Listen Live  
Radio Free -
Radio Free never takes money from corporations, keeping our focus on people, not profits. Radio Free is an independent, free news organization headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. We are currently in need of community volunteers to help cover local politics. To learn more and get involved, please visit

By Elektra Kotsoni

Based at India bureau 29 sevak, Harsh Deo Prasad (b. 1947) informs local farmers about the use of fertilizers, irrigation, and other ways to achieve efficiency in agriculture. His monthly salary is 9,100 rupees (about $199).

A few years ago, photographer Jan Banning trekked across five continents to see if he could answer the question: Do civil servants everywhere feel like helpless ping-pong balls who spend half the day muttering death threats at their desk, or is that just in Westernized countries??Who knows why anyone would voluntarily put themselves through that, he created some pretty great portraits of civil servants, so I called him to find out a little more about his Bureaucratics project.

VICE: Hi Jan, how are you doing?
Jan Banning: I?m OK, a bit tired because I was partying all last night. A photograph of mine, an interpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci?s Last Supper, won an award from this poetry group. And they had written poems for me, and the poems were accompanied by loads of wine.

Well, if there’s anything poets know about, it’s wine. How did the idea for Bureaucratics come about? Unpleasant encounters with desk fascists, I suppose?
We?ve all had those, no? So that was in the back of my mind, and I?ve always been interested in discussions of power?of state power. In the case of Bureaucratics, it all started with this horrible assignment I was asked to do: Photograph the administration in Mozambique to reinforce development aid. Not exactly the most exciting request I ever got, but…

And for Bureaucratics, you went from there on to Bolivia, China, France, India, Liberia, Russia, the United States, and Yemen. Why those countries?
One reason is we wanted to cover different parts of the world, different continents. But there were obviously political considerations involved: India, for example, is the world?s biggest democracy. The USA is the world?s superpower. Bolivia is the South American country with the highest percentage of indigenous people. China we chose because it is, politically at least, still a communist country, and Russia because it is a former superpower on its way from communism to?what is it? A mafia-ocracy? So, the question is to what extent are these people actually involved in their own administration, the power structure of the country.

What were the ways you felt those power structures in each country?
It was most obvious in China; they tried really hard to control us. For instance, once we arrived we got in a car to drive to the offices we wanted to visit. At the beginning, it was Will Tinnemans [the writer Jan worked with on the Bureaucratics book], the translator, the driver, a guy from the State Press Office, and me. But every now and again we had to stop, and another one or two people would get in. By the time we got to where we wanted, there was a delegation of ten, maybe 12 people. I didn?t have a clue why they were there, some of them didn?t introduce themselves, but they were clearly making it their task to check what we were doing. And once we got to their offices, we?d get this throng of information we really were not interested in. Like, how deep the deepest mine is, how high the highest mountain, how many tons of steel or coal they produce, or God knows what.

China bureau 10. Cui Weihang (left, b. 1943) is village chief of Cui, and Cui Gongli (b. 1969) is party secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in Cui. Monthly salary for the village chief: no payment. Monthly salary for the party secretary: 280 renminbi (approximately $35).

Oh dear. Was it at least easy to get them to agree to be photographed?
Well, it was hard to get them to let us photograph in a non-set up setting. On several occasions we were just sent away or asked to sit down quietly and wait for people to tidy up. So we?d enter the room after 20 minutes or so, and all we would see would be, for example, two nice-looking ladies working on two brand-new laptops and the rest of the office would be completely empty.? And when I protested our translator would insist that I had to photograph that. So yeah, China was really difficult. The other countries were I think either more liberal or more lax. Yemen was pretty tough, too. We spent five days sweating in the Vice Minister’s office before we were given a permit to roam around the building, even though we had been promised it before we got there. We never even saw the guy, but I think he expected a bribe.

Yemen, 2006. Alham Abdulwaze Nuzeli (b. 1982) works at the regional office of the Ministry of Tithing and Alms in the city of Al-Mahwit, Al-Mahwit governorate. Monthly salary: 12,000 rial (approximately $67). Behind her is a portrait of president Saleh of Yemen.

You basically turned yourselves into victims of your own subject.
I guess you could say that. I mean, at some point Will sat down and counted the number of emails that he had in his inbox related to this subject?emails asking for permission, emails sent between us trying to figure out the organization we wanted to shoot?and it came down to 3,200 emails. Talking about bureaucracy, I guess that is proof of us becoming victims of our subjects, yeah.

Still, the pictures are strangely sympathetic to the subjects even though they’re taken from a higher level–the citizen?s point of view. And I?ve never stepped into any state service feeling sympathetic towards the staff.
That?s right, but I thought it wouldn?t be interesting to go for the clich?. I think that is the difference between art and journalism; journalism is a lot about clich?s. I found it more challenging to confuse the spectator and force him to ask questions. Of course I didn?t want to propagandize for bureaucracy either, but I try to be honest. I did feel sympathy for these people and I think that?s largely due to the fact that I was not (usually) actually there asking for a permit or something. I mean there is obviously a lot of irony involved, but that is kind of unavoidable, too.

Speaking of irony, what?s up with the guy sitting on a desk out on a lawn in India [top image]?
Oh, that guy! He was a low-ranking official who had an office in a kind of garage, so no windows–a really depressing place. If the weather was nice, he would just put his office outside.

France, bureaucracy, Auvergne, 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: euro 2,200 (about $2,893).

Aw. And what about the French policeman with the posters of Bob Marley and marijuana leaves on his wall?
This story is fantastic: He is an undercover policeman with an interesting theory. Since most of his job involves talking to suspected drug dealers and informers, he thought this kind of decoration would make them feel more at home in his office and, therefore, more talkative.

Those damn narcs. The guys from Liberia seemed to be more into minimalism.
Thing is, everything down there got destroyed during the 15-year civil war, so in some cases people had bought their own desks because how can you be a convincing bureaucrat if you don?t even have a desk? I think they kind of invested in their own theater.

Liberia, bureaucracy, 2006. Henry Gray (b. 1940), acting commissioner for Gbaepo district, Kanweaken, River Gee County. Gray has 11 personnel, of whom only 4 are paid. The rest are volunteers. He has no budget and over two years salary owing. Gray is father to 34 children (sic), 13 of them depending on him for food, etc., and has 18 grandchildren.

And I guess out of poverty comes corruption…
Yes, and they were very open about it in Liberia, too. They can?t really survive on their salaries, sometimes they don?t even get those for six or nine months at a time. So, when we?d talk to people about it, the discussion usually revolved around ways to be more efficiently corrupt, rather than whether they were in fact corrupt. But mind you, there were still people who care about their country and are really trying to contribute. Bureaucracy can suck all the idealism out of you, but the few good guys I met while working on this project, they really helped me keep faith.

There are current and future international exhibitions of Jan Banning?s Bureaucratics; for more information, visit




[1]Bureaucratics ....[2]Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, Laatste Avondmaal, Il cenacolo, L'ultima cena ....[3]Jan Banning photographer ....