In 2003, the Dutch photographer Jan Banning was hired to take photographs to illustrate a magazine article about Dutch aid to a Mozambique project to reform governmental administration. This task was no easy feat – how do you inject colour and life into such a seemingly dull topic?
His photographs received rave reviews. Encouraged, Banning, along with writer Will Tinnemans, continued to photograph civil servants around the world – from small town clerks to police authorities and governors. They always retained the perspective of the visitor, including the desk as a symbol of status and power. This approach illustrates the universal characteristics of bureaucracy across the globe, despite vast political and cultural differences.
Between 2003 and 2007, Banning and Tinnemans visited hundreds of civil servants on various rungs of the hierarchical ladder in eight countries. Considering that their list includes countries like India, Yemen, Bolivia, China, and others, just obtaining the necessary permits is quite an achievement. In their efforts to reveal the true face of bureaucracy, they personally had to overcome many of bureaucracy’s obstacles.
This exhibition includes the best portraits from a total of 250, as well as information on the country in question and the civil servant in each photograph. The square format is thought to mirror the rigid rules and lack of dynamics in the square bureaucracy. This is perhaps the aspect that feels most familiar to us. The most striking feature, however, is how the different interiors of the offices reflect the political systems of each country, as well as the values and personality of the individual civil servant, if he or she has been permitted to display any personal preference.