by Maria Popova
Unless you’ve lived in a country plagued by the kind of institutional inefficiency characteristic of oppressive political regimes (like we 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 (public library), 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.
India, bureaucracy, Bihar, 2003. India-15/2003
Suresh Prasad (b. 1947) is assistant clerk of the 'Bihar House' department in The Old Secretariat, Patna, State of Bihar. Monthly salary: 9,000 rupees ($197)
India, bureaucracy, Bihar, 2003. India-01/2003
Ram Prabodh Yadav (b. 1970) is sub-inspector (deputy inspector) of police in Maner Block, Patna district, State of Bihar. Monthly salary: 10,000 rupees ($220)
India, bureaucracy, Bihar, 2003. India-21/2003
Dr. Munni Das (b. 1960) is Block Development Officer in Thakurganj block, an administrative entity within Kishanganj district, State of Bihar. Monthly salary: about 10,000 rupees ($220)
To preserve a maximum degree of authenticity, he kept the visits unannounced, preventing the subjects from tidying up for the interview.
India, Bihar, Bureaucracy, 2003. India-28/2003
Om Prakash (1963) is Block Development Officer (BDO) in Makhdumpur Block (200.000 inhabitants), district Jahanabad, Bihar. Prakash has 45 subordinates and is responsable for public order and the development of his block. As the highest civil servant in Makhdumpur, he has a towel on his chair. The plate behind him contains the names of his predecessors. Monthly salary: 12,000 rupees ($263)
Bolivia, bureaucracy, Potosi, 2005. Bolivia-13/2005
Rodolfo Villca Flores (b. 1958) is chief supervisor of market and sanitary services of the municipality of Betanzos, Cornelio Saavedra province. Previously he worked as a bricklayer, electrician, plumber and handyman. Monthly salary: 1,150 bolivianos ($143)
Bolivia, bureaucracy (police), Potosi, 2005. Bolivia-08/2005
Constantino Aya Viri Castro (b. 1950), previously a construction worker, is a police officer third class for the municipality of Tinguipaya, Tomás Frías province. The police station does not have a phone, car or typewriter. Monthly salary: 800 bolivianos ($100)
Bolivia, bureaucracy (police), 2005
Marlene Abigahit Choque (1982), detective at the the Homicide Department of the Potosi police. The department has only broken typewriters, no computer, no copy machine, not even telephone. It shares a car with the Vice Squad: 'If there is no petrol in the car, we have to buy it from our own money. If the car is gone, we take the bus. We have to pay the tickets ourselves.' The head on the cupboard to the right is used to make witnesses of murder cases show where the bullets went in or out. Monthly salary: 920 bolivianos ($114)
China, bureaucracy, Shandong, 2007. China-09/2007
Wang Ning (b. 1983) works in the Economic Affairs office in Gu Lou community, Yanzhou city, Shandong province. She provides economic assistance to enterprises in her region and is the liaison officer between the government and local enterprises: she helps them get a permit for land use, personnel insurances, environmental permits and taxation registration. There was (at the time) no heating in the room. The maps show regional industrial zones. Wang Ning is not married. She lives at home with her parents. She works from 8.30 to 12 am and from 14 to 16 am. She has no official paid holidays, except the national bank holidays and the weekends. Monthly salary: 2,100 renminbi ($260)
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.
France, bureaucracy, Auvergne, 2006. France-05/2006
Maurice Winterstein (b. 1949) works in Clermont-Ferrand for the Commission for the Advancement of Equal Opportunity and Citizenship at the combined administrative offices of the Auvergne region and the Puy-de-Dome department. He also is in charge of the portfolio of religious affairs, Islam in particular. Monthly salary: 1,550 Euro ($2,038). The young lady next to him is Linda Khettabi (b. 1989), an intern pursuing training as a secretary.
France, bureaucracy, Auvergne, 2006. France-16/2006
Roger Vacher (b. 1957) is a narcotics agent with the national police force in Clermont-Ferrand, Puy-de-Dome department, Auvergne region. Monthly salary: 2,200 Euro ($2,893).
Liberia, bureaucracy, 2006. Liberia-04/2006
Major Adolph Dalaney (b. 1940) works in the Reconstruction Room of the Traffic Police at the Liberia National Police Headquarters in the capital Monrovia. Monthly salary: barely 1,000 Liberian dollars ($18). Traffic accident victims at times are willing to pay a little extra if Dalaney's department quickly draws up a favorable report to present to a judge.
Liberia, bureaucracy, 2006. Liberia-19/2006
Warford Weadatu Sr. (b. 1963), a former farmer and mail carrier, now is county commissioner (administrator) for Nyenawliken district, River Gee County. He has no budget and is not expecting any money soon from the poverty-stricken authorities in Monrovia. Monthly salary: 1,110 Liberian dollars ($20), but he hadn't received any salary for the previous year.
Russia, bureaucracy, Siberia, province Tomsk, 2004. Russia-19/2004
Marina Nikolayevna Berezina (b. 1962), a former singer and choir director, is now the secretary to the head of the financial department of Tomsk province's Facility Services. She does not want to reveal her monthly salary.
Russia, bureaucracy, Siberia, province Tomsk, 2004. Russia-23/2004
Sergej Michailovich Osipchuk (b. 1974) is the lone police officer in the village of Oktyabrsky (some 2000 inhabitants), Tomsk province. He does not have a police car or one of his own, not even a bicycle. He does not want to reveal his salary, but informed sources put the monthly salary of an officer of his rank and age at approximately 4,000 rubles ($143).
USA, bureaucracy, Texas, 2007. USA-11/2007
Shane Fenton (b. 1961) is sheriff of Crockett County (about 3000 inhabitants), Texas, and based in Ozona, the county seat. Monthly salary: $3,166
USA, bureaucracy, Texas, 2007. USA-04/2007
Dede McEachern (b. 1969) is director of licensing, Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations, in the state capital, Austin. Monthly salary: $5,833
Yemen, bureaucracy, 2006. Yemen-03/2006
Nadja Ali Gayt (b. 1969) is an adviser at the Ministry of Agriculture s education center for rural women in the district of Manakhah, Sana Governorate. Monthly salary: 28,500 rial ($160)
Yemen, bureaucracy, 2006
Mohammed Mohammed Shams Adeen (about 1950) is manager of the garbage collection service in At-Tawilah, governorate Al-Mahweet. He is responsible for 11 employees and 4 workers paid on a daily basis. Seven of them work in the office, eight (included 4 paid on a daily basis) collect the garbage. The service has two trash trucks and several handcarts. The garbage is being dumped and set on fire in the mountains outside the city. On the wall a letter from the prime minister about a banning order for smoking in public offices and two educational announcements, about Kleenex tissues that ought to be thrown in trash bins and 'don’t cut trees, they are the property of all of us.' Monthly salary: 29.000 Riyals ($163)
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. Complement it with Hannah Arendt on how bureaucracy fuels violence.
Donating = Loving
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount: