Laurence Maillard, town clerk, Ambrief, France. Monthly salary: $657 (part-time work).
If you seek out the great quotations on the subject of bureaucracy, you will find that few people have anything positive to say on the subject. Mary McCarthy calls it “the modern form of despotism,” while Edna O’Brien, writing in the New York Times Book Review, asserts that “the fate of the universe will come to depend more and more on individuals as the bungling of bureaucracy permeates every corner of our existence.” A contrary note is struck by James H. Boren, author of the marvelously titled 1972 book When in Doubt, Mumble: A Bureaucrat’s Handbook, who notes that “bureaucracy is the epoxy that greases the wheels of progress.” Surprisingly, Ambrose Bierce’s legendary Devil’s Dictionary has nothing to say on the subject.
Some years ago a Dutch photographer named Jan Banning undertook an ambitious project to shoot a large number of bureaucrats all over the world in their natural setting—their own offices. He selected eight countries to work in, namely China, France, India, Bolivia, Liberia, Russia, the United States, and Yemen, and very importantly, he gave no advance notice that he would be paying a visit, so none of the offices had been tidied up to impress any foreign onlookers. Banning had a writer accompanying him on the project, who was tasked with conversing with the bureaucrat so that he or she would not be able to make the place look spiffy. Banning was intent on showing “what a local citizen would be confronted with when entering.”
Of his project, Banning says that he came to his subjects with “an anarchist’s heart, a historian’s mind and an artist’s eye.” Furthermore,
The photography has a conceptual, typological approach reminding of August Sander’s ‘Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts’ (‘People of the Twentieth Century’). Each subject is posed behind his or her desk. The photos all have a square format (fitting the subject), are shot from the same height (that of the client), with the desk – its front or side photographed parallel to the horizontal edges of the frame – serving as a bulwark protecting the representative of rule and regulation against the individual citizen, the warm-blooded exception. They are full of telling details that sometimes reveal the way the state proclaims its power or the bureaucrat’s rank and function, sometimes of a more private character and are accompanied by information such as name, age, function and salary. Though there is a high degree of humour and absurdity in these photos, they also show compassion with the inhabitants of the state’s paper labyrinth.
Banning is surely expressing his opinion of these people in these wonderful photographs—all in all, I find that the faces of these (mostly) humble men and women undercut the negative judgment that bureaucracy invariably gets. Bureaucracy is a means to let the state assist the people, for the most part, and it is also incidentally a primary means of funding the populace. Without these specific jobs, many of these people would have no hope of earning even the paltry sums some of them are obliged to receive.
In 2011 Banning published a book of his bureaucratic portraits under the title Bureaucratics. The print run was apparently not generous enough, as the volume is sold out through regular channels. Used copies will run you $200 and up.
Josué Galarza Mendez, police officer, Betanzos, Bolivia. Monthly salary: $122.
Roger Vacher, narcotics agent, Clermont-Ferrand, France. Monthly salary: $2,893.
Many more kindly drudges after the jump….....