2013 is the seventh edition of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize which awards £30,000 to any living photographer, of any nationality, for a recent body of work, exhibition or publication that is judged to have made a specific contribution to photography in Europe over the previous year. This years finalists are Broomberg & Chanarin, Mishka Henner, Chris Killip and Christina de Middel.

Broomberg & Chanarin, from South Africa and the UK are nominated for their publication War Primer 2 (published by MACK in 2012), a limited edition book, that exists within the pages of Bertold Brecht's 1955 publication, War Primer. Brecht's original photo-essay consisted of 85 pages of found photographic imagery (mostly from Life magazine, cut out daily by Brecht in the GDR) placed next to rhyming epigrams – a form of Greek Classical poetry that was used for epitaphs – written by Brecht himself.

The original photo-essay was intended to expose and highlight the power of the images and how, in Brecht's eyes, they could be used as a “weapon against truth”. Brecht saw the photo-essay almost as a textbook for children, to teach them how to look at images critically. In one example from Brecht's essay, a seemingly inoccuous image of Hilter relaxing at a dinner table would have been used to promote the image of the political leader as an ordinary member of society with ordinary simple needs and taste. It is paired with the epigram “You see me here, eating a simple stew. Me, slave to no desire, except for one; World-conquest. That is all I want, from you. I have but one request: give me your sons'. Broomberg & Chanarin have overlaid the results of google searches for the Brecht poems over the top of the original photo-essay. They obtained 100 versions of the original book and both silk-screened and pasted images they found over the original pages. The new publications look at how the idea and image of war has changed since Brecht's time and the new images are all referenced in the back of the publications so the reader/viewer can locate the source. In one composition an image of the second plane hitting the world trade centre is superimposed onto an image of the bombardment of Dresden alongside Brecht's original poem which begins “A cloud of smoke told us that they were here”. The message is of course that nothing has changed, the date rolls on, the circumstances differ but, at its core, Brecht's original work is as relevant today as it was in the 1950's.

The artists have installed multiple versions of the book open on different pages in the Photographers Gallery, under glass in a desk-like manner. They say, in an interview available on the gallery's website, they wanted to create a “School-room” atmosphere, all of the books and 'desks' are facing the same way in the gallery. An overarching consideration in their work is the way “human suffering is depicted in photography” and how images made of this suffering become something to be circulated, a form of visual currency. This debate is an old one but no less relevant and ethically photographers must grapple with when it is right to capture and when not and the role of the passive and inactive observer. War Primer 2 is an artwork, or statement, on top of another and, by using the original copies of Brecht's work, the relevance and currency is increased. War Primer 2 forms a symbiotic relationship where the power of the original object, and not just its message, is entirely transformed.

Only 100 copies of Broomberg & Chanarin's augmented War Primer 2 exist but the artists have produced a special e-book of the composite publications which is available free at http://mappeditions.com/publications/war-primer-2

The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize exhibition runs until 30th June at The Photographers Gallery, London. The prize winners will be announced on the 10th June.

AuthorSacha Waldron