Capturing Humor in a Sea of Red Tape

When Ole Witt showed up at the police department in Jaipur, India asking if he could take some pictures of the office, an official in charge told him it would be no problem—Witt would just need to wait a few minutes. Until then, he could take a seat. Maybe have a chai.

“In the end,” Witt says, “He made me wait 14 hours.”

Thankfully, that impressive display of slow-moving bureaucracy was precisely what Witt had come to photograph. He was shooting Help Desk – Random Acts of Administration, a humorous series that visualizes the red tape for which the country is notorious. It was only natural that it would take time. “I needed to be really patient,” he says.

Studies have dubbed Indian bureaucracy among the worst in Asia, with India ranking 100th out of 199 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Indicator. It’s a legacy of the colonial era, when the British Empire appointed bureaucrats to oversee its affairs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed change when he took office in 2014, soon launching the Digital India campaign, which aims to make more government services available online. He also ordered the country’s 3.6 million civil servants to tidy up their offices, sending truckloads of decaying files, furniture, and computers to the dump. But the struggle continues. “When you’re there, talking to Indian people, it’s something everyone has stories about,” Witt says. “It’s a big part of their daily lives.”

And Witt is no stranger to bureaucracy, either: He hails from Germany. Back home, he says, it hides behind the cool veneer of clean, sterile offices. In India, not so much. But it’s still the same thing. “People are united by this insanity,” he says.

He learned this after traveling to Ahmedabad, Gujarat, to study at the National Institute of Design in 2016. The school told him to register his stay with the police department, and he tried: zigzagging from cluttered office to cluttered office and filling out the same form a dozen different times. It took a week before someone told him he didn’t need to register at all—his trip was too short.

That debacle inspired Help Desk. Witt visited 14 governmental offices in three states unannounced, asking the first semi-official-looking person if he could photograph the place. Sometimes a friendly bureaucrat might give him a tour, but he still had trouble understanding what went on at each place. “People were really busy,” he says, “pretending to be busy.”

The sheer amount of paper overwhelmed him, but Witt pressed on. His flash photos depict offices jam-packed with the ratty wreckage of drivers’ licenses renewed, properties purchased, and other laborious transactions—some dating back to the 1960s. “I asked what they were going to do with all these things and couldn’t really get an answer for it,” Witt says.

For that, he would have to wait.

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