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the day nobody died

March 12, 2012

In the Day Nobody Died, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, exposed rolls of photography paper in the Helmand Province as they traveled embedded with British forces on their 2008 trip to Iraq. The photos are colorful non-figurative abstractions produced in one of the deadliest months of the war. According to text on their website about the project, “On the first day of their visit a BBC fixer was dragged from his car and executed and nine Afghan soldiers were killed in a suicide attack. The following day, three British soldiers died, pushing the number of British combat fatalities to 100. Casualties continued until the fifth day when nobody died.”

Geoffrey Batchen writes about the two parallel histographies of photography, one that maintains that photography does not have a history of itself, but rather its contingent on what broadly we can call the [photographic] “context”, while the other troupe argues for medium specificity of photography as an art.

While the project might easily come off as a contemporary art gimmick, it does point to an intersection of two histories of photography. Taking the first argument to its extreme, in the example of these photographs, the image is stripped from its representational claims, and is solely dependent on the context of production. It is an image of a day in Iraq where no body died, as much as the discursive setting that it is included in claims to be. It could easily change its meaning, if there are other contextual developments, changes in policies, negotiations, positions etc.

The Day Nobody Died, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, 2008

If we think of this image within the second troupe it is a perfect example of the specificity of the medium that its mode of production is that of the effect of light on sensitive emulsion. If photography is drawing with light, then this is the degree zero of it. The context is redundant, it does not have any effect on the image and does not infuse it with external meaning, rather [meaning] is arrived at through an ontological movement that defines the photograph within a set of aesthetic relations contingent upon history of art.

However, with regards to these photographs, it is the indexicality of the image that both gives it meaning, and takes meaning away from it. The first approach maintains that the index is contested, if we want to describe the photograph, we need to look where, how, within what social/political relations it was produced. The second approach will argue that the index does not produce meaning, but rather the meaning is produced ontologically. It is the history of art that give the image meaning, not the indexicality of the photograph. The indexicality at best provides the conditions of the photographic production: the trace of light on paper.

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