thu 17/06/2021

Prix Pictet: Confinement review - a year in photographs | reviews, news & interviews

Prix Pictet: Confinement review - a year in photographs

Prix Pictet: Confinement review - a year in photographs

Prize-winning photographers respond to the pandemic

Shahidul Alam, 'Artists in Dhaka, Bangladesh Protest Against the Digital Security Act@, 2020Shahidul Alam

Sustainability and the environment are watchwords for the Prix Pictet, the international photography prize now in its ninth cycle.

Since its launch in 2008, it has responded to the state of the world with urgency and compassion, its shortlists all the more intriguing for their oscillations between the universal and the personal, the global and the local.

Last year, four of the 88 living photographers shortlisted for the prize to date were commissioned in a joint project with The Guardian, their brief to move beyond fast emerging Covid tropes, of “deserted cityscapes, overflowing hospitals and returning wildlife”, and instead to “point a way forward.” The brief was then extended to all 88 photographers, resulting in Confinement, a book containing work by 43 contributors, including the four Guardian commissions.

Ross McDonnell, Face Masks, 2020Ross McDonell’s face masks are loaded with the politics of race and identity, the relationship between Covid and racial discrimination as powerfully conveyed by masks labelled “African” and “Tribal”, as one reading "Black Lives Matter” (pictured right). For Nayaba Léon Ouedraogo, the traditional masks of Burkina Faso become an extension of the body, transcending individual identity to create a cultural continuum across time and place.

Covid and Black Lives Matter intersect again in two pictures by the American photojournalist Ed Kashi, whose more traditional documentary approach places in tension the disproportionate suffering of BAME people and the compassion and fear of those on the front line.

With only one or two photographs from each artist, the book doesn’t function as a substitute exhibition, which under the circumstances, and given the usual format of the Prix Pictet, would feel appropriate. Certainly, I would have liked far more pictures from Rena Effendi, whose adopted city of Istanbul is a ghostly background presence in portraits of a hamam scrubber and a drag artist (pictured below left), who pause, listless, waiting for the city to come back to life. Happily, Effendi’s photo story about Istanbul’s “non-essential” workers is among the Guardian commissions, and so can be viewed in full, online.  

Rena Effendi, 'Drag Artist, Ceytengri', 2020For the most part, the book looks beyond personal and regional experiences of the pandemic to produce a global picture of inequality, that in all its forms and manifestations can be boiled down to the exploitation of resources by industrialised countries at the expense of the least developed. According to the Ugandan fiction writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, who has written an introductory essay, the pandemic has brought “home to the centred world the fact that humanity is part of nature, that nature has creative ways of regulating itself.” In arming ourselves against a recurrence, we need to demonstrate our preparedness, which, she believes “would push humanity to come up with cleaner ways of living, and sooner.”

Mandy Barker’s planets seem far removed from such earthly concerns – except these strange bodies are not planets at all, they are plastic fishing buoys recovered from Henderson Island in the South Pacific, one of only two coral atolls that risks destruction by vast accumulations of plastic waste.

The demands of consumerism are constantly implicated in the risk and harm inflicted on the planet, and its most exploited populations. The American photographer and sculptor Mary Mattingly records the changes to the face of the planet that amount to “environmental tipping points”; Brent Stirton shows masked agricultural labourers harvesting lettuces behind plexiglass screens (pictured below).

Brent Stirton, 'Agriculture, Immigrants and Covid-19', 2020 courtesy the artist and Getty ImagesCovid has provided an opportunity for repressive regimes to close down communications with the outside world, and impose even greater limits and scrutiny on their citizens. Bangladesh’s highly controversial Digital Security Act was passed in 2018, and has been enforced rigorously during Covid, according to Shahidul Alam, whose photograph of artists protesting against the act, used to arrest artists and writers during the pandemic, is one of the book’s most breathtaking images (main picture).

Its a truism to say that photography is by nature outward looking, but it is this characteristic  – combined with the campaigning spirit of the Prix Pictet that flavours even the least documentary-inclined contributions  – that relieves this landmark project from the solipsistic tendencies that feel inevitable after a year of social distance and isolation. If only the book were bigger – but as it is, this compilation of work by 43 fine photographers from all over the world is the most far-reaching response to Covid, artistic or otherwise, that I have seen so far.

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