Art of darkness

The four photographers shortlisted for this year’s Deutsche Börse prize are far removed from the mainstream, each of them unafraid to put strong and personal statements at the heart of their work, reports Gareth Gardner


At first glance, the photographs couldn’t be more diverse: buildings cluttered around a Birmingham railway station; an American family proudly showing off their rifle collection; a solitary man standing on the edge of a remote lake; and the mournful stare of an Indian girl. Yet the images – and the photographers who created them – can all be described as eschewing mainstream photographic practice.

These photographs are highlights from bodies of work nominated for this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. John Davies, Jacob Holdt, Esko Männikkö and Fazal Sheikh have been shortlisted for the £30 000 prize. It rewards the living photographer, of any nationality, who the judges believe has made the most significant contribution to photography in Europe in the 12 months from October 2006.

The shortlisted work goes on show at The Photographers’ Gallery next month, and the winner will be announced in March. While the diversity of the shortlist may have something to do with the manifold interests of the judging panel – comprising a curator, an artist, a publisher and the award sponsor – perhaps it also shows the heterogeneous nature of contemporary photography.

But Brett Rogers, chairman of the judges’ panel and director of The Photographers’ Gallery, which runs the prize, believes there is much that unites the work. ‘The four are very anti-commercial,’ she says. ‘This year’s shortlist is a bit left of centre.’ These are artists who don’t play the fine art game, resisting the pressure from galleries to produce market-friendly work. They care passionately about their subject matter and are keen to put across a particular message.

US photographer Fazal Sheikh’s haunting work certainly makes a powerful statement. He has been nominated for the publication Ladli, which examines the effects of prejudice against women in a contemporary Indian society. It’s harrowing stuff, with tales of domestic slavery, forced prostitution and abandoned female offspring. Portraits are accompanied by texts mixing personal testimony with Sheikh’s own commentary on the people and their situations.

‘It is one thing to photograph a group of people, it is another to try to understand them,’ says Sheikh. Over the past decade he has documented the lives of the displaced in countries such as Kenya, Pakistan and Brazil. ‘At a time when traditional photographic coverage is often limited to a brief stopover and a search for sensational images, the need to step back and understand the people whose lives and values are very different from our own is greater than ever,’ he says.

A similar immersion into the people and culture of a particular place is evident in Finnish photographer Esko Männikkö’s work. Nominated for his retrospective Cocktails 1990-2007 exhibition, which took place last year in Stockholm, Männikkö documents the lives of people ‹ who live in remote parts of Finland. He has described himself as ‘a photographer of fish, dogs and old men’. Furthermore, Rogers claims he is the maverick of the four, and says, ‘His work is very much about the isolation of Finnish society and the robustness of the people who survive out there.’ Männikkö actually lives among his subjects. ‘He’s the real thing, he goes out hunting,’ says Rogers. The images are mounted in second-hand frames, providing a sense of craftmanship which Rogers believes is shown by all the shortlisted photographers.

Liverpool-based John Davies certainly appreciates the craft of photography, hand-printing his own large-format prints. Nominated for the exhibition The British Landscape, his panoramic images present an objective view of the UK’s changing post-industrial landscape. ‘I don’t try and put my personality first,’ says Davies. ‘As a documentary photographer, I try to point the camera towards things I’m interested in, to create a narrative and ask questions.’

His images are often full of contrasts and clashes, such as a football pitch next to Agecroft Power Station, or the chaotic layering of buildings around Birmingham’s New Street Station. Yet, Davies stresses, ‘I leave it to the audience to come up with their own answers.’

Jacob Holdt’s images are less contemplative. The Danish photographer has been nominated for his publication Jacob Holdt, United States 1970-1975, which documents five years spent hitchhiking across the US. ‘He was accosted the minute he walked into the country,’ says Rogers. ‘So he started taking out his camera and documenting what [he thought] was wrong with the US.’ His disturbing images expose social injustice in the US during Richard Nixon’s ill-fated presidency. ‘Photography can be a powerful tool and I use it as a means to confront people with their racism and prejudices,’ he says.

While the prize, which was established in 1996, always presents a multifaceted view of contemporary photography, this year’s shortlist may demonstrate a shift in the sort of images that are getting noticed. ‘It demonstrates that people who carve out their own paths can be recognised,’ says Rogers.

The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2008 is at The Photographers’ Gallery, 5 & 8 Great Newport Street, London WC2 from 8 February to 6 April, and the winner is announced on 5 March

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