The Prx Pictet rewards photographers whose work deals with sustainability – and photgraphy is the ideal medium to highlight the devastating impact that over-farming and rapid industrilisation can have on people’s lives. Liz Farrelly reports
We are bombarded by images of dystopia, disaster and despair. Fictionalised visions of apocalypse inhabit our imaginations, from Hollywood blockbusters such as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds to the latest adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller The Road. His book has been hailed as a masterpiece, and the film is eagerly awaited. Set in a post-apocalyptic winter, a father and son walk through a burned and deforested American landscape. As grey snow falls, gangs of survivors search out whatever food they can find, by whatever means. Shocking as this image is, we take comfort in the fact that it is fiction.
Cut to last month, and the publication of maverick scientist James Lovelock’s new book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, which sets out a future where, yes, the world survives, but the human population is decimated. Over a century the planet has heated up, and destruction of fertile farmland hasn’t left enough to eat.
Lovelock has been predicting climate change since the 1980s, and is proven right. So, why are we able to ignore such warnings? Put it down to an inability to visualise such a catastrophe in real life, and the fact that the wealthy West simply isn’t on the frontline – yet. But, in some regions of the globe, environmental disasters of great magnitude are in full swing. And, through the power of photography, we’re asked to take a look.
Enter an unlikely ally to the cause of furthering the message of climate change. Pictet & Cie is a private Swiss bank, which in 2008 established an international photography award, the Prix Pictet, to focus on sustainability. The award has impeccable credentials and an interesting judging format. Each year it considers nominations on a theme – last year’s was Water, this year’s is Earth – from an international network of more than 60 photographers, curators, journalists and educators. Each is asked to nominate ten photographers. The work is then judged by a panel chaired by Francis Hodgson, Sotheby’s photography expert.
‘We want to showcase pictures on sustainability,’ says Hodgson. ‘The problems involved are global and urgent – appropriate to the astonishing message-making and message-carrying ability of photography. It is immediate and trans-cultural.’
Last year’s winner, Benoit Aquin, presented a series of images he describes as ‘surreal… and environmental’. Dust Bowl focused on China’s new deserts, the result of fast-track industrialisation that has seen large-scale migration to cities and over-farming by agribusiness.
When asked how the Prix Pictet might increase understanding of such complex issues, Aquin says, ‘At the awards ceremony there were lots of people from the financial world, which was great because you have to reach the decision-makers.’
But the Prix Pictet is more than just a good party. Like the renowned World Press Photo Award, it takes its message to the wider public. As an international touring show, it delivers a selected body of work, and attendant messages, to a vast audience. The shortlist is launched in Paris, then travels, touching down in Dubai, Hong Kong and venues across Europe. And while judging gets under way for this year’s award, a second exhibition featuring a 2008 shortlisted winner, Munem Wasif,is being staged in London.
Wasif was awarded a commission and brief to work with the charity Water Aid. Born in Dhaka in 1983, he focused his camera on the plight of the Satkhira region of Bangladesh. Unregulated shrimp farming, on land bought from communities decimated by a previous cyclone, has caused a creeping salination of the waterways. Rising sea levels add to the danger of working in such an environment. While women walk miles each day to find fresh water, their families suffer from the effects of dehydration and water-born contaminants. Wasif’s sharply contrasted black-and-white images result from a long process of listening to the stories of local people, and they’re personal, gritty and poetic.
So, how might such images help a campaign? Water Aid photo officer Jessica Crombie says, ‘We need evocative pictures to tell the story instantly. Wasif’s work is incredibly emotive and powerful. There’s no way to look at these images from a distance, to stand back and coolly observe the people and the situation. You are hauled into their suffering, their struggle… More than 36 million people in Bangladesh live without access to safe water.’
From the point of view of photography as a discipline, where does this sort of image-making sit in the canon? Is it documentary, landscape, political or personal? Or does it represent a new genre of photography? Aquin says, ‘No… I think it is the time we live in. Artists are expressing what they are aware of.’
Jan Dalley, Financial Times arts editor and one of this year’s judges, says, ‘The Prix Pictet shows one thing very clearly. In serious photography, there is no separation between photographers dealing with “issues” and those primarily interested in aesthetics – the two elements are completely interlinked.’
Meanwhile, Hodgson, who describes photography as ‘beauty and trouble’, says, ‘That the collective levels of intelligence, skill and desire to be heard were so very high was a surprise. And it made the whole effort of setting the prize in motion completely worthwhile.