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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.

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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