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First international photography prize Prix Pictet: camera to communicate vital dispatch most serious issues facing us all


By WcP.Art - Posted on 31 October 2008

Sebastian Copeland: Stormy Weather. Series: Antarctica: The Global Warning Melchior Islands, Antarctica, 2006

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What is photography for? Can it change our minds? An exhibition just opened at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, of the 18 photographers short listed for the first Prix Pictet, poses these questions loud and clear.

The Pictet prize, established this year by Pictet & Cie, one of Switzerland’s largest private banks, and co-sponsored by the Financial Times, is the only international photography prize that concerns itself directly with sustainable development and environmental issues. In that sense it isn’t quite a conventional art prize but an award – of 100,000 Swiss francs (SFr) – to be given annually to the artist who best uses the power of the camera to communicate a vital dispatch on one of the most serious issues facing us all.

Sanggen Dalai, Inner Mongolia, China. Women flee the main street as dust fills the air. This shot is from Benoit Aquin's series, which has won the overall prize of £50,000. The Chinese Dust Bowl documents scarce water resources, desertification and ecological refugees in China

To launch the scheme, this year’s campaign is devoted to water, and the winner of this inaugural Prix Pictet, who was announced by Honorary President Kofi Annan at a gala reception in Paris on Thursday evening, is the Canadian photographer Benoit Aquin. His images of the parched and wrecked Chinese landscape, fields turned into desert and half-empty towns huddled under a choking pall of toxic dust, are an eloquent testimony to the stark fact that man is an animal that attacks its own habitat. The chairman of the judging panel, Francis Hodgson, commented that in documenting China’s vast man-made dustbowl, Aquin has not only pointed to “a terrible problem” which many people outside the country didn’t even know about, but has “invented a photographic language to describe the problem, a palette to suit what he wants to show us”.

Commissioned for the Eden project's education resource centre in Cornwall, Susan Derges's series of photographs shows the transformation of water within the hydrological cycle

The other 17 photographers in the Prix Pictet exhibition have strong opinions too. Gone are the days when this art form was considered purely transparent, when the photographer was supposed to “disappear” in the process of conveying an objective neutral reality. We all know now that there’s no such thing. The camera does lie, all the time, but each of the sets of images on display at the Palais de Tokyo grabs us and shakes us with its artful agenda of inescapable truths: of shrinking ice in the polar regions, in the work of Lynn Davis and of Sebastian Copeland; of rivers that run red or not at all, in the magnificent, quasi-abstract aerials of David Maisel; of Colombia, a country rich in water where hundreds of thousands have none that is clean to drink, by Jesús Abad Colorado.

Roman Signer: Wasserstiefel (Water boots), Weissbad, Switzerland, 1986

Water, in this show, displays itself as a wayward power. Floods occur as naturally as droughts, but both can also be laid at the door of a greedy and profligate human race. Robert Polidori’s almost theatrical images of flood-wrecked homes after Hurricane Katrina depict nature’s grim revenge as high tragedy. And one of the cleverest pictures here is “Living Room Floor” (2005) by Chris Jordan, another post-deluvian New Orleans image of a flat expanse of cracked mud. For a moment you think it’s a (sadly, now familiar) picture of agricultural drought, before you spot the domestic skirting boards framing the “field” and realise this is a domestic interior – flooded, then dried-out, once somebody’s room for living, now a devastated and useless space that mocks us with the contradictory powers of an element we disrespect atour peril.

Perhaps the most striking of all the human documents here is the account of Bangladeshi farming families, “climate refugees” pushed time and again off land devastated by increasingly violent river tides. The author of these heart-tearing images is Munem Wasif, who is the recipient of this year’s Pictet Commission. He is awarded a bursary of up to SFr40,000 to document one of the charitable initiatives the bank supports: the building of wells and sanitation at the Chittagong Hill Tracts project in Wasif’s native Bangladesh.

Munem Wasif's series - Water Tragedy - documents the climate refugees of Bangladesh, many of whom have done very little to contribute to greenhouse emissions, but who being forced to relocate due to too much or too little water caused by global warming

As Francis Hodgson writes in his introduction to Water, the illustrated book published to accompany the prize, “[the medium] had to be photography”. The rainmakers of Switzerland have made a hugely generous contribution to highlighting the global problems of water, and this magnificent array of transcultural photographs stretches the art form and proves beyond doubt that photography can convey complex arguments at the same time as the most delicate detail, can make us feel as deeply as it makes us think, can issue the most eloquent challenges without saying a word. In the fight to change our minds and habits, to put sustainability into the forefront of our thinking, old-style campaigning photography is still full of power.

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Photos courtesy of Benoit Aquin/Prix Pictet 2008, Susan Derges/Prix Pictet 2008, Sebastian Copeland/PR, Roman Signer/PR, and Munem Wasif/Prix Prictet 2008

Original Source: Guardian, UK and FT.com

Audio Slideshow: Photos compete for the Prix Pictet

Official Site: Prix Pictet - The World's Premier Photographic Award in Sustainability

You can find a post on the 2010 pictet exhibition in Paris at the gallery Les filles du calvaire at the following adress :
www.paris3e.fr

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