The following comments are made after looking at the book “People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground” by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (1).
The book start directly with the plates, one per page on the right hand side. The images are all round and black and white, identified only by a number on the left hand side page. There are a total of 196 images displayed, which is then followed by what looks like a long poem, 196 lines long, but in reality is just a list of phrases describing each of the images in the plates. You then realise that the title of the book, which to me initially suggested a general descriptor of the subject (before I read the book, I knew in advance it was about images taken around the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland) actually comes from the first three lines of this “poem”, corresponding to the descriptors of the first three images in the book.
The “poem” is followed by a brief explanation by the artists about the origin of the pictures. They come from the photographic archives of Belfast Exposed, a gallery in Northern Ireland. Whenever a picture from the archive was selected by the archivists, a colour dot would be placed on top of its contact print. The plates shown by Broomberg and Chanarin are the images of what was covered by these colour dots. Given that one could assume the dots were placed randomly on the surface of the print by the archivists, without regard for composition or any artistic inclination, some of the images covered by the dots look remarkably well composed and result in odd, intriguing photographs. See for instance plate 46, with a black limousine with American flags (a visiting US president?) rolling along the road while an old lady a bag watches on the side of the road and both are being watched by CCTV camera on top of them. The three elements triangulate perfectly in the frame, as if they were purposely arranged in that way, yet if we are to believe the artists, this image was just “composed” that way by the random act of an archivist placing a sticker dot on top of it.
There is no doubt that Broomberg and Chanarin have arranged the images in a way that would make the most sense for the “poem” towards the end of the book. Many of the images have a common element (eg they depict hands, or they include a boy) and by placing them in sequence the artists are also able to place their descriptors in sequence, which creates an interesting rhythm to the text. In other parts, the sequence of images seems to have nothing in common visually, but the descriptors in the “poem” work well together.
Looking at how this work came together, I cannot stop thinking about how the random actions of people through time could somehow be “aligned” by somebody later to make something aesthetically pleasing. These pictures were not taken by Broomberg or Chanarin, and they were not even selected by them. The selection was done by people before then who marked them randomly, and the act of marking these pictures was not even intended to produce the images included in the book. The artist decided to uncover the dots to show what was behind it, “…the part of each image that has been obscured from view the moment it was selected” (2). But the success of this enterprise was to a large extent outside of their control. It turned out to be interesting, but it could equally have been catastrophic if, as fate would have it, the dots were all placed on the sky or on a corner of each image where there was no detail.
The brief explanation is followed by images of the archive that have been defaced by visitors who recognise themselves in the pictures and do not wish to be seen. I found this part of the book to be significantly less interesting than the dot plates and the “poem”. Arguably, what we have here is the opposite of the dot plates, in the sense that we now see the context of the frame but the “selected” parts of the photograph have been forever “obscured”, although in some case the defacing is so weak that you can actually see what is behind the mask. Because you are given the full context of the image in most of these plates, and in many cases the masking has not been done well, it is trivial to figure out what is behind the mask and therefore, these images have no mystery to them. There is no ambiguity as you had in the dot plates.
(1) Broomberg, A. and Chanarin, O. (2011). People in trouble laughing pushed to the ground. London: Mack.
(2) Idem, p iii