Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon, C-print, 36 x 48 inches.
The shortlist for the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize has just been announced, and while there are no major upsets as there were in the 2012 Deutsche Börse shortlist when the likes of Mishka Henner and Cristina de Middel featured, it’s still one of the more interesting shortlists of recent years. As I recently did with the Taylor Wessing prize, I thought I’d offer some short reflections on the shortlist now, and a more in-depth consideration when the exhibition opens to the public next year.
Since 2012’s shortlisting of Cristina de Middel’s Afronauts it seems to be increasingly a given that each year’s shortlist will include some form of photo book, whether grandiose and conventionally published (like last year’s Ponte City by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse) or more modest and self-published like de Middel’s book. Laura el Tantawy’s The Shadow of the Pyramids is a worthy inclusion, an intriguing and intelligent volume which explores the build up to the recent revolution in Egypt by blending family archive photographs with events in Cairo’s streets, drawing parallels between the micro and macro units of family and nation. The Shadow of the Pyramids is a fantastic book, but its inclusion is also (perhaps accidentally) symbolic at the present moment, as Egyptian revolutionary enthusiasm and turmoil subsides back towards a new status quo, and governments (including the British government) sidle up to military leader, turned president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hoping for a rapid continuation of business as usual.
To some Erik Kessels will come as a surprising and perhaps slightly controversial inclusion since he dosen’t take his own photographs but works largely with archives of found vernacular imagery. Again though I doubt the controversy will be anything like that which has surrounded the past inclusion of these post-photographic photographers (if one can call them that). Kessel’s has more than demonstrated his visual credentials, showing a humour and intelligence about the way he works and arranges imagery which is much more sophisticated than that of most ‘real’ photographers. The surprise is maybe more in the particular choice of project to include, his dramatic installation Unfinished Father, a rumination on loss and memory explored through photographs and the remains of an old Fiat 500 left half restored after Kessel’s father suffered a debilitating stroke. It’s a powerful piece although I’m not convinced it’s sculpturally or photographically innovative enough to warrant the prize, that may of course change to see it first hand.
The real surprise inclusion for me was Tobias Zielony for his exhibition The Citizen, although when I say surprise I mostly mean in the sense that I hadn’t seen this work before and I was surprised by that because because of it’s quality, relevance and apparent subtlety. Zielony explores the lives of African refugee activists in Berlin in Hamburg, combining photography with first person accounts of their experiences. The Citizen raises significant issues of integration and identity at a time when more and more European countries are closing their borders to migrants and refugees, and even those like Sweden which up until have had a virtual open door policy are thinking twice. This work I particularly look forward to spending more time with when the exhibition opens next year.
Last is Trevor Paglen, shortlisted for his exhibition The Octopus at Frankfurter Kunstverein. The smart and cynical money is on Paglen to take the prize. His work is undeniably relevant beyond the ghetto of photography, interesting in both conception and execution, and lacks the deeply uncritical self-indulgence of Richard Mosse’s Enclave which won in 2013. But as I’ve written before I don’t really think the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is particularly about any of those things. It’s about rewarding work which lends Deutsche Börse and its attendants some cultural credibility and relevance, while at the same time being work which is ultimately toothless and unthreatening, and perhaps just a little bit bankable (I wonder how many of the prize’s winners ultimately end up in the company’s extensive art collection). It seems to me that there is a sort of apt resonance in Paglen being shortlisted for an exhibition in Deutsche Börse’s home city of Frankfurt.
In his brief write up of the shortlist, the Guardian’s photography writer Sean O’Hagan proposed a couple of names he would have liked to see on the list, and while I think O’Hagan’s suggestions aren’t really relevant to the prize’s remit of rewarding artists pushing the medium’s boundaries I think the act of highlighting what was missed is a worthwhile one. In vain I have wondered before, and I continue to wonder, what it would take for a body work to be shortlisted which asks difficult questions about the system and problems that this prize’s sponsor is very clearly part of. Work which focuses on capital, exchange and austerity like that by Mark Curran for example, photography which attempts to get inside and reveal the insidious innards of global finance in much the same way that Paglen has done with global surveillance. How badly we need this, and what a gesture the inclusion of work like that would make. But I doubt it would be a welcome inclusion on the wall of a plush Frankfurt boardroom, and lest we forget, ladies and gentlemen, that is probably what really counts.