Get Under My Desk and Let’s Talk About It
What Lars Tunbjork's cross-cultural office images can tell us about the way we work.
Ever wonder why an American office worker might prefer to sit under his desk, while his Japanese counterpart would do anything to not have to leave his chair? Lars Tunbjörk’s “Office” series, an artful photographic documentary of corporate offices in Japan, North America, and Sweden, seems to hold some clues.
With their static subject matter and lackluster color palette, it has been too easy for these images to be pigeonholed as studies of boredom and banality. But given the chance to spend time with them during a recent visit to Cohen Amador Gallery in New York, I’ve come to see these photos as much more than half-whimsical indictments of lifeless automatons trapped in drab cubicles and off-the-rack suits.
On closer inspection, in fact, they provide fleeting insight into the ways disparate cultures relate to restrictive spaces.
Reflecting on Tunbjörk’s series, a blog named Feeling Listless observes that people work “within the limits of the environment that they find themselves in” and will take the opportunity, to the extent it is there, “to … reconfigure [those spaces] to suit the task at hand.”
The press release on the Cohen Amador site makes the point more specifically, noting how: “The marks and signifiers of the human presence … sometimes blatantly reveal themselves in individuals attempting to accommodate their environment to their needs: a person talking on the phone underneath his desk, a man stretching his shoeless feet, women spreading papers out across the floor.”
As a student of non-verbal behavior, I am gratified by this emphasis on the somatic. But I am not satisfied to simply take note of such behavior; I want to know what it says (or, at least suggests) about the people as situated.
One thing that jumps out at me in Tunbjörk’s survey is the apparent contrast between how American and Japanese workers relate physically to the officescape. Just take a look at the photo of the Japanese market trader, so “affiliated” with his terminal, his desk, his chair that he can actually sleep in place. Or the Tokyo construction firm workers doing exercises at their desks, as if increasing personal pliability simply to more easily mold back into their working space.
In contrast, look at the shots of American’s under or on top of desks, or kneeling in the middle of a hallway in front of a file cabinet.
Based on these images, the Japanese worker seems to adhere to specified navigation, ergonomic formulas, and prescribed usages about as much as the Americans tend to resist and defy them. Admittedly, Tunbjörk’s images represent a random and miniscule sample. But if we accept that and peel back the layer of banality, “Office” raises legitimate questions about the cultural dynamics of space.
Lars Tunbjörk’s complete “Office” series can be seen at CohenAmador.com.
— Michael Shaw is a practicing clinical psychologist, but American Photo knows him through his popular, politically charged image-analysis blog, BAGnewsNotes.com. With his adept dissection of newswire photos and his Reading the Pictures feature at the Huffington Post, Shaw has cultivated an outspoken voice and a loyal following within the blogosphere. We are excited to bring his insights to our readers in the form of an online feature as well as a guest post on our State of the Art blog.