Middle Managers From America to Yemen: A World of Red Tape

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In Bureaucratics, Jan Banning's photographs help readers identify with the government inefficiency we love to hate

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Unless you've lived in a country plagued by the kind of institutional inefficiency characteristic of oppressive political regimes (like I have--hello, motherland), you can never fully appreciate the sometimes comic, often tragic, and invariably debilitating magnitude of red tape. Now, thanks to Dutch historian and documentary photographer Jan Banning, you can: in Bureaucratics, he brings a conceptual, typological approach to the dreariest of desk jobs, blending humor and absurdity with an astute portrait of sociopolitical ineptitude.

"Bureaucratics [is] the product of an anarchist's heart, a historian's mind and an artist's eye. It is a comparative photographic study of the culture, rituals and symbols of state civil administrations and its servants in eight countries on five continents, selected on the basis of political, historical and cultural considerations." Jan Banning

The countries represented are Bolivia, China, France, India, Liberia, Russia, the United States, and Yemen. In each, Banning visited dozens, in some cases hundreds, of offices across the spectrum of services and executive levels.

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To preserve a maximum degree of authenticity, he kept the visits unannounced, preventing the subjects from tidying up for the interview.

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Even the visual narrative of the book exudes the monotony of its subject matter: shot from the same height, with the same and from the same distance, and framed in an appropriately square format, the 50 subjects may vary greatly in age, appearance, and location, but appear somehow homogenous in their shared slavery to paperwork.

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Poignant and petrifying in its institutional honesty, Bureaucratics holds up a mirror against humanity's most ineffectual attempts at self-organization, and at the same time manages to elicit newfound empathy for these very human wardens of the red tape prison.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings.
Images: Jan Banning

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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