The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston presents Jan Banning: Bureaucratics from December 18, 2013 until March 23, 2014. Bureaucratics is the name Dutch photographer Jan Banning (born 1954) chose for his five-year survey of civil servants in eight countries: Bolivia, China, France, India, Liberia, Russia, Yemen, and the United States. Banning’s visits, which began in 2003, were unannounced, and the accompanying writer, Will Tinnemans, started interviewing the employees immediately—so they had no chance to tidy their offices. Shot from a uniform height, that of a client entering the office, the photographs engender a sense of the relationship between representative of the state and individual citizen.
The decor of the mostly humble offices ranged from reckless stacks of papers to starkly barren spaces. One can draw conclusions—political, historical, cultural, and personal—from this comparative study of office contents and arrangements. Some decorations, like portraits of a nation’s founder or ruler, might be required by the employer; others are clearly choices made by the employees. Flags and calendars are prevalent. A few offices feature stuffed animals, plants, and photographs, including a picture of John Wayne in a Texas sheriff’s office. Other elements, such as uniforms, guns, and certificates, are meant to convey rank and authority.
About Jan Banning
Jan Banning (1954) is a Dutch photographer, based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. He was born in Almelo (Netherlands) on May 4, 1954, from Dutch East Indies parents. He studied social and economic history at the University of Nijmegen. Both of these facts have had a strong influence on his photographic works.
His origin is expressed in the choice of subjects, such as Indonesian women who were forced to become prostitutes for the Japanese army during the Second World War in ‘Comfort Women’; or former forced labourers in South East Asia during the same period in ‘Traces of War: Survivors of the Burma and Sumatra Railways’; also the repatriation of elderly Moluccans from the Netherlands to the Indonesian Moluccas in ‘Pulang: Back to Maluku’.
His study of history can be seen in the historical components of his subject matters. His academic education is expressed in his aim to achieve sound intellectual foundations for his projects on the basis of a thorough preliminary investigation. De Volkskrant reviewer Merel Bem wrote: ‘Each subject that Banning approaches (…), the photographer dives right in with the passion of a scientist’; and ‘This investigative approach might be an explanation for the fact that the form is a direct, concentrated and controlled result from the content’ (in De Volkskrant 8-5-2010, review of ‘Comfort Women’).
This academic basis can also be seen in his often conceptual approach and his regular use of the typological method (visual research in which he looks for variations within a tightly repeated form). Jean Dykstra wrote (in Art on Paper, Sept/Oct. 2008): ‘Borrowed from the methodology of science, it allows for differences to emerge within a category of similar things.’
Banning’s work always has a social focus. The social political environment is put at the fore and it often concerns subjects that have been neglected within the arts and are difficult to portray: state power, consequences of war, justice and injustice. Sometimes the work is the result of a sociological or anthropological classifying approach, such as ‘Bureaucratics’, a comparative study of the world of government officials. Other times he focuses more on the psychological aspects; on the divergent influence that major social events have on individuals (‘Comfort Women’, ‘Traces of War’, ‘Down and Out in the South’).
His projects usually have a personal point of departure, but are never ‘private’: he places the subjects that stem from his private life in a larger social context. To give an example: the history of Banning’s father and grandfather who were forced to do hard labour during the war is not only limited to something biographical related to those two family members, but instead it is broadened into a research into the long-term influence of abuse and humiliation on European and Asian labour slaves (‘Traces of War’).
Banning’s work has been acquired by museums such as the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. It has been published in print media such as The New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, The Guardian Weekend, Sunday Times Magazine, GEO, l’Espresso, Vrij Nederland and many others.