Conflicting Interests: The Deutsche Börse Foundation Prize 2018

Luke Willis Thompson – Autoportrait

When I gave up writing this blog, I thought that the four years and three hundred odd posts would have made it pretty clear where I stand critically, and ethically. I thought that editors would either understand and respect these things when they asked me to write for them, or they simply wouldn’t ask. Some recent experiences suggest otherwise, and so a review originally intended for one place now needs to find an alternative home. That place, after considering all the other options, can only be Disphotic, briefly returned from the dead. I promise I will not make resurrection a habit.

This review concerns The Deutsche Börse Foundation Prize hosted at The Photographers Gallery in London, a competition which I have written about many times before, and which I make no bones about having very mixed feeling about it, both because of the sponsor, and because of what I feel is the generally unhealthy effect that prizes often have on the creative fields. These issues aside, this year’s iteration consists of an interestingly political shortlist selected by a five-person jury, from an initial longlist proposed by 100 anonymous nominators. It is however also a shortlist which illustrates a difficulty with the fashion for politically inflected art. The problem being that if you are going to champion works which challenge opacity and wrongdoing, I think you need to be pretty open and clean yourself. Put another way it is no good adopting the guise of critique while also being unwilling to practice self-critique or engage with it when it comes from outside. Any reviewer worth their salt knows that if you live by the sword, the pen, or for that matter anything else, then you also need to be prepared to die by these things.

To the exhibition then. The first of the four on show is the New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thompson who is shortlisted for his exhibition autoportrait, which took place at Chisenhale Gallery, London. This work consists of a filmed portrait of Diamond Reynolds, the young American woman pulled to public attention in 2016 after she broadcast to Facebook Live a stream of video showing the aftermath of her partner Philando Castile being shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Collaborating with Reynolds Thompson has created a cinematic portrait which attempts to act as a ‘sister-image’, counterbalancing the much more widely known and shared video of her. Eschewing the low resolution digital ephemerality of a smartphone for an enormous projection from a 35mm cine projector installed in the gallery, autoportrait offers a space for reflection amongst the other works and becomes incrementally more absorbing and moving the longer one spends with it.

It does however raise the question of whether the Deutsche Börse prize’s remit, to reward ‘a living artist of any nationality who has made the most significant contribution … to the [sic] photography in Europe in the previous year’ is actually useful. It might seem to be splitting hairs to point out that autoportrait is a video piece, which is not in any sense a suggestion that the work should not be in the shortlist, because for me at least it is one of the stronger pieces on display. Rather it is to point out that as ‘photography’ comes to encompass almost anything from performance to computationally derived images, the basic terms of this and many other photographic prizes seem more than ever to need rethinking. Even the old trusty recourse of ‘lens-based media’ seems clunky and self-conscious when so many fine and important works are being created without the need of even a piece of shaped glass.

Next, the French-Venezuelan photographer Mathieu Asselin is shortlisted for his book Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation, published by Actes Sud. In the interests of transparency, I have been a bit of a cheerleader for Asselin’s project since I first encountered it in 2016, and time has done little to lessen my sense that this is a really important work. Over five years Asselin has systematically investigated the agrochemical corporation Monsanto, compiling what is effectively a dossier of visual and textual evidence of the damage that their business has done internationally. From Vietnamese children still suffering the consequences of the highly toxic military defoliant Agent Orange, to United States farmers driven to the verge of bankruptcy by restrictive seed contracts and aggressive litigation against infractors. Asselin’s work is a prime example of what might be termed ‘investigative documentary photography’, but as well as taking the micro-approach of investigating one particular company, it also hints at the macro issue of a world where multi-national companies rampage remarkably unchecked.

Asselin’s display is also one of the better uses of space in the show, sensibly choosing to use the gallery to display a number of things which could never function in the original book form. More impressively he has done something I can remember no other shortlistee doing, which is to make a direct connection between the topic of his work and the sponsor of the prize. To do this Asselin has added an extra chapter to his project, one which focuses on the stock market and Monsanto’s pending merger with chemical giant Bayer AG. Two framed tablets in the gallery show Monsanto’s share price as listed on Deutsche Börse’s own stock index app, a neat reminder that the sponsor of this prize is also a facilitator and beneficiary of the type of necrotic capitalism that Asselin is critiquing. When so many avowedly left-wing, critical artists pathetically roll over at the first sight of a corporate sponsor, it is reassuring to encounter one who follows his critique right the way through.

Next, the Swiss artist Batia Suter is shortlisted for her publication Parallel Encyclopedia #2, published by Roma in 2016. A sprawling book, Parallel Encyclopedia #2 merges photographs taken from over a thousand sources into a series of chapters where one type of image flows into another, in doing so seeking to explore the ‘iconographic transformation of images’. The book encompasses everything from anonymous technical photographs to engravings by Gustave Doré, and the subject matter is similarly varied with astronomical photographs sharing page space alongside stills of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. The core idea the book has something resonant of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, an idiosyncratic attempt to identify shared aesthetic concerns across disparate art works. However, unlike Warburg’s atlas which had such a strong and peculiar thesis at its core, Batia’s encyclopedia seems noticeably lacking in a central argument or conviction about what these images are doing and why that matters, and if one exists it gets watered down by the sheer quantity of material.

For me Parallel Encyclopedia #2 is a good example of the way many appropriative photographic works seem to have ceased to be about specific, carefully judged interventions, and increasingly seem to have instead become about sheer quantity. This is rather a shame, because with our present age of digitally induced visual overload it often seems that the former type of appropriation potentially has more to say, than the latter. Viewing the shortlist as a whole and thinking in terms of the prize’s proclaimed remit, it is sometimes easy to imagine the thinking that led a jury to shortlist a particular work. In the case of Suter’s work however it is rather hard to guess the reason, although there are certainly some resonances with the work of juror Penelope Umbrico. On the other hand, perhaps realising that the other works shortlisted this year were all so avowedly political the jury decided they needed to include something of a counter-balance to that.

Finally, the Polish photographer Rafal Milach is shortlisted for his exhibition Refusal, which was held at Atlas Szutki Gallery, Lodz. This work looks at forms of subtle state control and manipulation in post-Soviet countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan. The strategies and forms on show are various, ranging from incomplete monumental architecture, to intellectual games intended to mould and develop the cognitive capabilities of children. It would be easy to misinterpret this work as an example of post-Soviet ‘ruin porn’ extended into the realm of mind, except the historical resonances and geographic specificities of the work are much less interesting than are the connections with ‘fake news’ and other forms of contemporary political influencing. Refusal is an outgrowth of Milach’s much lauded 2014 book The Winners, and a copy of this is on show as part of his display in the gallery. The Winners was published by GOST, a publishing house co-founded by Gordon MacDonald, one of the members of this year’s jury. MacDonald may have since quietly exited from GOST, but the association lingers. To my mind this is a remarkable conflict of interest, worthy of some explanation, but in the gallery it is passed over without any acknowledgement at all.

[EDIT: the subtlety of what I am saying here seems to be lost on some readers, so to clarify; I am not accusing MacDonald of exploiting a conflict of interest for his own benefit or anyone elses, only identifying that one exists as a consequence of his prior relationship to Milach and his position on the jury, and that it is problematic that this is not acknowledged anywhere.]

It may not have occurred to any of those involved that this could look dubious, but that is also very much part of the problem. There is a prevailing attitude in photography that regards accountability and transparency as superfluous, or not even worth thinking about. The corollary of this is an industry which too often operates like an old boy’s network, where mechanisms of decision making are opaque, and conflicts of interest are brushed over with a wink and a funny handshake (see my concerns about the 2016 Paris Photo Aperture Photobook Prize for another example). As if to illustrate my point, and to explain why you read this review here and not elsewhere, the editor who originally commissioned it then declined to publish it unless I removed this section of the review. In a phone call she explained had known MacDonald for years and doubted he would have done this intentionally, something which fails to appreciate that some of the worse conflicts of interest are not consciously committed. Indeed, the term ‘conflict of interest’ describes a state where such an abuse of position is possible, not a state where one has necessarily taken place. In the same call I was also advised that I didn’t need to ‘burn my bridges’ by publishing this piece myself. If there are three words that sum up much of what is wrong with this industry it is these.

One of the reasons I gave up blogging was the sense it didn’t achieve much, and because I don’t want this to just be another dead-end rant I have a request to make of you, kind reader. If like me you feel the Deutsche Börse Foundation and The Photographers Gallery could do better and be much more transparent please take five minutes to let them know. You can phone, e-mail or tweet, and if either of the latter feel free to CC me in. That is all from me, I am back into blogging retirement, and off to work in the Channel Islands for the next six months on a new project about (you guessed it!) financial transparency. I take some heart at least from the fact that Jersey has hosted a number of exiled writers in the past, not least amongst them Victor Hugo, and also from the fact there are no bridges to the island which might tempt my pyrotechnicist tendencies.

The winner of the £30,000 prize (which at the time of writing would buy you roughly 336 shares of Monsanto stock, or 317 shares of Deutsche Börse stock) is announced at The Photographers Gallery on 17th May 2018.

You can read Gordon Macdonald’s response here.

You can read exhibition curator Anna Dannemann’s response here.

You can read editor Christiane Monarchi’s response here.

You can read my follow up piece here.

6 thoughts on “Conflicting Interests: The Deutsche Börse Foundation Prize 2018

  1. Well. First of all, I will not be wasting my time by texting/emailing/twatting “the Deutsche Börse Foundation and The Photographers Gallery,” because pissing in the wind.
    Second, well said! I mean it. You are an important voice and important perspective in photography (whatever that is, you seem to be saying), and I hope to see more of your writing whatever form it takes. Nothing wrong with the blog, if you take my meaning.

  2. 8th April 2018
    Lewis,
    I am writing this to respond to your published assertions around my having conflicting interests in the inclusion of Rafal Milach’s project Refusal in this year’s DB photography prize, for which I am one of four (not five) jury members. I think it is important that I address these points because you make some pretty crude assumptions and project an uninformed and unfamiliar view of the process I was involved in. So, let me address your points.
    Firstly, it would have been nice if you could have shown me the courtesy of contacting me to discuss this before pushing it out into the world, so that I could have addressed your concerns. It would be nicer still if you could be diligent enough to spell my name correctly if you insist in writing it so often in a short piece. I believe that the Photographers’ Gallery did address the points about my association with GOST with the Editor in question, who is evidently experienced enough to show due diligence before publishing this kind of opinion-based text containing accusations of wrongdoing. It is the way that magazines have to operate I think, and what differentiates them from blogs like yours, where you are of course free to publish any old thing you think. It is also clear that you have edited the text since your conversation with the Editor in question, which is more than a little misleading to the story you are trying to tell. To demand transparency from others does require that you are transparent in your own output.
    As you did not accept the correct information when it was passed on to you, and published your colourful picture of the shortlisting process and my part in it anyway, I feel the need to redress this. I did leave GOST two and half years ago (as you were told) and have had no financial or creative input into the company since. I, as you say like there is some mystery around it, ‘quietly exited’ mainly because I do not feel the need, or perceive an interest from others, in covering my every thought or action with a social media campaign or a blog. There was, I believe, a newsletter put out by GOST at the time explaining this, which you could have found or cited if it backed up your piece I am sure. When I left the company I stopped having any financial stake in any book (including the out of stock ones that lost money). So, I have nothing to gain from this in any way.
    Over the course of my career in photography, I have been lucky enough to work with many hundreds of people, and have produced and promoted the work of countless artists on all levels of career. So I would be hard-pushed not to come across some of them now and again in professional life. The jury chose Rafal Milach’s work because it is an exceptional piece created by an interesting emerging artist, and for no other reason. It was the same for the other three projects selected by the jury. That you assert otherwise feels like an insult to your contemporaries, to Mathieu Asselin, Rafal Milach, Batia Suter and Luke Willis Thompson; an insult to my fellow jurors and a willful and provocative insult to me (which seems to be your intention). The undermining of the artists is the part I find the hardest to understand, but I have read your output occasionally and see that you will self-promote at almost any expense.
    There are many other artists in this year’s list who (including my good lady wife) I have a closer association with who were not selected from their nominations. My relationship to The Winners was not a question, as Refusal was not selected as a publication and the book was exhibited as the result of a curatorial decision I had no part in. It was not discussed in the selection meeting because the book was NOT submitted for consideration. So, how could bias be consciously committed or even unconsciously? The book wasn’t even in the room.
    I certainly do not feel the need to defend my career or choices to you because you have decided to make some unfounded assumptions about a process, which I was invited to be part of. I also have no intention of defending or discussing Deutche Borse who I have no ongoing relationship with. But, if you want to discuss what I do and why I do it in the future, I would be pleased if you could contact me directly in order to avoid further misinterpretation or misunderstanding. The idea of discussing privilege and position with you of all people would be enlightening I am sure.
    I hope that this addresses your concerns about my part in the selection for this year’s DB prize and I look forward to hearing from you (or not). I also look forward to you finding some way to make your misunderstanding clear on your blog and social media outlets.
    Also, good luck with the Jersey commission. Who would have known, apart from you slipping it in it at the end of your thoughts on the DB Prize?
    With all best wishes,
    Gordon

  3. ‘Over the course of my career in photography, I have been lucky enough to work with many hundreds of people, and have produced and promoted the work of countless artists on all levels of career. So I would be hard-pushed not to come across some of them now and again in professional life.’ Des this consitute a good enough reason not to address what I think is a valid question without feeling attacked personally but for the benefit of the audience, artist, jury and organisation alike? I am sure that yourself Mr. MacDonald as Mr. Bush have at heart a desire for the photographic industry to be thriving and fair so unless you could trace connections with all the other artists of past professional collaborations could you not see how this particular past working relationship with Mr.Milach constitutes a basis for an enquiry within the possibility of a COI? You present the argument related to the book that you have created together which has ended, yet your relationship of personal acquaintance and preference to Mr. Milach’s career may have not. This is not an accusation but a very worth while question which, I feel you could have taken the opportunity to celebrate with a less defensive (passive-aggressive answer). I say so because that is how it has read to me your answer, but forgive me if I have wrongly read into it. Specially the last part where you seem imply that the critique of the DB includng yourself would be a thinly veiled opportunity to promote his latest work on financial transparency, while failing to appreciate first the painful parallels which may be drawn between the lack of transparency of the financial world towards its ‘clients’ and the photographic world as institution towards its audience.
    I feel we all can take the responsbility for welcoming healthy criticism, skepticism, there are far too few voices like Mr. Bush’s in the photography world and it feels a shame to shut them down by saying they would burn bridges if they were to voice these thoughts, surely it is a good thing to show there is nothing to hide, nothing to fear from direct and uncomfortable questions. I wanted to take part in this conversation because I am too very passionate about the medium of photography, its critical context and representation in the wider sense.

  4. ‘Over the course of my career in photography, I have been lucky enough to work with many hundreds of people, and have produced and promoted the work of countless artists on all levels of career. So I would be hard-pushed not to come across some of them now and again in professional life.’ Would this consitute a good enough reason not to address what I think is a valid question without feeling attacked personally but for the benefit of the audience, artist, jury and organisation alike?
    I am sure that yourself Mr. MacDonald as Mr. Bush have at heart a desire for the photographic industry to be thriving and fair so unless you could trace connections with all the other artists of past professional collaborations could you not see how this particular past working relationship with Mr.Milach constitutes a basis for an enquiry within the possibility of a COI? You present the argument related to the book that you have created together which has ended, yet your relationship of personal acquaintance and preference to Mr. Milach’s career may have not. This is not an accusation but a very worth while question which, I feel you could have taken the opportunity to celebrate with a less defensive (passive-aggressive answer). I say so because that is how it has read to me your answer, but forgive me if I have wrongly read into it. Specially the last part where you seem imply that the critique of the DB includng yourself would be a thinly veiled opportunity to promote his latest work on financial transparency, while failing to appreciate first the painful parallels which may be drawn between the lack of transparency of the financial world towards its ‘clients’ and the photographic world as institution towards its audience.
    I feel we all can take the responsbility for welcoming healthy criticism, skepticism, there are far too few voices like Mr. Bush’s in the photography world and it feels a shame to shut them down by saying they would burn bridges if they were to voice these thoughts, surely it is a good thing to show there is nothing to hide, nothing to fear from direct and uncomfortable questions. I wanted to take part in this conversation because I am too very passionate about the medium of photography, its critical context and representation in the wider sense.

  5. Hi Lewis, and others who are interested in this latest post on Lewis’s blog.

    I was quite intrigued to see this post, as I’m the editor who chose not to publish Lewis’s text on my online magazine, Photomonitor, so I’d like to just set a few things straight for the Twitter and Facebook community who have weighed in, many of whom I don’t know personally but respect from afar.

    For more than six years I have run this online platform, Photomonitor, to help promote photography and lens-based media in the UK and Ireland, publishing more than 900 features from more than 200 artists and writers. I support writers pitching features about artists, shows, or books they can engage with – a good match, I find, when a writer has an expertise on, or insight to the subject; otherwise, why commission them? Only on very few occasions have I declined to publish a review, but I reserve the right to do so where I don’t feel the text promotes the photographer’s work on show with thoughtful critical engagement.

    Indeed, I have enjoyed working with you, Lewis, on many occasions in the past to commission your reviews, as well as championing your own art in other features on Photomonitor, and I felt you would, and still do, bring interesting ideas to the four artists’ installations on show at the DB Prize exactly because of a strong showing of political engagement this year. I don’t agree with all you wrote on the artists themselves, but that’s fine.

    In the text you submitted to me, however, I didn’t agree with your superficial assumptions on a perceived conflict of interest, or about the need to discount a juror for his past working relationship with an artist, or the gallery’s perceived duty of disclosure to regarding procedures or discussions to this effect. In the juries where I have participated there have always been champions of some artists, it’s in the personal nature of having industry professionals involved in judging. How could you have a jury of photography experts who knows no one, and who would want this?

    After speaking to the TPG and the juror in question, I suggested on the phone that you follow up yourself to have those discussions personally, which you hadn’t done and for some reason won’t do. As you will agree, Lewis, the text you had sent me didn’t have any of the disclaimers you now show on your blog. As you declined to make any journalistic enquiries to try to research your assertions, I decided not to run it, as after I had asked questions to satisfy my new curiosity, I didn’t find conspiracy at work here, and I found your arguments baseless and not something I wanted to be associated with.

    Here’s what I emailed you last month:

    ________________

    Dear Lewis

    I’m disappointed to read your email, as I respect your views on photography but not if you don’t care to research things you have questions about before making assumptions in print that would damage reputations unjustly and without foundation.

    I have had the discussions with [TPG Representative] and Gordon that I believe you should have had, and these would have helped you understand this jury better. I don’t agree with your views about conflict of interest here, and I’m also not interested whether a casual observer knows how this prize is juried and awarded. I’m happy to discuss this with you again if you’d like.

    I do remain interested in your views on the art on show and how to engage with these complicated presentations. If you decide you’d like to edit your piece to your interesting points on the four artists, great; if not, I’m sorry I am not going to publish this text on my platform in its current state, but feel free to do so on yours.

    kind regards
    Christiane

    ______________

    As you have decided to selectively quote from our phone conversation, where I was trying to advise you against ‘burning bridges’ by making the mistake of publishing something you hadn’t researched which implicated so many people and institutions, can you please also remember the next email I sent you afterwards, inviting you to move on and pitch something else for Photomonitor? I don’t want to censor you, I think you are clearly a talented professional, whom I had wanted to engage on other topics, but please, do take advice that was meant with goodwill, told to you on the phone, that you should have done the journalistic homework before putting potentially accusatory remarks in print or online, otherwise it’s not the kind of material I want to be associated with. It’s not sinister, I’m not a member of any old-boys networks that I’m aware of, it’s just advice. Please can we calm down about that, and agree to disagree, as I thought we had.

    As you claim somewhere on your busy social media feeds to ‘basically respect’ me, well, that’s nice, perhaps you’ll pitch Photomonitor another review one day.

    Until then, wishing you all the best on your residency and looking forward to the work you’ll be producing there. As you know I’ve been a supporter of yours for years, because this is what I do. I can’t quite believe I find myself here today.

    Christiane Monarchi
    Founding editor, Photomonitor

    PS. For those reading this far, thank you for your time. Now that there isn’t any review of DB Prize planned for Photomonitor, please do go see these works in person. They are really thought provoking, and that is what all of this is supposed to be about.

  6. It would seem that calling for (and practicing) more transparency all around, on all levels would be the take away, win-win here (apologies for both of those euphemisms). This would avoid a lot of possibly unnecessary accusations, as well as prevent the outright fraud and deception that has plagued other photographic competitions.

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