The domestication of the chicken dates back to around 2000 B.C. Its history reflects ours—our human needs, the world events that shape them, and the technology we create to respond to them. The Ancient Pharaohs of Egypt had poultry hatcheries, complete with artificial incubators made using natural heat from the sun and oil lamps. To respond to the vast amounts of chicken eaten during elaborate feasts, the Roman Empire mass produced the animals, breeding them efficiently on large, organized farms. After the fall of Rome, the chicken’s popularity waned until post-WW2, when innovations in poultry breeding and factory farming took hold and an industry was born. With the invention of antibiotics, chickens could now be raised indoors in a controlled environment twice as fast, and fed a strict, controlled diet in order to make them a good source of meat.
The chicken we know today is an almost entirely man-made beast—and it’s now one we owe our lives to as well as our dinners. The protagonist of Daniel Szalai’s new project is the Novogen White, a special breed of commercial chicken whose eggs are used in the pharmaceutical industry. Raised with precision of a hyper-controlled diet to be disease free, the eggs laid by the Novogen White provide raw materials for a wide range of medicines and vaccines, used for both humans and animals. Exploring our relationship with nature and technology, the project was developed within the frame of this year’s themed commission by BredaPhoto Festival, ‘To Infinity and Beyond’, which looked at the impact of technological progress: the positives, the negatives and the grey areas in between.
For Szalai, the Novogen White was the perfect subject to address these issues. Describing them as the “biological carriers of our technological achievements,” the lifesaving breed of chicken embodies many of the questions raised by the development of genetic interference, biochemistry and agricultural technology. Between the matters of control and reliance, nature and technology, Szalai discovered our own contemporary human condition under capitalism within the story of the Novogen White. “When you consider that, for example, the life of the chicken is divided into two phases—the growing period, which lasts for 18 weeks, and then the production period, which lasts until the very end of their lives—then it’s not difficult to make the connection with human life,” says the photographer. “I realized that the chicken can be understood as a metaphor for humanity. It’s a double layer: the chicken as us.”
From the laying of the eggs to the harvesting of the liquid used to make the vaccines, Szalai was interested in charting the entire production cycle of the Novogen White and chose to photograph a company that exemplifies the scale of the industry. As the largest Specific Pathogen Free egg producer in the whole of Europe, the Hungarian farm he focused on has a turnover of 120,000 embryonated eggs per week for the vaccine industry. While the Novogen Whites are raised healthily and have a longer lifecycle than broilers raised for meat, once they have served their purpose and stop laying high-quality eggs, they become useless and are killed one-by-one by lethal injection. The most shocking part for Szalai lay in the automated nature of the whole process, crystallized most succinctly in the factory’s chirpy marketing manuals and branding.
Before becoming a student at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, the photographer worked for five years in film production as a location scout and production manager, which in many ways built the way the project took shape. Aside from having the skills to gain access to these large-scale facilities, Szalai’s experience in advertising left him with a heightened sensitivity to its language and mechanisms. Struck by the way the factory’s management manuals talked about the Novogen White, he decided his approach was guided by the cold, technical language and commercial tone of the brochures. Drawing attention to its artificiality and high-tech environment, with its eerie blue and red lights, the aesthetics of the project embody this utilitarian approach to nature employed by the factory.
“When I found these management guides I thought, Wow, I don’t need anything else. It’s all there. This is the language they use. It was disgusting in a way, but it was also really amazing that they describe these animals as products and commodities to buy,” he explains. “Because, of course, I could dramatize how badly the chickens live, but what I really found interesting is that the thing in itself is shocking enough. So I took a very neutral perspective of the production line and showed that these are the steps and the interiors where these things happen.” Using photography, which Szalai describes as the biggest tool in global capitalism, the project adopts the detached gaze the factory has on its ‘workers.’
Composed of three parts, including texts from the marketing manuals and photographs of the factory interiors, the project also contains 168 individual portraits of the chickens, brought together in a typological grid of sorts. Using the visual language of advertising, the images are shot against a blue—an ‘artificial’ colour that rarely exists in nature—portable backdrop Szalai brought into the farm. “I joined the dots together and thought, Okay, so these are products, and let’s portray these animals as products, and so I made these packshot-like images,” the photographer explains. “I think it can be just as provocative as if I were to really focus on their suffering.” Normally depicted en masse, the close-up portraits confront us with the individuality of each animal.
It was during the shooting of one of the last phases of the production line, when the virus is injected into the egg, that the brutality of the process really hit home for Szalai. As the egg is incubated, the virus develops with the embryo, only dying during the cooling process that follows before the extraction of the liquid. “It was shocking to see that there was the possibility for a life, or actually that there was a life already. They have little feathers on them already when they do that. And then it’s done. This is what we needed, and then we don’t care anymore,” he says. “The cruelty is that it all happens automatically, and the system allows you to be detached from it.” Challenging the viewer to look beneath the clean and precise facilities of the factory, Szalai’s images reflect on humankind through the way we treat our environment.