A Photographic Work about the Chickens Saving our Lives
Dániel Szalai’s project Novogen turns a spotlight on the invisible workers of big pharma and pays tribute to their life-saving labour: it focuses on Novogen White, a special breed of chickens, genetically engineered to lay eggs for vaccine production. Through the investigation of the industrialized farming of Novogen chickens and their role in the pharmaceutical industry, he intends to pose questions and dilemmas about man’s relation to nature and the price of our health and longevity.
“The core of the work is formed by a kind of a workers’ tableau, comprising 168 Novogen hen portraits. I shot a large number of portraits to reflect on the scale of mass production and to bring up the question of individuality. The fact that at first glance we may suspect that the portraits were taken of the same hen, unveils the way we think about these animals.
They are treated and conceptualized as being mass-produced, identical products, each functioning as a small, individual factory unit, producing another product, the egg.”
“I wanted to present these chickens as the protagonists of their industry, and to picture them as individuals. It was important for me to pay separate attention to each of them. Portrayed against a blue background, they look at the viewer with an intent gaze one could perceive as being humanoid.
I consider this gaze to be central to the project, as, through it, we can connect and empathize with the chickens. At the same time, we can also behold our reflection in their eyes, which could call us on to reconsider human-animal relationships and our position in the world as human beings.”
“The chicken that we know today is an almost entirely man-made creature, developed over the last 70 years. As such, it represents a fascinating intersection between natural and technological. When taking a look at the series of photographs about vaccine production which supplements the portraits, one may think that the eggs, and so the hens laying them, serve in the process as no more than organic raw material.
As Emese Mucsi pointed it out, looking at the image of the human hand inoculating the egg with a hypodermic needle while having the mythological motif of the world egg in mind, reveals a possible allegorical reading of the Novogen project which tells about how today’s mankind relates to the myths and the very act of creation.”
“Flattering ourselves that we are in charge, we intend to instrumentalize other beings, use these chickens as living means of our technology and think that – being our creatures – they are subjected and vulnerable to us. However, the current global pandemic revealed that our existence is just as fragile as the chickens’, and we are mutually dependent on each other.
The work is rather about a dilemma than just a one-sided critique. It might be displeasing to see the industrialized life of Novogen chickens but the fact that they are treated in such a way to produce life-saving vaccines and medicines paints this story with another perspective and makes us ponder the price of our health and our relationship to our environment.”
“Complementing the photographic work, a selection of excerpts from the management guide of Novogen White hens and the marketing materials of the company are also part of the project. I included these texts in the work as I find their language truly expressive. The sheer optimism of the corporate literature that frame these living creatures as a product developed to perfection, and the severe objectivity of the user manual and data table of the layers which aims to quantify all aspects of their lives, adds another dimension to the images.”
“The technopositivist attitude and utilitarian view of these appropriated texts resonate with a purely economic assessment of human life. This interference and the humanlike portrayal of the hens lends Novogen to be regarded as an eerie metaphor for our existence.”
Novogen is to be published as a photobook this summer by Dutch publisher The Eriskay Connection. Signed copies of and limited edition prints are available for pre-order until 25 March via the following link: