This year's Prix Pictet was won by a series of photographs of American power stations, the result of a five-year project across 25 states.
Photographer Mitch Epstein lands the prestigious Prix Pictet
Contenders for photography's prestigious Prix Pictet face an almost insurmountable task. In a world saturated with shock imagery and daily devastation on the news, how do you highlight an ethical issue through the power of a picture?
This year's jury considers that the American photographer and filmmaker Mitch Epstein may have found the answer. Selected from a shortlist of 12 photographers, Epstein's striking series of images titled American Power was awarded the winning prize of 100,000 Swiss francs (Dh406,862) at a ceremony at the exhibition opening at Paris's Passage de Retz gallery on March 17.
On making the award, its honorary president and former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan said: "It is difficult to look at this exhibition without being moved, even angered. And yet, however bleak their message, the creativity and spirit of these artists also gives us hope that we, the human race, have the capacity to find, to agree and to realise the answers to these challenges."
Now in its third year, the Prix Pictet is the only annual photography competition dedicated to the theme of sustainable development and the environment. In its inaugural year, the prize's theme was Water, the second year was Earth and, this year, the challenge was to depict Growth.
"Growth, in all its forms," according to the Pictet criteria, "as both a blessing and a curse: presents one of the great conundrums facing humanity ... We now face a global crisis in land use and agriculture that could undermine the health, security, and sustainability of our civilisation."
Sponsored by Pictet & Cie, one of Switzerland's largest private banks, the prize has two components: the cash prize is awarded to the photographer whom the jury considers to have produced the most powerful series of work on the given theme; and secondly, the commission, which is given to a shortlisted photographer who is invited to undertake a field trip to a region where the bank is supporting a sustainability project.
This year's commission was awarded to another American photographer Chris Jordan, who will travel to Kenya to work with the charity Tusk Trust. Tusk is responsible for the development of more than 40 different programmes of conservation and sustainable community development in 17 African countries. Jordan's mission will be to draw attention to the sustainability issues facing local communities in the Nakuprat Conservancy region, with particular reference to the theme of growth. The photographs produced for the commission will be premiered at an exhibition in London later this year.
When the prize was launched in 2008, Annan stated that "the Prix Pictet will deepen our understanding of the changes taking place in our world, raise public awareness of the scale of the threat we face and of the urgency of taking preventative action." From the start therefore, the prize's message has been clear. But what of the medium?
The challenge facing photographers who tackle such subject matter is the success with which they combine photography's two abiding concerns: aesthetics and contemporaneity. The images must stand on their own merit, worthy of a space on a gallery wall but they must also function in the same manner as a magazine cover or a cosmetics advertisement - they have to draw attention to a message. The successful photos therefore have to tread a thin line between classicism and surrealism; tasteful and trashy.
At the prize ceremony, Sir David King, chairman of the judges, read out the statement of the jury: "The Prix Pictet Jury were looking for photography that met three criteria: artistic excellence; powerful storytelling related to the theme of the award; and a coherent series of images with narrative power.
"After considerable deliberation the jury were unanimous in their decision to award the prize to Mitch Epstein, whose work most clearly met each of the three criteria. Epstein's epic, beautifully realised photographs employ a vantage point that is so perfect as to subtly disorientate you, while at the same time delivering a message of great power."
Epstein's images with their air of almost eerie tranquillity remind us of the fragility of the world's resources and how the abuse of these resources can cause untold damage.
In his artist's statement, Epstein explains how he set out on his five-year long project, American Power, across 25 states: "In 2003, I was asked to photograph the erasure of a small town in Ohio. In Cheshire, houses were being rased by the hour and streets were nearly emptied of human life. American Electric Power, one of the world's largest utility companies, had bought out the town and instituted a gag order, after increasing complaints that AEP's plant had contaminated the health of Cheshire's citizens. I was not the same after this trip. The cost of growth, with its implicit energy demands, had become terrifyingly vivid."
During the course of his project, he remembers: "I photographed a consumerist society inured to the consequences of unbridled consumption. Many living in the shadows of power plants despaired their polluted water and air, but did not have the economic resources to relocate. Growth no longer meant progress, but self-destruction.
"I wanted to photograph the dangerous trinity of corporate power, consumerist advertising, and citizens who believe the old American dream that improving your lot means having more and using more. American Power is an active response to the American Dream gone haywire."
Epstein's work joins that of previous Prix Pictet winners in its successful marriage of art and journalism. The inaugural Prix Pictet was won by the Canadian photographer Benoit Aquin for his series The Chinese Dust Bowl. Judges chose Bangladeshi photojournalist Munem Wasif, who competed with a black-and-white portfolio on climate-change refugees in Bangladesh, to complete the Water Commission by visiting the Satkhira region of south-west Bangladesh to support the work of the UK-based charity WaterAid.
The second Prix Pictet, on the theme of Earth, was a triumph for the Israeli-born, British-based photographer Nadav Kander for his series, Yangtze: The Long River, while the American photographer Ed Kashi undertook the second commission, for which he produced the series Madagascar, A Land Out of Balance.
Like the World Press Photo Award, the Prix Pictet does not remain an elite art happening, it takes its message to the wider public. As an international touring show, it delivers a selected body of work, and attendant messages, to an immense audience. And as this year's winning series goes to show, great photography can still convey complex messages at the same time as having the power to move us.
- To learn more about the Prix Pictet, visit www.prixpictet.com.
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