Recently opened at Somerset House is a small exhibition displaying work from the last four Prix Pictet commissions, awarded to Munem Wasif, Ed Kashi, Chris Jordan, and Simon Norfolk. The Prix Pictet, which is funded by the Swiss private bank Pictet & Cie, awards a commission roughly every eighteen months to one photographer in order for them produce a body of work in a region where the bank funds development work. These commissions fall under a fairly broad title theme each time, past titles have been ‘water’ and ‘power’, and the latest one is ‘consumption’.
The four bodies of work then, first Munem Wasif’s 2008 work in the Satkhira area of Bangladesh examines the implications of extreme water shortages in a country often associated (at least in the minds of western observers) with the opposite problem. Rises in water salinity have forced people travel long distances to collect supplies. Wasif demonstrates how this impacts on other areas of life, for example schooling, by forcing people into a desperate search for water, and how other priorities suffer as a result. It’s in many ways the most conservative of the four bodies of work; black and white, beautifully shot but also strangely forgettable. One photograph showing a group of men pushing a boat full of water through mud (a bizarre reversal of the normal order of things) has the most lingering impact.
Second is Ed Kashi’s 2009 project in Madgascar. The focus is again on the difficulty of balancing environmental protection with sustainable living. Madagascar’s biodiversity is under threat from the poverty of it’s population, and Kashi focuses on the attempts to introduce more sustainable approaches to farming to offset this. For me this was probably the weakest body of work, it has Kashi’s signature on it but not his usual feeling of commitment to a subject. If I was feeling kind I might wonder if it’s perhaps because the environments here are different to the relatively urban locations that have given rise to some of his best work. It may equally just reflect the fact it’s a commissioned subject that maybe didn’t grab him as a photographer, who knows.
Third was Chris Jordan’s work in Kenya’s Northern Rangelands. Again the focus is on the importance of sustainable living as a way to offset the need to encroach on and poach endangered animals (in this case specifically elephants) and degrade the natural environment. Again the photographs on show were variable but there were quite a few notable ones. One of a ceremonial knife with a Colgate toothbrush and a small plastic mirror attached to it particularly caught my eye. Also tough to look at were a series of photographs of an elephant dismembered by poachers, but perhaps given slightly too much space in the gallery (there were about four, when one would have sent the same very distressing message as effectively).
Finally Simon Norfolk’s The Disaster Season (2013), was for me the most interesting perhaps because it feels least like a PR project intended to highlight development work for a donor. Rephotographing the same sites in an Afghan province over the course of a year Norfolk shows the changing cycle of the seasons as one photograph dissolves into another on a wall mounted TV. As one watches small huts and the remains of destroyed tanks become overgrown with plants and scattered with snow the overwhelming sense, as with much of Norfolk’s previous work, is of the transitory nature of man and the overwhelming power of time and natural forces.
The main thing that I came away from the show thinking about though was it’s sponsor. Exhibition sponsorship is such a norm we don’t even notice it. People are often surprised if you tell them the UK’s leading contemporary art gallery is named for a family of sugar magnates. I even met someone recently who thought Taylor Wessing was a famous portrait photographer, not a firm of lawyers. The Prix Pictet is, I think it is worth remembering, a competition organised and funded by a private bank to highlight their activities. The lingering question for me is how this shapes my encounter with the work on display, almost irrespective of the quality of the work, and what is at play beneath the surface of this small show. Prix Pictet Commissions is on until October 31st 2013