In June 2008 Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin travelled to Afghanistan to be embedded with British Army units on the frontline in Helmand Province. In place of their cameras they took a roll of photographic paper 50 metres long and 76.2 cm wide contained in a simple, lightproof cardboard box.
They arrived during the deadliest month of the war. On the first day of their visit a BBC fixer was dragged from his car and executed and nine Afghan soldiers were killed in a suicide attack. The following day, three British soldiers died, pushing the number of British combat fatalities to 100. Casualties continued until the fifth day when nobody died.
In response to each of these events, and also to a series of more mundane moments, such as a visit to the troops by the Duke of York and a press conference, all events a photographer would record, Broomberg and Chanarin instead unrolled a seven-metre section of the paper and exposed it to the sun for 20 seconds. The results – strange abstract passages and patterns of black, white and variegated hues, all modulated by the heat and the light – deny the viewer the cathartic effect offered up by the conventional language of photographic responses to conflict and suffering. Instead viewers are, by default, invited to question their relationship with images of violence and the true nature of the relations between culture, politics and morality.
Working in tandem with this deliberate evacuation of content are the circumstances of the work's production, which amount to an absurd performance in which the British Army were, unsuspectingly, playing the lead role by transporting the box of photographic paper from one military base to another, on Hercules and Chinooks, on buses, tanks and jeeps. The box became an absurd, subversive object, its non-functionality sitting in quietly amused contrast to the system that for a time served as its host, revealing its quotidian details, from the logistics of war to the collusion between the media and the military.
Broomberg and Chanarin's work is in opposition to the traditional role of the photographer as a professional witness who serves as a moral proxy for the spectator back home. "The Day Nobody Died" takes this position to an extreme point – its series of radically non-figurative, unique action-photographs comprising a profound critique of conflict photography in the age of embedded journalism and the current crisis in the concept of the engaged, professional witness.