Sony Photography Awards profiled

With numerous high-profile awards, photography hardly lacks for prizes. However, Ed Barber wonders whose purpose they serve, and thinks the market may be as important as the art form itself

Everyone’s a winner. Or are they? Awards, prizes and competitions are good for business, but who else apart from the winners benefit? The sponsors – of course. The judges – possibly. Everybody taking part whose work gets shown – hopefully, as they are showcased and referenced.

No doubt about it – photography has taken a long time to come of age, to take itself seriously as an art form and have the world take it seriously too. Is this new-found confidence reflected in the awards and competitions currently on offer, or are they all simply marketing ploys by sponsors to push their brand and/or product at consumers?

There is the annual Deutsche Börse awards at The Photographers’ Gallery – photography’s version of the Turner Prize in many ways. Then there’s the World Press Awards, catering for a more journalistic and editorially oriented, but no less critical audience. The lower-key but equally important Jerwood Photography Awards highlight student work, while The Association of Photographers Awards and the National Portrait Gallery’s Photographic Portrait Prize showcase a broad cross-section of current practice from an open submission.

So prepare yourselves for the Oscars of the photographic world. Judging by the press material, that’s how the all-new Sony World Photography Awards would like to be seen. With a heavily publicised and lavish five-day gathering later this month, it’s a major event in the photographic calendar – ‘bringing the photographic community to Cannes to celebrate photography and its art’.

This is a significant moment in how photography sees itself and is perceived globally, but it must also be viewed in the context of the marketplace. With film-based photography now a highly specialised activity, the manufacturers of digital imaging systems are battling for market share.

Old brand names are disappearing or becoming esoteric. Newer names in the stills world, of which Sony is one, are keen to establish themselves as serious camera-makers. The digital SLR market would seem to be of particular interest to a technology manufacturer like Sony, and a new prestigious awards scheme could be just the ticket to establish Sony as the brand at the forefront of cultural and technological developments in photography.

As Brett Rogers, director of The Photographers’ Gallery, observes, ‘Photography… is not only beloved by the art world, but also recognised as a unique form of expression by countless professionals and amateurs. Recognition of this growth in commitment to photography from all levels, through prizes and awards such as the SWPA, not only supports, but also nurtures existing and future creativity.’

These awards are presided over by the World Photographic Academy, comprising of ‘some of the world’s leading photographers, gallery owners, major picture editors, photographic foundation directors and other industry experts’. The governing body is the honorary board (’11 of the most acclaimed photographers and industry heavyweights’) dominated by a reportage/documentary selection of five Magnum photographers, plus Tom Stoddart, Mary Ellen Mark, Nan Goldin, Rankin and gallery owner Stephen Cohen.

The categories used to select and judge are a mish-mash of genres. The content of the images included in the Professional (up to ten images per contestant) and Amateur (single images) sections is global, with a tendency towards predictably graphic pictorialism that would fit happily in the files of high-end picture agencies.

Shortlisted entries on the website display a tendency for banal and inappropriate captions. This is especially true in the Photojournalism/Documentary category, where we expect information that provides context and enhances reading of the images. Instead, we are offered titles that are often glib and cryptic, and do not do justice to the seriousness of the subject matter.

Of course, there are exceptions. Francesco Zizola’s Maldives – A Lost Paradise series has a certain clarity and integrity that makes it stand out. In Fashion, the work of Valeska/Isabela Achenbach/Pacini on Daspu, the fashion label of the Brazilian prostitutes, brings a raw documentary quality to a section dominated by standard fashion stories. In Sports, Robin Utrecht’s Soccer Team essay on amputees is both striking and moving in its simplicity.

After all, there are hundreds of images here, selected from thousands submitted by photographers from across the globe, so we should expect to find inspirational work of the highest quality. Nothing is perfect, but when a global brand like Sony steps into the spotlight, it needs to live up to its ambitious claims. It needs to look closely at the balance of the judging panel and ensure it represents world experts in all categories. To remain credible and attract the highest standard of entrants, the selection categories, criteria, procedures and judging must be transparent and well publicised.

It can never just be about the glamour of the award ceremonies. It should be far more than a cynical attempt to tap into an expanding digital camera market. Photography is an inspirational medium that crosses all barriers with its own unique visual language. We look to sponsors such as Sony to respect photography’s past and present and support its future. Discovering, encouraging and selecting new talent is the really serious business.

The Sony World Photography Awards, Palais des Festivals, Cannes, 21-25 April

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