Broomberg and Chanarin once exposed a piece of film to light in response to the death of an Afghani solder while they were photographers on the frontline, rather than take a conventional conflict photo. For another project – a commission to document Bwiti initiation rituals in Gabon – they decided to shoot using expired Kodak film stock (considered racist even in the 70s because of its inability to render dark complexions) to comment on the commission itself. Just a single shot came out. Another recent project involved taking portraits using a Russian 3D imaging technique designed for facial recognition and surveillance. They frequently combine media, creating handmade photo books, bringing together original and found images. They were awarded the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for one in 2013.
So, in many ways, they’ve always toyed with the question of how photographs are shown and have a long preoccupation with the political and social uses to which photography is put. The idea of the “poor image” the “re-circulating and increasingly degrading” image that loses its quality as it circulates online, is shared, downloaded, reposted, and the uses it’s put to in this new ecosystem was at the root of this project. “All of this digital labour – you’re doing it for free – and somebody’s benefiting, but the question is who?” The image itself is the disposable aspect of the data clusters that photographs have become.
“For us, photography has moved away from this precious idea of an original because of the internet and because of the digital image. What we see is images circulating now that are very disposable,” says Chanarin. “It doesn’t make sense for me to print this and put it in a frame. It makes sense for me to look at it on my phone.”
If images themselves are just the packaging – the detritus or a disposable byproduct of this new digital economy – there’s another, quite different, example of something similar that Broomberg and Chanarin found exemplified this quality in a tangible, material way: cardboard boxes. “There’s something wonderful about this material,” says Chanarin. “It’s sort of ubiquitous. Every time you buy something online, it comes in a cardboard box. Boxes are kind of everywhere.”
The materials for their photo lab in Hamburg come in just such boxes and the first time one of them experimented with printing an image on one of these boxes while playing around with a UV printer they had access to, a penny dropped.