BROOMBERG & CHANARIN: What we learned from GHETTO

Ghetto scan

When discussing what it means to make documentary images, we often return to a book by the photographers Broomberg & Chanarin: Ghetto. This book was a very early influence on how we have come to understand ‘documentary’, and these three scans we made of the pages of our university library’s copy are all we have left to refer to. The lessons remain; documentary is a subjective process, and truth lies in the intricacies of internal experience.

These lessons are important to us now as we embark on a new work which weaves intimate personal memory with global, political reality. On first reading Ghetto, we were so moved by our new realisation of what documentary could be. It is helpful to be reminded of the simple desire this book triggered in us.

Ghetto scan

“What did you dream last night? That a ghost ate my brother.”

Ghetto was one of Broomberg and Chanarin’s early works, and documents 12 communities on the fringes of society – from a Cuban Psychiatric Hospital, to a Tanzanian refugee camp. The book is an accumulation of photographs, first hand stories and memories of the community’s inhabitants and texts written by the artists. The tales are both upsetting, touching and sometimes magical, and the way the book puts them together leaves multiple and varied entry points for any viewer. Like in real life, tragedy stands beside humour and childhood innocence. The dreams of a 10 year old girl are presented with the same importance as any historical fact or political statistic. Through this fragmented merging of images and text, Broomberg & Chanarin paint a broader and deeper portrait of human experience and isolation, and subtly transcend the boundaries of art practice, photojournalism and historical archiving.

Ghetto’s layering of multiple viewpoints and understandings, in its honest simplicity, is what we find so powerful in this work.

Ghetto scan

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