Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013

The Photographers’ Gallery, London, is currently displaying the four finalists for this year’s Deutsche Börse prize.  There’s a range of techniques in use – two of the entries re-purpose photographs rather than originating their own – but all have strong messages to examine and interpret.  They are all good in their own way but is there a winner?  Well, for me there is, but let’s look at the entries before deciding.

Fifth floor display

The fifth floor: Broomberg & Chanarin’s entry in the floor stands, and De Middel’s entry on the walls. All images copyright Malcolm Raggett

Mishka Henner

“No Man’s Land” shows remote European locations and the sex workers who ply their trade there.

part of Mishka Henner's exhibition

Still images appropriated from Google Street View for Mishka Henner’s exhibition

Henner used information gleaned from the Internet to pinpoint the locations, then Google Street View to obtain the images for the exhibition.  His work contained still images, a video that was really an animated slide show, and recordings of bird songs from the locations.  This last component was the only evidence that the artist had visited the locations – assuming that he made the recordings – since the images had all been taken by the Google Street View project.  I was expecting this work to make me feel at least slightly voyeuristic but oddly it didn’t.  Perhaps this was because of the banality of the images, or maybe because I already knew that a robot had taken them rather than a human.

Although I found myself worryingly unmoved by the subject of his exhibition, I think Henner’s methodology is more significant than the actual images displayed.  The idea of re-purposing information from innocuous  to nefarious uses is hardly new, though it doesn’t do any harm to highlight and question the ethics of this especially in this digital, connected age.  Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin

This pair of artists produced a hand-made book based on the 1955 publication “War Primer” by Berthold Brecht.  This new book is called “War Primer 2”  and has recent images overlaying the original ones, so each page is now a diptych with the original photograph partially obscured but still able to impart its chilling message.  The overlay image is taken from the internet or news clipping and is from more recent conflict.  There is also a four-line poem on the page.  The exhibition shows multiple copies of the book open at different pages.  Enough aspects recent wars are shown for the whole effect to be tellingly anti-war but, given the time difference between the original and new books, also asking why do we still make war?  Have we learned nothing from these conflicts except how to create ever-more effective ways of killing people?

display cases

display cases showing War Primer 2 by Broomberg and Chanarin

Chris Killip

Killip documented the impact of industrial change in the north of England in the 1970s and 1980s.  This period spans the decline of socialism and the rise of capitalism, as a labour government gave way to Thatcherism: when social need took a back seat to personal greed.  The title of the exhibition is “What Happened – Great Britain 1970-90”.  This is not a question (“what happened?”) but a statement (“this is what happened”).  Although it would be more accurate to limit the title to the north of England rather than the whole of Great Britain, these images are part of a larger retrospective, which may well deserve the broader title.  I found it impossible to put the images in chronological order from the image content alone, the message I take from this is that very little changed in the two decades – people were still living in a degraded environment in relative poverty and with a fair degree of hopelessness.  So much for politics and politicians!

Killip exhibition

part of the Chris Killip exhibition “What Happened – Great Britain 1970-90”

Christina De Middel

In the 1960s a Zambian teacher had the amusingly crackpot idea of using a catapult to put a team of Zambians (and a cat) on the Moon and Mars ahead of the Russians and Americans. All he needed was the money (yeah, know the feeling!)

Christina De Middel's fictional account of the Zambian Space Programme

Christina De Middel’s fictional account of the Zambian Space Programme

Reviving the idea, De Middel has created a fictional account of the Zambian Space Programme in her book “The Afronauts”.  This project has a charming wackiness to it that really appeals to me: fiction meets fashion meets documentary meets archive.  Its more serious message is to question our sometimes gullible, unquestioning attitude to the way stories are distilled and presented to us.

Who wins?

Each of the finalists is good in their own way.  I’m not a great fan of image appropriation but War Primer 2 uses others’ images very effectively, in fact it is hard to see how the book could have been accomplished otherwise.  No Man’s Land, though, is a lazy man’s approach to photography: the whole project could have been achieved from an office and a computer, its only saving grace is the questions it raises by virtue of the methodology, including image appropriation, used.

De Middel’s project is fun but also has a serious side, so “well done”, but I just find the message a bit naive to be a real winner.  Then there is Killip’s documentary, which shows commitment and competence over a long period but could be criticised for having a traditional approach – well of course it does, Killip’s career has spanned 4 or 5 decades and easily predates digital manipulation and multiple media.  But its still gets its message across loud and clear, and it is still relevant today.

So my winner is: Chris Killip
worthy runner-up: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
third would be: Christina de Middel
and a hearty pat on the back for Mishka Henner.

The official winner will be announced on Monday 10 June.

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