Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2008

Photographers Gallery, London
Through 6 April

The DB Prize always throws up an interesting array of photographers, some traditionally journalistic in approach, some more experimental and I frequently wonder: a) how they are selected for the shortlist and b) how the winner is chosen.

This year's crop, all male, are: John Davies (UK), Fazal Sheikh (USA), Jacob Holdt (Denmark) and Esko Mannikko (Finland).

Davies, separate from the others in the Cafe, takes large format black and white shots, documenting the changing face of Britain's landscape. Many of his shots are of the north of England, with its complex relationship to the Industrial Revolution. It is a fruitful exercise, but I found his shots a bit dull.

Mannikko has his own quirky world, and his entry is drawn from several exhibits, giving it an un-unified feel. Close-up shots of animals' faces sit side-by-side (and indeed are jammed in together, at his behest) with shots of weathered wooden doors, these being two of his interests but not intended for one exhibit. So. An interesting character but again not really my bag.

Holdt's work I found extremely problematic. For a long time he lived a nomadic existence, hitch-hiking across the USA in the 1970s and frequently, it appears from his captions, shacking up with all and sundry as he did so. His interest is in the marginal in society: drag queens, prostitutes, poor black Southerners, drug addicts.

But his approach I find extremely exploitative. He frequently refers to his "friends", as well as various girlfriends, in his captions to the photos. Really? Did his "friends" know he was going to publish his work and benefit from their poverty and degradation? Did they really want everyone to know they were street-walking or taking illegal drugs? It truly smacks of the worst kind of smug colonialism: the European artist sweeping in to decry the lives of the poor, suffering natives.

The work I did find impressive and moving was the series by Sheikh, about continuing discrimination against women in India. He approaches the project as an outsider but his portraits (taken with consent) are both dignified and dramatic. There is also considerable context given in the accompanying text.

Some of these women have suffered extreme abuse: set on fire by their husbands, abandoned by their families, trafficked into prostitution. But they want to tell their stories and his work is helping to raise awareness of the consequences of the cultural preference for male children.

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