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A Look Into Bureaucrats' Offices

Bureaucracy, oh bureaucracy. How easy it is to curse that amorphous force that sucks up time, binding productivity and creativity in red tape. But how do you show what it looks like?

Six years ago, photographer Jan Banning sat, stumped by this question. The self-declared anarchist had been given what seemed "the most horrible assignment of my entire life:" A magazine had asked him to illustrate decentralization of administration in Mozambique.

  • Sushma Prasad is an assistant clerk at the Cabinet Secretary of the State of Bihar (population 83 million) in The Old Secretariat in the state capital, Patna. She was hired "on compassionate grounds" because of the death of her husband, who until 1997 worked in the same department. Monthly salary: 5,000 rupees (USD 110). Standard working week: 35 hours.
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    Sushma Prasad is an assistant clerk at the Cabinet Secretary of the State of Bihar (population 83 million) in The Old Secretariat in the state capital, Patna. She was hired "on compassionate grounds" because of the death of her husband, who until 1997 worked in the same department. Monthly salary: 5,000 rupees (USD 110). Standard working week: 35 hours.
    All photos by Jan Banning/Panos
  • Harsh Deo Prasad is panchayat chief in the village of Tehta, State of Bihar, India. He informs local farmers about the use of fertilizers, irrigation and other ways to achieve efficiency in agriculture. Monthly salary: 9,100 rupees (USD 199, Euro 181). Standard working week: 35 hours.
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    Harsh Deo Prasad is panchayat chief in the village of Tehta, State of Bihar, India. He informs local farmers about the use of fertilizers, irrigation and other ways to achieve efficiency in agriculture. Monthly salary: 9,100 rupees (USD 199, Euro 181). Standard working week: 35 hours.
  • Jiang Ji Yuan is chairman of the Art and Literature Association of Tai'an, Tai'an City, Shandong province. Monthly salary: 4,000 renminbi (USD 496). Standard working week: 40 hours.
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    Jiang Ji Yuan is chairman of the Art and Literature Association of Tai'an, Tai'an City, Shandong province. Monthly salary: 4,000 renminbi (USD 496). Standard working week: 40 hours.
  • Roger Vacher is a narcotics agent with the national police force in Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne region, France. Monthly salary: Euro 2,200 (USD 2,893). Standard working week: 35 hours
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    Roger Vacher is a narcotics agent with the national police force in Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne region, France. Monthly salary: Euro 2,200 (USD 2,893). Standard working week: 35 hours
  • Shane Fenton is sheriff of Crockett County, Texas. Monthly salary: USD 3,166. Standard working week: 40 hours.
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    Shane Fenton is sheriff of Crockett County, Texas. Monthly salary: USD 3,166. Standard working week: 40 hours.
  • Dede McEachern is director of licensing, Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations, in Austin, Texas. Monthly salary: USD 5,833. Standard working week: 40 hours.
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    Dede McEachern is director of licensing, Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations, in Austin, Texas. Monthly salary: USD 5,833. Standard working week: 40 hours.
  • Warford Weadatu Sr., a former farmer and mail carrier, now is county commissioner for Nyenawliken district, Liberia. He has no budget and isn't expecting any money soon from the poverty-stricken authorities in Monrovia. Monthly salary: 1,110 Liberian dollars (USD 20), but he is still yet to be paid for the previous year. Standard working week: 37 hours.
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    Warford Weadatu Sr., a former farmer and mail carrier, now is county commissioner for Nyenawliken district, Liberia. He has no budget and isn't expecting any money soon from the poverty-stricken authorities in Monrovia. Monthly salary: 1,110 Liberian dollars (USD 20), but he is still yet to be paid for the previous year. Standard working week: 37 hours.
  • Major Adolph Dalaney works in the Reconstruction Room of the Traffic Police at the Liberia National Police Headquarters in  Monrovia, Liberia. Monthly salary: barely 1,000 Liberian dollars (USD 18). Standard working week: 37 hours. Traffic accident victims are at times willing to pay a little extra if Dalaney's department quickly draws up a favorable report to present to a judge.
    Hide caption
    Major Adolph Dalaney works in the Reconstruction Room of the Traffic Police at the Liberia National Police Headquarters in Monrovia, Liberia. Monthly salary: barely 1,000 Liberian dollars (USD 18). Standard working week: 37 hours. Traffic accident victims are at times willing to pay a little extra if Dalaney's department quickly draws up a favorable report to present to a judge.
  • Nadja Ali Gayt is an adviser at the Ministry of Agriculture's education centre for rural women in the district of Manakhah, Sana'a Governorate. Monthly salary: USD 160. Standard working week: 30 hours.
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    Nadja Ali Gayt is an adviser at the Ministry of Agriculture's education centre for rural women in the district of Manakhah, Sana'a Governorate. Monthly salary: USD 160. Standard working week: 30 hours.
  • Mohammed Hamid Azein collects the monthly water bills in the district of Shibam, Al-Mahwit Governorate. Monthly salary: 21,600 rial (USD 121), but he hasn't been paid for five months. Standard working week: 30 hours.
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    Mohammed Hamid Azein collects the monthly water bills in the district of Shibam, Al-Mahwit Governorate. Monthly salary: 21,600 rial (USD 121), but he hasn't been paid for five months. Standard working week: 30 hours.
  • Marina Nikolayevna Berezina, a former singer and choir director, is now the secretary to the head of the financial department of Tomsk province's Facility Services. She doesn't want to reveal her monthly salary. Standard working week: 45 hours
    Hide caption
    Marina Nikolayevna Berezina, a former singer and choir director, is now the secretary to the head of the financial department of Tomsk province's Facility Services. She doesn't want to reveal her monthly salary. Standard working week: 45 hours
  • Rodolfo Villca Flores is chief supervisor of market and sanitary services of the municipality of Betanzos, Cornelio Saavedra province.  Monthly salary: 1,150 bolivianos (USD 143). Standard working week: 40 hours.
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    Rodolfo Villca Flores is chief supervisor of market and sanitary services of the municipality of Betanzos, Cornelio Saavedra province. Monthly salary: 1,150 bolivianos (USD 143). Standard working week: 40 hours.

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Then it occurred to him; "Let's go meet the people involved." Having spent his life carefully steering clear of government officers, he was surprised to find they were far more varied and interesting than he'd imagined. The one-time assignment morphed into a four-year project, involving "Bureaucratics" — as his clever book is titled — across the world.

There's a sheriff sitting under deer heads in Texas, an urban planner with a taste for girlie calendars in Bolivia. There's a narcotics officer in France, who helps his informers "feel at home" by filling his government office with drug paraphernalia. There's an agriculture adviser in Yemen, only her eyes peeking through her chador, keeping her a mystery behind her stark desk. (Don't be fooled, says Banning — she runs a team of men.)

Each of the square photos is taken the same way — straight on — from the level of someone entering the office. Before making the portrait, Banning asked only, "Would you please look at the camera?"

Meanwhile, writer Will Tinnemans took down details about these low- to midlevel government executives' lives; background, monthly salary or — more pertinent in Liberia — if they'd been paid at all.

Because the pair of documentarians didn't tell anyone they were coming in advance, they sometimes encountered people snoring on their desks. Banning met people across the world whose job is to do nothing more than literally shuffle paperwork from one room to the next. But, he adds, he also met people who work hard, driven by hopes of improving their lives and their countries.

Perhaps most surprising, Banning, who is from the Netherlands, was most impressed with bureaucrats in the U.S. — who not only seemed to take their jobs seriously, but gave their offices a "strong personal touch."

Banning's work is currently on display at The Stadthaus in Ulm, Germany.

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