Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Paperwork



Bureaucratics: Reproduced with kind permission from Jan Banning
  While idly leafing through a UK national newspaper over my lunch this week, I saw a photograph which made me freeze in the middle of my bagel. It was from a project called Bureacratics, by the photographer Jan Banning, which is currently showing in a Dutch gallery, but which you can also see on-line or in book form (to see the full collection, click on Bureaucratics). To create Bureaucratics, Banning talked his way into hundreds of government offices across the world, from Yemen to Russia, and photographed bureaucrats at their desks.  He says that the project is “the product of an anarchist’s heart, a historian’s mind and an artist’s eye”.

The image which so struck me was a photograph of Sushama Prasad, assistant clerk at the Cabinet Secretary in Patna, India (above). This is a photo to induce a moment of horror in any historian. We see Ms. Prasad sat at a battered and bare desk, in front of large wooden cabinets. On top of these are piled hundreds upon hundreds of aged bundles of paper. They form a grey sea of unfiled, utterly chaotic, visibly decaying bureaucratic paperwork. This is precisely the sort of thing research historians see in bad dreams – sources there in tantalising abundance, yet virtually unusable, because they are utterly disordered and unsearchable. The sight of apparently rotting official papers, sources on the cusp of oblivion, is equally distressing – it reminded me of a Polish ecclesiastical archive in which I was handed 15C episcopal letters so damp, I had to wipe my hands after using them. Banning’s photograph brings home what historic documents look like in their ‘natural state’, if left to run wild like a garden. It makes stark too how much artifice and on-going human intervention there is behind an archive, where archivists have imposed (or maintained) an order on/in the paperwork. Ms. Prasad’s office, in this striking shot, is a kind of anti-archive, a dark place in the historian’s imagination.

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