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“A Perfect Sentence” is Oliver Chanarin’s first solo project following the dissolution of the twenty-year creative partnership Broomberg & Chanarin. Back in 2019, as guest editors of Der Greif 12, they sent out a call for images that are too private, too quiet, too violent, too political, too subversive, or too explicit to share online. We are now catching up with Oliver Chanarin in the form of a Q&A about his new book, which is a photographic exploration of the complex dynamics of power and visibility in Britain.
Der Greif: “A Perfect Sentence” is a journey through contemporary Britain that explores the drive for attention, the complexity of being seen, and the anxiety of being overlooked. What inspired your idea for this series?
Oliver Chanarin: When I started out as a photographer twenty-five years ago I was working in this purely documentary mode, traveling away from home and having encounters with the world through my camera. I was working in collaboration with Adam Broomberg and after the publication of “Ghetto” and then our book about South Africa post-apartheid we both became suspicious of this mode of working. But after the death of our partnership, I felt really unsure about how to make photographs again and so I decided to return to it and see how it felt, as an exercise really, to re-learn some old methods of engagement. Honestly, it didn’t go too well. The world has changed so radically in that time and very quickly the work shifted to accommodate that. For example, when I started working with photography there was very little conversation about consent. The photographs I made belonged to me and were authored by me, even when they involved the lived experiences of other people; even when those people were young or vulnerable, or powerless. The balance of power between photographer and subject has shifted massively, and while that’s a good thing, and the days of mostly male photographers sneaking around with their cameras capturing ‘real life’ are thankfully on the way out, something else is also lost - spontaneity, transgression and the feeling that anything might happen. I wasn’t sure how to be a photographer in this new paradigm; how to approach people in the street, their homes, and their communities; and what a reasonable expectation of privacy is. I knew the answer was to go back to the impulse that drew me to photography in the first place: encounters with strangers, the beautiful accidental moments that come with getting lost in the world with a camera. I wanted to write about that, about the difficulty of making photographs in the age of the algorithm, when there is so much anxiety about how images are shared and experienced, which became the book’s main preoccupation.
Der Greif: Until the 3rd of September 2023, “A Perfect Sentence” is on display at the Museum of Making in Derby (UK). We were delighted to attend the opening of your show! In your inaugural speech, you admitted the challenges that you and your team faced while making this new body of work. Would you like to share those challenges with our community?
Oliver Chanarin: At the very start of the project I had a really difficult encounter when someone I photographed in a workshop context objected because I had shared a snap of them on Instagram. I deleted the post immediately but my mistake had a big impact which I write about in the book because it was pivotal in how the rest of the project unfolded. One institutional partner cancelled the exhibition and acquisition as a result and we lost a lot of funding which was devastating. But when I looked more closely at the safeguarding policies of the museums and institutions I was collaborating with, I could see how I had transgressed, albeit in a small way, and it inspired a kind of manifesto which guided the production of the rest of the photographs. I’ve translated the legal language of these policies into the first person, and they appear as a prologue in the publication: “Don’t reduce me to tears as a form of control.; Don’t allow my allegations to go unrecorded; Don’t assert your authority through sarcasm; Don’t take me in a car on a journey alone; Don’t capture my image without consent; Don’t do things for me that I can do for myself; Don’t walk with your hands in your pocket; Don’t contact me.”
Der Greif: Throughout 2022, you undertook multiple journeys across the UK, often finding yourself on the margins of British identity - from suburban fetish groups to carnival troupes in community halls, to gender activists protesting in the streets. The resulting photographs capture a subjective and intimate record of the nation. Have you, in the role of the artist, gained new valuable, maybe unexpected insights through this project?
Oliver Chanarin: I was listening to an interview with the writer and poet Hanif Abdurraqib about his writing process and the struggle to craft a perfect sentence, and it struck me that making photographs was similarly frustrating. Likewise, the narratives that accompany photographs are always slippery - fact, fiction, and fantasy become interchangeable. In making portraits, there is always this awkward transactional moment in the process when the subject agrees to be photographed, and the photographer attempts to articulate how their image will be used, how it will be exhibited, published, or shared online. Inevitably though, there is a risk that the subject will feel disappointed in how that plays out or worse that they feel misled. This is never ideal, but it is a risk because a lot happens after the photograph is made. I take the negative into the darkroom and start working with colour and exposure. The print is never presented on its own but as part of a sequence of other prints that unfold according to my own syntax. The photographs, as a body of work, only really start making sense towards the end of this process, and the result feels more like a short story than a document of the real. So the title of the book privileges written language and recalls something more literary and subjective. The word ‘perfect’ is aspirational though, because nothing is perfect in this complex interaction between me and the remarkable people I met and photographed for this book. As I wrote in the essay, they are shaped by many spoken and unspoken exchanges. I’ve tried to make these encounters positive and inspiring experiences, but every human interaction is fraught, especially when a camera is involved.
Der Greif: Refusing the authority of a final image, you opt to only present in-progress darkroom prints that show the processes of correction, redaction, and selection. Was it part of your idea from the beginning to feature the images this way, or why and when did you decide to use this style of presentation?
Oliver Chanarin: The handwritten cursive markings on the surface of the images are both technical and at the same time they interrupt the experience of looking and alert the viewer to the production of the image. They demonstrate how subjective the photograph is; it’s the opposite of forensic. It’s useless as a piece of evidence. Foregrounding this subjectivity felt important to me because we live in a moment when identity is fluid, and nobody is just one thing. A single portrait can never capture something definitive or fixed about a person, and the darkroom notes on the surface alert us to this, that the picture is unfinished, nearly perfect but not quite. Printing analogue colour photography is difficult and I’m not very good at it. It takes place in the complete dark and demands a lot of patience - which I have very little of - and close attention to shades of colour and exposure. I made a lot of bad prints! In particular, I really struggled with skin tones and getting them to look natural. But I wanted to do it myself because so much of the craft of photography has been usurped by off-the-shelf algorithms in the service of ‘perfect’ images. I wanted to make prints that didn’t feel like they were mass-produced. I struggled in the darkroom for a long time, and eventually, I started to appreciate my bad prints.
Der Greif: “A Perfect Sentence” is your first solo project following the dissolution of the twenty-year creative partnership Broomberg & Chanarin. Back in 2019, as guest editors of Der Greif 12, you sent out a call for images that are too private, too quiet, too violent, too political, too subversive, or too explicit to share online. Can you elaborate on any potential parallels between Issue 12 titled “Blame the Algorithm” and your new solo project “A Perfect Sentence”?
Oliver Chanarin: For the next exhibition of “A Perfect Sentence” I am working with a team of robotics engineers to create a machine that automatically hangs and rehangs the pictures for the duration of the show. I made a prototype of this machine for a show at SF MoMA, and the slightly terrifying part is the way it is able to monitor the attention of viewers in the gallery and adapt the display sequence accordingly. Building this machine is without a doubt the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. It’s taken over two years to get working and on the way I have learned so much about the technology of robotics and surveillance. But the idea to build it came directly out of the same concerns at play in Issue 12. The life of images online and the intersection between the physical world of objects and people, and where that meets the less tangible virtual experience. Images scroll, they swipe, they pop up, but most terrifyingly, through the gathering of data, they watch us just as much as we watch them. I wanted to create a gallery experience that more closely resembled our online experience of images. I want visitors to come away feeling watched, feeling surveilled. I want visitors to be seduced by the technology, drawn into an engagement with the machine and with the photographs. But ultimately, I wanted them to come away reflecting on the notion of personal privacy and how this has been radically altered by surveillance practices in ways that are impossible to fully grasp.
Oliver Chanarin: Last but not least, I’m going to quote from the essay I wrote for the book, which gives a lot of background on how “A Perfect Sentence” came together. I think this section is a great example because it demonstrates some of the difficulty and complexity I encountered but also the humor and the pure joy of having encounters with strangers and the unlikely and miraculous things that can occur along the way: “The meeting room was tucked into the ground floor corner of a modernist residential estate and looked like any community meeting room. It had blank walls, a linoleum floor and a little kitchen with a microwave, kettle and foot-pedal bin with a stained lid for disposing of old tea bags. In the corner were stacks of chairs and tables. Everything here was of a place and a time that was unmistakably British. My appointment was with volunteers from the Casualties Union, who had arrived early and were waiting at the door with their equipment. The Casualties Union has operated on the frontier of future catastrophe since 1942. When the police, the emergency services, the army and even private corporate clients try to imagine how things might break down and go wrong, what future terror may occur, the Casualties Union are there to supply acting, staging and make-up to lend an aura of authenticity. I first became aware of the Casualties Union because they are mentioned by the novelist J.G. Ballard in his infamous The Atrocity Exhibition, a book of linked, condensed stories, a little like this project. This was fifteen years ago, when Adam Broomberg and I were an inseparable artist duo propelled through life on undiluted chutzpah and a shared fascination with photography and each other. It was a beautiful collaboration that lasted over twenty years until, like two small brain cells starved of oxygen, it eventually withered. But back when things were good, and having ideas and acting on them together was easy, we contacted Caroline and attended a training session with the group. Now I was meeting them again, but everything had changed. Brexit had polarised the nation, a pandemic had forced people into isolation, recommender algorithms now guided our desires, portraiture now resembled a stream of images that coagulated around a complex and layered sense of self, and new forms of representation were urgently needed. Inside the room on the estate with the linoleum floors, the Casualties Union volunteers unpacked their accoutrements and set to work. Caroline began by crafting a head wound above James’s left eyebrow. The considerable gash was set into a bed of pinkish flesh moulded out of cornflour and food dye. The others meanwhile were debating which wounds to demonstrate. Graham suggested a knife in the back, and everyone else murmured approvingly. It didn’t take long to achieve something remarkably realistic, and when an unsuspecting passer-by glanced through the window, she made a short sharp yelp in horror at the sight of a half-naked man collapsed against the meeting room wall with the handle of a kitchen knife wedged between his shoulder blades. As well as make-up, the Casualties Union volunteers also perform their injuries: they know which part of the chest to actually clutch during a heart attack, the impact on the vision of a freshly bruised eye, the correct displays of anguish in accordance with varying degrees of physical pain, and how to imitate muscular spasms associated with epilepsy. The volunteers were precise. They insisted the injuries that I documented be both anatomically correct and appropriately treated. Then, in an awkward exchange, I proposed that Caroline do an amputation. I’d seen this service on their website gallery. Could they possibly amputate Stephanie’s finger? Would Stephanie mind? Stephanie, my photography assistant, did not mind. Her face lit up at the idea. She was thrilled. Could she take a picture on her phone to show her mother? Caroline poked around in her tupperware of fake skin, retrieved a prosthetic finger, and held it up with a perplexed look on her face. The little protuberance, severed off at the second joint, belonged to a white hand, and Stephanie’s hand was black. Caroline persisted with the amputation, yet the physical overlaying of white skin at the scene of this fictional accident was revealing and invoked with uncanny precision the spectre of what the poet and essayist Wendell Berry has called the ‘hidden wound’1. The experience had scratched this wound, opening up scars of implicit bias, social construction, white fragility, structural racism, and white supremacy. I wondered how Stephanie experienced that exchange, and later we spoke about it. The volunteers that day were all white, she offered reasonably, they only had material for their own bodies.”
(1In his 1968 reflections on race and growing up in rural Kentucky, Berry used the term to relate how, as a child, he had invited Nick, a black adult neighbour with whom he had formed a close friendship, to his birthday party. Realising that Nick would not be welcome inside with the white guests, Berry stayed outside with him. His encounter, and its subsequent retelling, invokes racism as a lesion, a trauma, and the daily bruising pains of its inflictions.)
“A Perfect Sentence” by Oliver Frank Chanarin is published by Loose Joints.