This week I was fortunate to visit the fourth Prix Pictet at the impressive Saatchi Gallery just off the King’s Road in Chelsea, London. The Prix Pictet is possibly the highest profile award in photography for sustainability, if not the most financially rewarding. Sustainability takes a holistic view on the environmental, social and economic impacts of development – the so-called Triple Bottom Line as first referred to by John Elkington. One nagging doubt that followed me around the gallery is that it wasn’t always obvious exactly what aspect of sustainability was being portrayed in certain images belonging to the twelve shortlisted photographers. Nevertheless it was a powerful and emotive body of work.
This year’s exhibition follows the theme of “Power” – a term that can be loosely interpreted in many ways, allowing flexibility and diversity amongst the entries. Initially, I mistook another exhibition at the gallery (the equally excellent “Out of Focus” exhibition) as the Prix Pictet when I was confronted by two of Mitch Epstein’s works that feature in his “American Power” photo series. I’m a huge fan of his ever since getting up close to the restrained beauty and horror of his Amos Coal Power Plant image displayed at the International Center for Photography in New York last summer. I’m digressing somewhat, but in my opinion any of his images from this series surpass the entries that specifically address environmental concerns in this year’s Prix Pictet.
By my count, half of the short-listed entries addressed environmental concerns with the other half split between war reportage and social commentary. Particularly noteworthy were the images of Azerbaijani photographer Rena Effendi, who documented life in Chernobyl in her series entitled “Still Life in the Zone”. A clever pun on words that allows us to marvel at the fact that life still goes on in the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, her style is reminiscent of an Old Master at work on a still-life painting. She captures the defiance that allows life to continue with a certain elegance and understatement that avoids the obvious temptation to dramatize events. At the other end of the scale, we have Philippe Chancel’s Fukushima portraying the devastation in the aftermath of Japan’s recent Tsunami. Ships and houses strewn at odd angles across the landscape like toys in a child’s playpen. It is particularly difficult to compete with the well-documented real-time amateur footage that we’ve all seen on TV and in my opinion; he hasn’t succeeded in adding any new perspective.
Daniel Beltra tackled another well-documented environmental disaster, namely the Gulf Oil spill of 2010. His vivid colours and patterns floating across the seascape were visually arresting but I’m unsure if they had the same gravitas and impact of Burtynsky’s images on the same theme, which recently showed at the Photographer’s Gallery in London. His work seemed strangely divorced from the reality of the devastating impact on wildlife and local fisher communities along the Gulf of Mexico. Other notable entries are the veteran Robert Adams, whose “Turning Black” series on deforestation in North-west USA could be summed up as stark, almost violent in its intensity. “Moments before the Flood” by Carl De Keyzer portrayed outdated flood defences in Europe highlighting our woeful attempts at climate change adaptation to sea-level rise. There certainly wasn’t much optimism for environmental issues in this year’s Prix Pictet. Joel Sternfeld shines a light on the abject disappointment etched across the faces of delegates at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Montreal, Canada in 2005. I wondered what the same faces captured at the most recent UNFCCC conference would show – an overpowering sense of disillusionment or perhaps complete indifference?
Mohamed Bourouissa (Peripherique) allows us to stand around idly with groups of young disillusioned men on the streets of suburban France. A threatening atmosphere looms over their heads, and ours. An-My Le visited 29 Palms in the Californian desert – a proxy for the real war in Afghanistan – that helps reinforce the notion that perhaps Americans are also fighting a battle in their own backyard. Hers is a different perspective on modern warfare, more akin to the viewpoint of a 19th century war correspondent. An outsider in terms of subject matter, Jacqueline Hassink gives us a glimpse into the garish dining rooms and more restrained boardrooms of wealthy Arab women. Captions provide such vital statistics as personal net worth, leaving us to conclude that taste in interior design seems to be in inverse proportion to wealth.
It is at this point where the shortlisted entries really raise their game. Starting with Edmund Clark, a UK photographer who gained privileged access to Guantanamo in his series, “If the Light goes out”. Although no prisoners or guards are shown in his work, the images are all the more menacing. They feel very different to the explicit photos to have come out of Abu Ghraib but feel almost as disturbing as it allows our imagination to run riot. Next stop is the dark heart of Africa as Guy Tillim’s “Congo Democratic” allows us to feel as if we are part of the seething crowds and palpable chaos that rule on the streets of this broken country. We get an artificial sense of security as we peer over the shoulders of a group of heavies protecting their leader at a political rally in a particularly arresting image.
And finally, we meet the work of Luc Delahaye, this year’s overall winner. If I were to have any gripe, it would be that it doesn’t feel like a comprehensive and defined set of images on sustainability, a fact that is underlined by the title “Various works: 2008-2011”. From ghostly power lines that appear as spiders’ webs in an early morning mist to a scrum of journalists and delegates at the OPEC headquarters, this feels like art meets documentary and comes away looking rather good. Another strikingly symbolic image in the series (but not on display) is clearly reminiscent of The Last Supper although it is in actuality a lunch at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Would I agree that Delahaye is a worthy winner? Probably. Although, Guy Tillim, Edmund Clark and Rena Effendi are also close contenders. This year’s Prix Pictet underlines the many facets of power; both Natural and Man-made, inflicted and repulsed, overwhelming and understated. Powerful stuff indeed.
The Prix Pictet continues at the Saatchi Gallery in London until 28 October 2012. More information available at http://www.prixpictet.com