May 5: Today the annual Prix Pictet at the V&A, in its seventh year since 2008, announced its winner, who was Richard Mosse who receives 100,000 Swiss Francs ($AU136,471). This year Prix Pictet dealt with the theme of space.
That the prizewinner was announced this year by Kofi Annan, seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997–2006), recognises a prize that is so important for the globally significant themes and ideas it promotes; it is not merely another ‘photo comp’.
On the shortlist were a range of nationalities; from the UK is Mandy Barker (Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals) joined by Irishman Richard Mosse (Heat Maps); from Hong Kong is Benny Lam (Subdivided Flats), from Bangladesh is Munem Wasif (Land of Undefined Territory); two Japanese are Rinko Kawauchi (Ametsuchi) and Sohei Nishino (Diorama Maps); two Russians Sergey Ponomarev (Europe Migration Crisis) and Pavel Wolberg (Barricades); and four Germans Thomas Ruff (ma.r.s), Michael Wolf (Tokyo Compression), Saskia Groneberg (Büropflanze), and Beate Gütschow (S series).
Mosse is an Irish photographer; does it signify a shift in attention that none of this years short-listed are from the USA or France who have both dominated the photography world since the 1970s?
Benoit Aquin (*1963, Canada) was the inaugural 2008 winner while others have been London-based Nadav Kander (*1961, Tel Aviv) in 2009, Mitch Epstein (*1952, USA) in 2011, Luc Delahaye (*1962, France) in 2012, Michael Schmidt (*1945, Germany) in 2014, and Valérie Belin (*1964, France) in 2015. However it is the short-list that most clearly indicates this shift toward a more global pool. In 2008 nearly half were from the USA and this year there were none.
The Prix is not limited to photojournalism and also considers more conceptual work. Michael Benson of Candlestar which founded the prize with Swiss private bank the Pictet Group said in interview with BJP that they are open to all genres of photography as much as photojournalism which they love especially in its factual revelations about environmental issues. They feature artistic images where they treat such socio-political concerns in original ways, and all the short-listed demonstratively do that.
Mosse’s extreme telephoto images cross genres in adopting the latest military surveillance thermal imaging equipment capable of detecting the human body at 30.3 kilometres for his studies of refugee encampments which through this association criticise the militarisation of the handling of this desperate issue. They extend on his infrared work which won him the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2014.
Says Mosse of these clandestine images, made from so far away that gender, race, age or sex of subjects cannot be discerned; “There’s a stolen intimacy to it. There’s no awareness, there’s no self-consciousness.” Without their knowledge he captured the unidentifiable people asleep, embracing and at prayer; all, as he notes, are “authentic gestures”, but they become symbolic and thus aspire to politicise the issue. In contrast to the work of fellow Deutsche Börse winner Trevor Paglen who surveilled military installations from afar, Mosse’s subject is a sensitive one which has brought him criticism for using the technology to ‘target’ victims. Duncan Wooldridge’s excellent extended discussion of Mosse’s recent Barbican show Incoming 15 February 2017 – 23 April 2017, teases out these issues.
Bernd and Hilla Becher disciple Thomas Ruff likewise uses surveillance for his ma.r.s. series, but less directly. He admits to having not taken a photograph “in a very long time”, and instead appropriates them. For ma.r.s. he obtained the high-resolution camera aboard NASA’s spacecraft Mars Renaissance Orbiter. Exploiting their 3D image data Ruff enhanced these scientific pictures to enable us to better imagine being a traveller arriving on Mars: a possibility we may well be forced to realise in around 20 years given the condition of our Earth’s environment and climate.
Sergey Ponomarev, unlike Mosse, moves close to and among the refugees in his photojournalism. His November 16, 2015 photograph shows migrants arriving on a Turkish boat near the village of Skala, on the Greek island of Lesbos.
It has all the power of Delacroix’ Liberty Leading the People or Joe Rosenthal’s raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, but without glory. In Ponomarev’s empathy for the ‘little man’ it more closely resembles the tragedy of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, but one which is more global; forced migration and the ill-treatment of refugees.
Over the years more conceptual approaches have been shortlisted in response to changing themes, which have included Power, Consumption and Disorder. Nominated for a second time since his win in Prix Pictet’s inaugural ‘Water’ commission of 2008, Munem Wasif has visited the disputed boundary between Bangladesh and India to make In Land of Undefined Territory, recording in both still image and video a “mundane land” that is the subject of a war between independence and sovereignty set up by the 1947 division of the subcontinent and subsequent mass-migration, then the 1971 war of liberation and continuing border tension. A wasteland, it is turned over for stones which are crushed on site, but in Wasif’s empty footage and repetitive grey images, nothing happens, reinforcing its status as no place.
Prix Pictet shows Michael Wolf’s series Tokyo compression (2009) depicting commuters squashed into trains at Shinjuku railway station, but both Wolf and fellow short-lister Benny Lam have created series of overhead images of poor families, singles and elderly people living in Hong Kong’s cramped outer slums: Michael Wolf made his 2006 series ‘100×100’, documenting 100 dwellings measuring approximately 100 square feet, in HK’s oldest public housing high-rise the Shek Kip Mei Estate. Benny Lam’s Subdivided Flats of 2012 adopts a more radical strategy to reveal how much worse the situation has become in six years.
Where Wolf’s series were straightforward environmental portraits, Lam placed his camera overhead to provide a plan view of the even tinier spaces and their cramped occupiers.
This most ‘extreme’ of cities, one of the world’s richest, is also home to some of the world’s poorest, who struggle for space just to exist. Often these spaces are more expensive than their luxury equivalents. Monthly rent can be HK$27 per square foot, higher than the average HK$22.20 (as reported by Centaline Property’s with 2012 data), consequently, as is so often the case, the poor pay more, and they subject themselves to the risk of lethal fires which are all too common, as the Wall St Journal has reported.
Both Tokyo compression and Subdivided Flats closely follow the Prix theme, ‘space’, but by vividly demonstrating the lack of it.
Sohei Nishino also creates aerial views in the world’s largest cities, but these are maps assembled with gargantuan labour from thousands of contact prints taken on, or close to, the ground on his solo, wandering dérives. A true psychogeographer, Nishino’s views distort the topography to fit his unique emotional experience of these places.
Mandy Barker’s series Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals of 2015 picks over the plastic debris that pollutes beaches in and around Cobh in Cork Harbour, Ireland to select subjects for her photographs made with long exposures, printing them with a variety of techniques and thus blurring and abstracting them sufficiently so that they credibly present as unique ‘specimens’.
Her search and documentation recalls that of the marine biologist John Vaughn Thompson who made pioneering discoveries of plankton in the same area during the 1800s and is presented in a format similar to the original writing, descriptions, and figures recorded by Thompson in his research memoirs of 1830, Imperfectly Known Animals. Thompson lived in Australia from 1835, dying in Sydney in 1847.
Barker’s plastic particles, presented as microscopic samples which associates them with Thompson’s investigation of plankton remind us that these microscopic animals which occupy a crucial niche that feeds larger marine life, and thus human beings also, are ingesting plastic in the water column.
In 2012 Barker was awarded The Royal Photographic Society’s Environmental bursary
enabling her to join scientists in a research expedition to examine the accumulation of
marine plastic debris in the tsunami debris field in the Pacific Ocean. The opportunity
to sail from Japan to Hawaii allowed her to create the series SHOAL.
Saskia Groneberg, known for her representations of “artificially moulded nature”; manmade parks, landscapes and ornamental plants and other designs mimicking the natural world, focuses here on Büropflanze, or ‘office plants’ which, unthinkingly brought into the workplace, infiltrate “a tiny bit of anarchy amid the rigid clockwork…a spark of life within the mechanisms of control,” she says. She is conscious of the ‘greedy’ nature of artifical, man-made spaces, with their need to be defined by walls, a concern picked up by Beate Guetschow’s S Series, new cityscapes digitally assembled from buildings she photographs all over the world. While the novel structures reflect modernist idealism, they represent a belief in progress which Guetschow shows to be crumbling; the buildings she creates are rotten.
Guetschow’s emphasis on barriers and boundaries Groneberg’s on the way that nature transgresses them and ignores them, is in microcosm the same issue dealt with by Wasif on the Banglasesh border, and also by Rinko Kawauchi in her Ametsuchi, in which document an agricultural practice, yakihata burning, which is found the world over, by other names; a beating back of the natural realm for cultivation.
Such divisions are the driving force behind two contemporary conflicts and disputes: the Israeli-Palestinian and the Russian-Ukrainian, of which Pavel Wolberg makes his Barricades series of panoramic photographs showing barricades and dividing fences, separating walls and improvised borders. Since his own heritage is both Israeli and Russian, he might be invested in these conflicts, but instead literally ‘sits on the fence’, on the line of dispute exercising the panoramic format as a restraint on his own prejudices to represent what might be an infinite border extending out of sight on both sides over which the factions fight and demonstrate. As nations of an ever more crowded globe build barriers to keep others out, they are building the fault lines that will shatter world peace.