Writing on photography

Review – The Prix Pictet Commissions at Somerset House

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

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • I do go with your last paragraph, taking it as a clear statement of a complex irony. There is, for example, the gripping graphic novel, The Adventures of Unemployed Man, which is a sharp indictment of neoliberal capitalism and its big lies, but also a collaborative work of a large team of illustrators and writers gathered through the agency of a large corporation in the book trade, and so far as I can determine, it has been very successful, in financial and artistic terms. Its political effect is, to me at least, incalculable, and maybe very small. The only way I can arrive at a final judgment is to imagine that it had not been put together and marketed as it was. In that case our world would be the poorer, even though the book was born in the womb of Mammon, if you will pardon the flowery writing.

    • Brilliant, I’ll have to look that one up (and there’s a more blatant irony in that last paragraph in that as I understand it Brecht found it far harder to speak truth to power when that power was the East German government).

      Similar issues have cropped up on this blog before, for example how as a photographer do you reconcile taking money from a large company who’s behavior may contradict the messages you want to send through your work? Is it at all possible to reconcile capital and culture? e.g http://www.disphotic.lewisbush.com/2013/06/10/sebastiao-salgado-and-cultural-capital/

    • Perhaps you know this poem by Brecht:


      It’s about the 17 June 1953 uprising against the East German government:

      The Solution

      After the uprising of the 17th of June
      The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
      Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
      Stating that the people
      Had forfeited the confidence of the government
      And could win it back only
      By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
      In that case for the government
      To dissolve the people
      And elect another?

  • I went to see it last week, so was curious to hear your comments.
    You use the word ‘forgettable’ to describe Wasif’s project and it resonates with my impressions from the show. As hard as I tired to study some of the images, I could hardly remember the content the moment I turned away.

    This brought to mind the problem with commissioned work that you touched upon here. It is rare to get a really inspiring brief from a client, so we see more and more projects funded by private companies that couldn’t care less about artistic expression.

    Perhaps it’s true that the best work is born from the artist’s suffering?

    p.s. loved your comment about Taylor Wessing, although it’s said that people know (or care) so little about what they are consuming, who pays for it and for what purpose.

    • Thanks for commenting Tina. It’s funny, Wasif’s photographs are stunning and the story is compelling but somehow that’s just not enough in this case.

      It may be an issue with the brief, equally it may be that the photographers don’t commit 100% to a commission in the same way they might with a personal project (just the pressure of knowing you need to deliver something can have quite an effect). As I say I think Norfolks is the most effective because it feels a bit as if he’s put the brief second and focused first on making compelling work.

      Look forward to testing people’s knowledge a little more when Taylor Wessing launches next month 😉

Writing on photography