Bureaucrats in their offices are usually not considered the most photogenic of subjects (consider the possible hashtags: #boringpeople #dulloffice #paperwork #iwannadie).
But Jan Banning’s series of portraits of bureaucrats in their natural habitats around the world manages to be both entertaining and sociologically perceptive. You might have seen the Bureaucratics project on social media (there are good posts at Slate, Petapixel and fstoppers) or exhibited in galleries and museums around the world.
Jan Banning portrays 50 civil servants – mostly low-ranking street-level bureaucrats like policemen and social workers – from 8 countries: Bolivia, China, France, India, Liberia, Russia, the United States, and Yemen.
The bureaucrats are pictured seated, directly facing the camera, almost merged with their office environment. In some cases, the office looks like it is going to engulf the person. In others, the bureaucrat is in control, everything has its place, the office is tamed.
The square framing and deep focus work great to emphasize the interplay between the person and their work. And the bright, vivid colors give a sense of playfulness to this otherwise dull subject.
You can see a wide range of emotions in the bureaucrats’ faces: boredom and pride, exhaustion and arrogance, dedication and contempt. To me, this is what makes the project fascinating: capturing bureaucrats as real people, as well as cogs in the bureaucratic machine.
The photos are annotated with information about the bureaucrat’s position, salary, and sometimes a snippet about the person’s life story. This makes Bureaucratics an insightful sociological study of comparative bureaucracy, in addition to being a beautiful work of art. The series of photographs invites contemplation of the different working conditions, responsibilities, and social features of bureaucrats in these 8 very different countries spread around 5 continents. But it also hints at common patterns that give a shared meaning of what it means to be a servant of the state throughout the world.