While in the past I might have slightly criticised some competitions for being too rigidly certain about the type of photographs they want to shortlist, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is a competition with something of an identity crisis, an uncertainty about what it is really about. According to the sponsor’s own site it is a prize intended to reward a photographer ‘who has made the most significant contribution … to the medium of photography in Europe in the previous year’ but walking through the galleries and looking at this year’s short-list there seemed to be little that really met (my interpretation of) this vague remit. This isn’t to say the work on show was bad, far from it, but I challenge anyone who has seen this exhibition to say they found their sense of the landscape of photography particularly altered by it.
The first piece of work I encountered was probably the most hyped. Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s mammoth six year investigation of Ponte City, Johannesburg. Built as a luxury tower block during the era of white South Africa rule Ponte City later became the continent’s tallest slum. Subotzky and Waterhouse have systematically documented the building and the gallery display includes three dramatic floor to ceiling light boxes showing hundreds of photographs of doors, windows and television sets in the building. To offset the rather distant, typological nature of the light boxes there are also a series of found documents and photographs rescued from the tower block on display on the walls. These certainly humanised the inhabitants but also made for uncomfortable viewing, and perhaps not for the reasons intended. Here are intimate moments and personal information, left or lost for who knows what reason, scooped up and re-purposed for a gallery wall in an affluent city half a world away. Amongst the documents is an application for asylum in Canada, the author describing the murder of his father, the raping of his mother and sister. It’s one of the few moments in this display that a voice other than that of the two artists seems to emerge, and that muteness stands in stark contrast to voices of the subjects in some similarly exhaustive documentary works, like that of The Sochi Project.
Viviane Sassen’s Umbra was next, billed as a journey into a Jungian inner world. Continuing the artist’s interest in obscure astronomical titles (see my review of Analemma here) I found this work rather more interesting than her previous fashion focused outing at the gallery. Some of the photographs submerge you in this inner world more effectively than others, and particularly (if predictably) potent were the apparently everyday images which somehow manage to impart an unspeakable feeling, like an image of a yawning black hole dug in vivid red soil. At times though it felt as if Sassen was distracted by the opportunity to display photographs were just rather beautiful. An entire wall of nearly abstract photographs are an example of this, they look stunning but seemed out of place, and also somehow overly familiar. Sassen’s display is also accompanied by two video pieces. One is an inverted video of two arms signing the words to a poem composed by Maria Baramas which didn’t hold my attention for long. The other shows a rolling stream of Sassen’s photographs on a monitor which has been forced into the corner of a room. On the perpendicular wall is a mirror which reflects the stream of photographs, causing them to mirror and morph as they change like some sort of dynamic klecksograph or ink blot, a method of probing the unconscious mind which was inspired by (if not entirely embraced) by Jung. It demonstrates Sassen’s strong sense of how to use an exhibition space, which was also probably the highlight of Analemma.
Next was Nikolai Bakharev’s aptly named Relation series. Working as mechanic in the Soviet Union, Bakharev began to supplement his income by taking commissioned portraits and on display are a small selection of images taken between 1988 and 1993 at public beaches near Novokuznetsk, as the Soviet Union was unravelling. Bakharev’s deceptively simple photographs show families, children, friends and lovers, skilfully posed against backdrops of flourishing nature. They have a poignantly romantic air about them much more akin to the photographs of Piotr Vedenisov and other pre-revolution Russian photographers than any figure of the Soviet era, though in some ways these make a compelling mirror image to the much darker work of Boris Mikhailov, particularly his work made during this same post-Soviet transitional period. Again these photographs are not formally or conceptually ground breaking and probably won’t change how you think about photography, but in light of their social significance and their indirect relationship to what is currently going on in Russia perhaps they deserve some recognition for that alone. As I noted of Chris Killip in 2012, sometimes the gesture of selecting the most outwardly traditional photographer would in itself send ripples in an art world that often favours pointless innovations for their own sake.
Finally I got to the work of Zanele Muholi, a visual activist who has been documenting the LGBTI community in South Africa for many years. Despite the country’s self-declared status as the ‘rainbow nation’ and the fact that it has some of the most permissive laws on sexuality in the entire continent, LGBTI South African’s still face discrimination, harassment and violence. Muholi’s display consists of an entire wall of portraits, simple but beautiful, direct frontal shots of an assortment of men and women with only the most minimal of contextual information provided. The lack of information works pretty effectively, at first you rather inevitably try to guess the orientation of the people you’re looking at, but pretty quickly you have to give this up. In the end the work very effectively reminds you that they’re just people. To the left of this portrait grid is a massive white sheet on to which an assortment of messages and accounts have been handwritten. Some are gruelling descriptions of attacks and murders, others are simpler statements, ‘we all [heart] womyn’ is the one that lingers in my head. More accounts and narratives are readable in the four copies of Muholi’s book Faces and Phases which are on display in the gallery. Beyond the topicality of the subject matter (remember a photograph of a gay Russian couple won the World Press this year) the significance of Muholi’s work for me is that voices of her subjects are so present, almost to the extent of being more visible than the photography itself. This enormously important for reasons I don’t have space to fully explore here, and stands in stark contrast to the general absence I found in Subotzky and Waterhouse’s work.
Perhaps the identity crisis in The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize’s choice of shortlisted work stems at least partly from the fact this is, like any big sponsored prize, is an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It was a funny coincidence that the morning I was due to go and have a look at the exhibition I was listening to a series of very interesting talks at the Royal Institute of Anthropology on culture of the finance sector, which included some very innovative and timely photographic work focused on the global financial crisis (the sort of work which will never appear in this sort of prize). I think it’s useful to see any competition not so much as an objective judgement on what is good photography, but rather a series of filters through which submitted work passes, and in the case of corporate prizes one of these filters is of course the sponsors own interests. As photographers or people who want to look at photography we obviously benefit from this relationship, but as I’ve often suggested before there might have to come a point where we ask if what we lose through it is really worth the few pieces of silver we gain.