War Primer 3: Work Primer (self-published, 2015)
War Primer 3: Work Primer by Lewis Bush is a reworking of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2, itself a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel.
In this unique examination of war and photography, Brecht sought to extract the hidden meanings behind images of conflict with short poems modeled on the funerial epigrams of the ancient world. Broomberg and Chanarin in turn updated Brecht’s book by introducing images from the War on Terror, each intended to resonate with Brecht’s original text. While in some respects brilliant, in other ways Broomberg and Chanarin’s followup was also deeply problematic.
In response to these concerns, and in the spirit of Brecht’s playful invocation not to ‘start with the good old things but the bad new ones’ Bush decided to rework Broomberg and Chanarin’s book into a work primer, a meditation on inequality, labour and capital. By “restructing” the book around the text of his poem A Worker Reads History, and adding new images and text to those added by Broomberg and Chanarin, Bush sought to produce a book which would be a small tribute to the unacknowledged workers, labourers, and slaves who keep the engines of the world turning.
Paola Paleari: You’re a writer and a photographer rather than a photo-based artist. Why did you feel the urge of re-making War Primer 2? Should War Primer 3 be considered more as a creative act or as a statement of claim?
Lewis Bush: Without getting too deep into the backstory behind War Primer 3, which can be read about on my site, I made the book because I wanted to make a point about the way politics is often appropriated in an inconsistent or incompatible way by artists. Politics, of a very particular sort, seems to have become a trendy, saleable commodity for many artists, not something they employ and champion through their work because they believe in it. Indeed to be a political artist today is quite often seen as being rather naive.
In this sense, War Primer 3 is certainly a statement of a sort, hopefully it can also be seen as a creative act. That though is much more down to the individual viewer and it is interesting to hear the reactions of different people to the work. There remain a significant number of people for whom “photography” still means to actually take photographs, and to whom War Primer 3 is not at all creative, but rather plagiaristic. I’m glad to say they seem to be increasingly in the minority, and more and more people seem open to the idea that one can be a creative photographer without ever touching a camera.
PP: In War Primer 3, the aspect of appropriation, which is often embedded in artistic practices that deal with archival material, is put under examination. What is your point of view on this kind of action?
LB: Appropriation is a problematic practice, and I say that even if I have made extensive use of it. Putting aside the legal aspects, when you engage in appropriation there are all sorts of ethical issues you have to consider about whose work you are appropriating, and what wider good or bad your use of those images might be doing. With War Primer 3 I rationalised the act of appropriation in that I felt the problem of appropriating imagery and using in the book was maybe outweighed by the case the book had to make. I’m sure some would disagree with that, but that is how I rationalised it to myself.
On a rather pedantic side note, I don’t like the term “appropriation” very much, since it is loaded with certain negative connotations. There is a related word in English, “expropriation”, which is where an organisation, usually a government, appropriates private property for the public good, for example during a war or disaster. Without at all suggesting that the end justifies the means, I prefer to think of what I do as a form of expropriation, where the act of taking something over might be problematic, but it is done with the intent of achieving a wider rather than narrow good.
PP: From which sources did you draw the images you used in War Primer 3? Which criteria did you follow in their selection and editing?
LB: The images in the book come from a very wide range of sources. As in the original two books some are press images, others are produced by campaign groups and non-governmental organisations as part of evidence gathering against exploitative work practices, several are screenshots, others are images taken by citizens and bystanders, and a few indeed are from government institutions like police forces and militaries. Returning again to the idea of appropriation, all of these different image sources present different problems when you appropriate them. In each case you’re weighing up things like the original purpose of the image, the original producer, and your intent for it, and thinking about how these things relate. Things are even more complex because the “owner” of a given image is often far more transparent.
In terms of selection and editing of the images, the selection was defined by the text on each page, text drawn from Brecht’s poem A Worker Reads History. I had this bare skeleton of a narrative from very early on, and then it was just a case of searching for images and themes which resonated with both the texts and the existing images on each page. Sometimes the right image appeared very quickly, other times I would find images which were along the right lines but not quite right, and so I would keep searching and sometimes go through many very similar images searching for one that was just right. In a few cases I had to settle for one which maybe wasn’t perfect or a strong image in itself, but which facilitated the overall effect of the book.
PP: Both Kriegsfibel by Brecht and War Primer 2 by Broomberg & Chanarin are constructed on the relationship between word and image. As you said, you also retraced this technique by combining new images to one of Brecht’s poems. Why did you take this decision? Do you think the photographic image that is decontextualized always needs some kind of caption to be fully understood?
LB: Rather than retain the original structure of Kriegsfibel as Broomberg and Chanarin had done for War Primer 2, I decided the narrative needed to be changed in order to reflect the change of focus I wanted the book to have. The poems in Brecht’s original book were unambiguously about war, and I wanted to talk about economics. Using one of Brecht’s other poems seemed like a good compromise between achieving what I wanted to achieve with the book while also keeping his voice at the core of it. At the same time, I hope the way text is paired back to just a handful of words also create an interesting balance between image and text, where it is unclear which is dominant, or which one of the two is explaining the other.
In terms of context, photographs always need additional information to be understood, whether that information comes in a caption or in another form. I think we remain so seduced by the photograph, so ready to believe that what we are looking at is some sort of window through space and time to another moment and place. We readily forget that a photograph is just a pattern of dark and light on a piece of paper or a monitor, and that to interpret even the most basic of information in that pattern requires all sorts of existing information which we carry around in our heads, or glean from other sources. The idea that photographs alone speak some universal language or mean the same thing to everyone who looks at them is one of the great delusions of our otherwise very visually literate culture.
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