Study Visit

Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize 2016

I’ve spent the last week in the UK, so took the opportunity to do a few ‘study visits’ of my own. As I was in London for some of the time, I went to The Photographer’s Gallery to see the work of the 2016 finalists for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.

This annual photography contest rewards a ‘living international photographer for a specific body of work in an exhibition or publication format, that is felt to have significantly contributed to photography in Europe during the previous year.’

I must admit that it is not clear to me how a significant contribution to photography in Europe is judged or what criteria is used; technical, strength of message (political or otherwise), deviation from mainstream, level of creativity? The objective of the Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation is to collect, exhibit and promote contemporary photography and the contest is one of their main activities for doing this.

Reading the comments from the Brett Rogers, Director of The Photographers’ Gallery, and non-voting Chair of the Jury, one of the main criteria would appear to be the ability of the submission to address political and social issues that are relevant today. While Anne-Marie Beckmann, Director Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation emphasizes photography’s ability to artistically create social engagement with today’s issues.

I decided that the most useful way to approach this exhibition was to examine my own engagement with the issues that the photographers presented. What follows below is the original description of the finalists submissions as described in the Press Release for the 2016 prize, followed by my own thoughts on the work.

 

Laura El-Tantawy (b. 1980, UK/Egypt) for her self-published photobook In the Shadow of the Pyramids (2015). In images that span from 2005 to 2014, this project depicts the atmosphere and rising tensions in Cairo in the events leading to and during the January revolution in Tahrir Square (2011-13). El-Tantawy grew up between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the US, with In the Shadow of the Pyramids she explores parallel narratives of her own family’s history with the search for identity of a troubled nation. She combines old family photographs and her own lyrical witness accounts with close up portraits of protestors and streets scenes that vividly express the violence and euphoria of the crowds.

My thoughts: The work is exhibited primarily as a set of slides of the original photographs being projected onto screens in a dark room with the photographer speaking about some the things she had either seen or heard from others in relation to the protests. On one screen are images of the streets of Cairo and the protests and on the other screen, are images of the photographer’s family. Presenting the work in this way, the viewer is given a sense of time and progression towards something, in this case, the protests in Cairo in 2011-13.

Juxtaposing the very energetic, colourful, blurred images of the protests against static, very clear images of family created an odd contrast and emphasized that although change was happening, for many people they craved stability and normalcy. I wondered if part of the message was that in order to achieve the stability these people craved, it was necessary to first go through the instability of a revolution and all of its inherent dangers. Is this the price that needs to be paid?

During an interview, El-Tantawy speaks of living away from Egypt for many years and then returning when her grandmother dies and her grandfather falls ill. She goes out onto the streets of Cairo as a way to escape but also to try to figure out her identity in relation to the culture she left.

 

What she aimed to do was bridge her search for identity with that of a country in the process of searching for its new identity. Hence the idea on some the pages of the book of putting photos of the country (protests, etc.) on one page and on the opposite page, pictures of her family.

Many of the images on the street are blurred or difficult to see. The predominant colours are orange, yellow and back. At first the blurred images bothered me because they reminded me too much of the photos I have taken with the shutter speed way too slow and considered as failures and yet, in El-Tantawy’s book/exhibition, they are displayed. I wondered if this was intentionally done or if after the photos were taken, she decided to include them as a creative approach. What the blurring does do is give a dynamic sense of uncertainty and motion.

As a book that addresses personal and national identity, I believe it works. The overall impression I was left with was one of sadness, for the individuals but also for the country that still struggles despite its efforts to find peace.

Erik Kessels (b. 1966, The Netherlands) for his exhibition Unfinished Father at Fotografia Europea, Reggio Emilia, Italy (15 May – 31 July 2015). In Unfinished Father Kessels reflects upon the fragmented realities of loss, memory and a life come undone as a result of his father’s debilitating stroke. Kessel’s uses his father’s unfinished restoration project of an old Fiat 500 as a representation of his current condition. He brings pieces of the unassembled body of the Topolino car into the exhibition space and presents it alongside photographs of car parts and images that were taken by his father.

My thoughts: Although I understood the sentiment and meaning behind this exhibit, I must admit that I did not find it engaging. When you enter the room, the car and its parts are on the floor and then the photographs of the parts are on the floor and walls of the display room.

I wondered if that was part of the point, that when someone suffers from a debilitating illness, then often it becomes difficult for the person to engage with normal day-to-day activities and it becomes difficult for others to engage the person in the way that they have done in the past.

Trevor Paglen (b. 1974, USA) for his exhibition The Octopus at Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, Germany (20 June – 30 August 2015). Paglen’s project aims to represent complex topics like mass surveillance, data collection, classified satellite and drone activities and the systems of power connected to them. Paglen’s installation comprise images of restricted military and government areas, skylines showing the flight tracks of passing drones, sculptural elements and research assembled in collaboration with scientist, amateur astronomers and human rights activists. Through his work Paglen demonstrates that secrets cannot be hidden from view, but that their traces and structures are visible evidence in the landscape.

My thoughts: Absolutely fascinating exhibit – the idea of visually representing global telecommunications and mass surveillance visually was intriguing. Of particular note were the wall charts/photos of all the fibre-optic cables that are laid on the seabed and how many of them surface in Marseilles.

I’m not sure that I would quite classify this as photography; although there are photographs, there are many other elements, including a scrolling list of code names, maps and charts, electronic installations and so on.

The topic is quite an obscure one and difficult to understand the message. In an interview, Paglen explains that part of his message is about learning how to see things, for example learning how to see satellites in the sky or to see the vocabulary of code names.

 

I found the exhibit interesting but was not able to connect at any level, however, what is surprising is that of all the entrants, this is the one that has remained most prominent in my mind. The sparsity of information provided and the limits of what can be displayed has in some way created an intrigue and I find myself rethinking what I have seen and wondering what I have missed.

Tobias Zielony (b. 1973, Germany) for The Citizen, exhibited as part of the German Pavilion presentation at the 56th Biennale of Arts, Venice, Italy (9 May – 22 November 2015). Mostly taken in Berlin and Hamburg Zielony’s photographs portray the lives and circumstances of African refugee activists living in Europe. Fleeing violence and oppression in their home countries many arrive to the West in search of freedom and security only to find themselves living as outsiders in refugee-camps without legal representation or work permits. Presented alongside the images are first person accounts, interviews and narratives published by Zielony in African newspapers and magazines and reporting on the immigrants’ experiences and journeys.

My thoughts: A socially engaging exhibit that causes one to consider the difficulties that refugees face when they arrive in Europe. The main focus is on a group of African refugees living in Hamburg harbor and Berlin and how, even with legal papers, they are struggling to integrate and find work because no one recognizes their papers.

Many of the photographs show these refugees in very unnatural lighting – with reds and greens casting shadows on their faces. The exhibit shows both photographs of refugees and the newspapers who have been willing to publish stories about the people the Zielony has photographed and tell the story about there refugee movement. The last part of the exhibit is not photography; it is a huge pile of newspapers that have been printed with the stories of the refugees inside. The visitors may take a copy of the newspaper with them.

Although an effective social message, I had the impression that the message in this exhibition is being lost in the mass media coverage of the current refugee crisis from Syria and that the message of a small group of African refugees is at risk of not being heard.

 

 

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