Dániel Szalai, Novogen

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by The Eriskay Connection (here). Softcover (21 × 29 cm), 96 pages, with 181 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Fahim Amir. In an edition of 600 copies. Design by Rob van Hoesel. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: A new vaccine for COVID-19 is now in clinical trials in several countries and could be life changing as the world continues to fight the pandemic. Existing COVID-19 vaccines require specialized production facilities and use costly and hard-to-acquire ingredients. If successful, the new vaccine will allow doses to be developed and mass produced in chicken eggs. This will allow low and middle-income countries to produce the vaccine themselves, or acquire it at a low cost. Egg-based manufacturing processes for vaccines are nothing new; actually they are the most common way to produce flu vaccines and have been in use for over 70 years now. A recent series by Hungarian photographer Dániel Szalai takes a look inside one of the chicken farms in Hungary used for vaccine production, and his photobook considers the difficulties posed by technological advancement, and the complex relationship between technology and nature.

Titled Novogen, the photobook takes a closer look at the special breed of chickens, known as Novogen White, that have been engineered by the French company Novogen. Their eggs are used by pharmaceutical companies to manufacture medicines and vaccines. The factory where the chickens are grown is a precisely controlled, artificial environment, and the birds have a strict diet to develop a unique digestive tract. The life cycle of these chickens is 90 weeks, and they stay in isolated biosecure sheds – without a proper immune system, they would not survive outside. The hens’ life and value is seen through cold, hard numbers; a data sheet from Novogen White is placed on the back cover, providing specific details about their productivity- they produce 120 thousand “specific pathogens free eggs” weekly. The hens are well taken care of, but their life is fully controlled by humans. 

Szalai translates the idea of this controlled and calculated space into the way he has approached his project, and ultimately, his photobook. Unexpectedly formal and minimalistic photographs of chickens make up most of the book. First they appear on the cover – two similar images, placed against a white background. Inside, there are 168 photographs of birds, the precise count playing with the idea of control and numbers. The photographs are almost surgically lit and shot against a bright blue background, resembling a commercial product advertisement. The individual portraits are then arranged in a formal grid, as Szalai mimics the “workers’ tableau” often found at the factories. In his own way, he “pays tribute to their invisible, life-saving labour.”

As we move through the book, at first all chickens look the same – white feathers, coppery orange eyes, and bright pink combs and wattles, yet as we look closer, we start to notice differences in their facial expressions and poses. In this way, Szalai confronts us with the personalities of these birds. This approach stands in contrast to more common images of the animal factories which document overpacked farms with suffering animals, often covered in blood or feces. Szalai’s photographs are fascinating – humorous and horrifying at the same time. 

Closer to the center of the book, a photograph of a chicken is paired with a full bleed color image showing fingers carefully holding an illuminated yellow egg in the darkness; it is a  powerful juxtaposition of the chicken and the ultimate purpose it serves. This middle section of the book is printed on glossy paper and shows images from inside the factory. A full bleed picture from inside the factory captures the facilities with thousands of chickens in the artificial red light that controls egg production. Here Szalai also includes excerpts from the Novogen marketing materials and management guide, showing the contrast between the optimistic promotional language of these marketing documents and the cold utilitarian approach behind the scenes. 

Other shots document sterile laboratories, depicting some of the stages of the process: eggs moving on a conveyor belt, sets of eggs on a table marked with codes, various storage facilities, and the hand of a person making an injection into an egg. Later, a photograph captures the result of the process – two small glass containers with vaccine moving on the conveyor belt. This image is then paired with a shot of a chicken, pushing us back into the parade of their portraits. The overwhelming number of chickens also emphasizes the scale of the mass production.

As a photobook, Novogen is at once provocative, humorous, and concerning, and its clean and controlled design helps deliver its message. The book emphasizes the life-saving work of the Novogen chickens, while also raising questions about biochemistry, genetic interference, and ultimately, the way we treat our environment. With the COVID pandemic very much still ongoing, Szalai’s thought-provoking images make clear cut judgements about this kind of approach all the more difficult.

Collector’s POV: Dániel Szalai does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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