

More information

“Holy Bible” by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (2013) Co-published between MACK and the AMC with an epilogue by Adi Ophir.

 

Adam Broomberg - Oliver Chanarin: Holy Bible, 2013. Photograph: Courtesy Mack
Adam Broomberg – Oliver Chanarin: Holy Bible, 2013. Photograph: Courtesy Mack

 

Adam Broomberg - Oliver Chanarin: Holy Bible, 2013. Photograph: Courtesy Mack
Adam Broomberg – Oliver Chanarin: Holy Bible, 2013. Photograph: Courtesy Mack

 

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hi there Kai,

    I respectfully disagree with your recommendation. Today I spent 10 minutes flicking through this book at a local bookstore and I found it to be irrelevant, intellectually redundant and experientially dissatisfying.

    Christian apologists and critics have long discussed violence and suffering in relation to God. I believe that the authors of this book add nothing to this discussion.

    With their heavy handed and anachronistic comparisons, they draw tenuous links between scripture and 20th century images of sex and violence.

    Yes, the images in this book are shocking. But the premise of the book is thoroughly unshocking and holds no artistic merit.

    In the near future, I believe that this crude publication could actually function as a relic in its own right, telling of the epidemic of the pornographic image. In an attempt to be meaningful, this book points to the utter debasement of meaning that is evident in the atheistic philosophies of post-enlightenment thinking. Simply, this book offers nothing original or valuable to the reader.

    If your readers, like me, are still grappling with a God who could allow suffering in the world, there are many helpful sources available. To name just one, I found great comfort in reading the last letter of Hermann Lange, a young German minister who was executed during the Nazi regime. His letter to his parents is brave, compelling and offers real answers to the question of suffering.

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lübeck_martyrs

    Peace, love and best wishes.

    PS. Kai – we have differing views but I think you are a brilliant write. My favourite part of this article was your introduction. And also at the end with the reference to visual stimulation losing its power. I agree on that point.

    • Dear Goldie,

      thank you very much for your comment. I appreciate your thoughts on the book and the review. Religion, the same as art, are fields were its impossible to find some common ground that we all can agree on. The most important thing is to be able to freely express our different believes in a respectful manner.

      My best wishes to you,

      Kai

      • Thanks Kai,

        I completely agree with you re: freely expressing beliefs. Just as the authors have exercised their free will in creating this book, we can debate it.

        I’m interested to hear your thoughts after reading Hermann’s letter. When I was growing up, the bible was often used by misguided people to preach hate and intolerance, which caused me to turn away from God for many years.

        Then I watched the film The Tree of life by Terence Malick (have you seen it?), which began a faith building process, founded on reason and questioning. I also recommend To the Wonder by Malick… Beautiful.

        Now after reading and analysing scripture I believe that Jesus diagnoses the human condition better than anyone else. On matters of human suffering, I look to the one who was betrayed, ridiculed, pierced and crucified. Jesus tells us that God is not exempt from suffering.

        Warm wishes to you too.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here