This year’s Prix Pictet winner
By Peter Aspden
Published: October 23 2009 16:52 | Last updated: October 23 2009 16:52
|‘Chongqinq IV (Sunday Picnic)’, 2006, by prizewinner Nadav Kander|
A Chinese family sits at a table, chatting and drinking tea. Its members seem relatively well-off – there is a tablecloth on the table and they are sitting on smart wicker chairs – and quietly relaxed. Their picnic spot is not particularly appealing, yet rich in symbolism: they are sitting next to the Yangtze River and underneath a concrete-pillared flyover.
It is the conjunction of the two Chinas, the ancient society that relied on its 4,000-mile-long waterway, and the newly emerging economic powerhouse that is springing to life all around. The flyover provides some shelter from what looks like an indifferent day; the river looks filthy. The family, and millions of their fellow Chinese, are at a crossroads. Will the country’s new orientation bring them the prosperity and happiness that they wish for?
The powerful image is by the Israeli-born, British-based photographer Nadav Kander, who is the latest winner of the Prix Pictet, the international photography prize dedicated to the theme of sustainable development and the environment. Kander received the award from Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, at a ceremony in Paris on Thursday night for his series of works on the Yangtze.
The works in Kander’s portfolio speak eloquently of a society in transition, and show some of the small tragedies that remain at the margins of China’s breakneck embracing of modernity. More than 3m people have been displaced along a 400-mile stretch of the river in the name of progress. “Common man has little say in China’s progression,” said Kander in his artist’s statement to the judges. It is this attention to the “smallness of the individual” that has powered his award-winning series.
This is the second year of the Prix Pictet, founded by the Swiss private bank Pictet & Cie and co-sponsored by the Financial Times. The theme for this year’s prize was “Earth”, following last year’s subject of “Water”. The 2008 winner, Benoit Aquin, was a member of the jury for this year’s prize.
The choice of 47-year-old Kander to receive the SFr100,000 award was a bold one, considering the presence of much better-established “art” photographers such as the German Andreas Gursky and the Canadian Edward Burtynsky on the shortlist of 12. But Francis Hodgson, chair of the judges and the FT photography critic, says the award is “not influenced by traditional career trajectories”.
Kander is best known for his commercial work, which includes advertising campaigns for Nike, Levi’s, Mercedes and John Lewis, and album covers for Placebo and Snow Patrol. He is also one of the world’s top magazine photographers: The New York Times magazine devoted an entire issue to “Obama’s People”, his 52 portraits of President Obama’s inaugural administration.
“He has been a brilliantly successful commercial photographer because he has eschewed having a voice of his own,” says Hodgson. “When he has had art directors, he has been able to do anything for anybody. Now he has had to find his own style, and he has found it consummately well.”
Hodgson admits that some observers may be surprised by the judges’ decision. “But one of the strengths of the Prix Pictet is that we are not much bothered over whether [the candidates] think of themselves as artists, or journalists, or commercial photographers. What is important is their ability to put their message across. Kander has astonishing, virtuoso skills. He is a communicator.”
The photographs shortlisted for the prize are currently on display at the Passage de Retz gallery in Paris. They include Gursky’s giant untitled work that turns a landfill site in Mexico City into a seemingly abstract landscape: “a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional world landscape”, in the artist’s words, “in which the world’s waste assumes the position of the former landscape ideal”.
The images of the Chinese photographer Yao Lu also trick the eye: what seem to be traditional Chinese landscape paintings are in fact composed of green-netted rubbish dumps.
These works capture the art-versus-journalism dilemma that photographers working in this field must resolve. Even the most grotesque sins against the environment can be made to look beautiful; but while the spectator may relish the irony, there is always the danger that the message is diluted.
On the other hand, we are in danger of becoming immune to the hard-hitting messages that bombard us regularly via the news media, each clunky image serving to make us that little less sensitive to the issues at hand.
These are the challenges that face the Prix Pictet jury, which this year included the architect Zaha Hadid and Sir David King, director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford University and former chief scientific adviser to the UK government. What remains constant is the moral imperative behind the award.
Sir David says that the tools of science and technology are not enough in themselves to effect the change in attitude that is required to combat the perils of climate change. He called for a new cultural “renaissance” that would effectively chronicle the dangers posed to the environment.
As part of the award’s remit, the shortlisted American photographer Ed Kashi has been commissioned to work in Madagascar, where Pictet & Cie is supporting a sustainability project. Kashi’s portfolio, “Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta” examined the costs of oil exploitation in west Africa.
Consistency demands that next year’s Prix Pictet be based on the theme of fire or air, the other two elements that have posed an increasing threat to the planet as the effects of climate change make themselves felt. Yet, as the organisers acknowledge, so intertwined are all the elements that there is the danger of repetition of subjects covered in the first two years of the prize.
They may need to think more laterally, to ensure that the world’s best takers of pictures retain their ability to shock us into overdue action.