A traffic accident reconstructed on a chalkboard. A diagram of traditional dress pasted askew to the concrete wall. Broken furniture, still arranged to invite a visitor to sit.
These memory-jarring details, somehow both banal and exotic, are immediately recognizable as quintessential to Liberian official offices. Sandwiched between shots of young French paper pushers and a Siberian secretary sporting a perm are ten alluring portraits from Liberia, part of an extraordinary series of photographs, titled simply Bureaucracy, by photographer Jan Banning. The other countries in the series are Bolivia, China, India, the United States, and Yemen. Banning spent years spanning to globe, photographing hundreds of government officials, and her work was organized into a traveling exhibition and was published as a book in 2008.
The visits were unannounced, [we] kept the employees from tidying up or clearing the office. That way, the photos show what a local citizen would be confronted with when entering.
These head-on shots of Liberian civil servants, from the center of Monrovia to remote districts in River Gee County are familiar in ways heartwarming and hilarious, or even headache-inducing, to outright horrifying. Anyone who has spent any time in Liberia has been in rooms like this, sat in small, hand-made wicker seats, under a roof of rusting zinc or woven mat, painted cement floors or worse, covered in rolls of plastic floor matting. Banning and her partner's interview also recorded the official salaries of each, perhaps the most jarring detail of all.
Banning's descriptions and photos are reposted below. Everything ©Jan Banning.
Major Adolph Dalaney (b. 1940) works in the Reconstruction Room of the Traffic Police at the Liberia National Police Headquarters in the capital Monrovia. Monthly salary: barely 1,000 Liberian dollars (US$ 18, euro 17). Traffic accident victims at times are willing to pay a little extra if Dalaney"s department quickly draws up a favorable report to present to a judge.
Alfred D. Tartea (b. 1946) is administrative assistant and acting superintendent (highest civil servant) of Careysburg district, Montserrado County. Monthly salary: 750 Liberian dollars (US $ 13, euro 12.50).
Alfred C. Garley (b. 1950), stationed in Zwedru, is deputy revenue agent for Grand Gedeh County. During the Liberian civil war, the tax office was robbed and destroyed. Monthly salary: approximately 1,000 Liberian dollars (US$ 18, euro 17).
Henry D. Snorton (1957) is senior tax collector in Kakata district (22000 people), Margibi County. He is co-ordinator of the district"s 12 tax collectors. They take in real estate tax and tax on trade profits, mostly in cash. "We have absolutely nothing: no decent office furniture, no telephones, no typewriters, not even a motorbike to collect tax in remote areas. Our collectors sometimes walk for a whole day to visit one taxable." Monthly salary: 925 Liberian dollars (US$ 16, euro 15).
J. Modesco Siaker (1959), township commissioner in Crozierville, Careysburg district, Montserrado County. Crozierville had 10,000 people before the war; now 4,000. In 1990, Taylor's rebels entered the village: "I was a clerk then, and they threatened to execute me and some others. They let me go, but killed 2 others." They ransacked houses and public buildings. In 1991, INPLF rebels (Prince Johnson c.s.) and Ecomog peacekeepers stole what was left. Since 1997, Siaker is back in his village. His office and home are in a derilict villa: the town hall was raised to the ground.Siaker cannot do much for his people. He earns 750 Lib. dollar (US$ 13, euro 12.50) a month.
Henry Gray (1940), acting commissioner for Gbaepo district, Kanweaken, River Gee County. During the Civil War, the office was completely looted and destroyed: only one wall remained. Gray has 11 personnel, of whom only 4 are paid. The rest are volunteers. He has no budget and over two years salary owing. Yesterday, he went to the capital Fishtown to collect last two months salary, two times 975 Liberian dollars (2x US$ 17, 2x euro 16). All he got was 600 dollars (US$ 11, euro 10). Gray is father to 34 children (sic), 13 of them depending, and has 18 grandchildren.
Lieutenant Samuel P.S. Kollie (b. 1955) is chief of the Traffic Station of the Liberia National Police in Kakata, Margibi County. He has no police car and no means of communication. When an accident is reported, Kollie at times takes a cab at the expense of the person reporting the accident. Monthly salary: 900 Liberian dollars (US$ 16, euro 15).
Louise N. Smith (b. 1964) keeps files at the Department of Statistics of the Bureau for Immigration and Naturalization (BIN) in Monrovia. Monthly salary: 1,000 Liberian dollars (US$ 18, 17 euro), almost all of which is spent on transportation to and from work. Sometimes she receives nothing for three months, except for support from family in the United States.
Brama F. Nyé (b. 1962) is head of the Revenue Office in Smell-no-Taste, Margibi County. Once a month, he drives in a rented or borrowed car to Monrovia to deliver hundreds of thousands of Liberian and American dollars to the Central Bank of Liberia. Monthly salary: 1,080 Liberian dollars (US$ 19, euro 18).