Top 10 (+1)

Photobooks of 2021

Selected by Alex Merola and Tim Clark

As the year draws to a close, an annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from 2021 – selected by Editor in Chief, Tim Clark, with words from Assistant Editor, Alex Merola.

1. Gilles Peress, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing
Steidl

What Gilles Peress has achieved with Whatever You Say, Say Nothing – unsurprisingly shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2022 – is astonishing, and surely must rank amongst the highest feats in photobook history. In some 2,000 pages, sprawled across two volumes as well as an almanac entitled Annals of the North, the esteemed French photographer embarks on a visual and philosophical exploration of the ethno-nationalist conflict that engulfed Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to 1998. With no beginning, middle or end, Peress’ tale defies the orthodoxies of linear narrative by orchestrating 22 semi-fictional “days”: days that recycle, over and over, the rituals of violence, protest and grieving; days in which the carnage becomes inseparable from the quotidian. That said, whilst Peress exploits photography’s “reality effect” to register the material specifics of the Troubles, it’s in the work’s accumulation that the strife operates synecdochically. For it expresses – like a photographic Finnegans Wake (1939) – what is elsewhere – or, rather, everywhere: the simultaneity of good and evil; the push and pull of power; the helicoidal unravelling of time. That this work speaks to such profound, ineffable ideas is a testament to the potential of the photobook when it finds its upper limits. And, indeed, few could have executed this unison between content, structure and form so flawlessly as Gerhard Steidl has: a book of all books, unlike anything that has come before.

2. Gregory Eddi Jones, Promise Land
Self Publish, Be Happy Editions

With the mounting complexities which define our times requiring increasingly sophisticated modes of storytelling, it is exciting to witness an artist invent something so utterly imaginative that it makes us see the world anew. Promise Land, by Gregory Eddi Jones, is one such example. In this whirling, poetic mashup, Jones riffs off T. S. Eliot’s apocalyptic epic, The Waste Land (1922), of course penned in the wake of the First World War and influenza pandemic. Aligned with Eliotean tactics of appropriation, Jones’ sequences are comprised of stock photographs: consumerist fantasies which, for the artist, not only bespeak the excesses of contemporary culture, but represent photography in its most hollow, debased and regurgitative state. Through a profusion of détournements – cropping, compositing, inverting, inkjet hacking and digital retouching – Jones makes implicit values explicit, inviting readers to re-evaluate the relationship between photography and truth, or sever their ties altogether. Here is a work that is bold, irreverent and oftentimes chilling, not least for the bookending displays of a composer waving his wand before a spell-bound audience; suggestions that there may be as much method as madness in this heap of broken images.

3. Hoda Afshar, Speak The Wind
MACK

From start to close – and vice versa – Hoda Afshar’s Speak The Wind entrances with its eloquent rendition of zār: the wind spirits which, for millennia, have shaped the topography and traditions of the islanders of the Strait of Hormuz, an oil passageway joining the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. They are said to inflict disease, placated only through ritual dialogues conducted with the gusts themselves. Situated somewhere between the sacred and the baleful, Afshar’s incantatory, cinematically-paced photographs do not so much conjure a people but channel their psychic entanglement with place. Punctuating the book are bound pages depicting wind-sculpted mountains; they form pockets that conceal islanders’ drawings and writings describing their experiences of being possessed by zār. Afshar’s dimensional switches cleverly rupture photography’s predispositions for certainties; those which can be clutched, seen. It’s easy to get swept up by these pages, to concede to forces greater than us, yet Afshar also empowers readers like she does her subjects. Setting foot on twinkling black sands, or setting sail through seas as red as blood, we are ultimately met by a crossroads: between reality and fiction; between this world and another.

4. Tarrah Krajnak, El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan
Dais Books

The breakthrough of Tarrah Krajnak has been one of the most significant of the year, and the artist’s nuanced handling of archival material is on full view in this precious book. Borrowing the title and parable blueprint of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), it plays a deep concern with the circumstances surrounding her birth: amidst the terror of Peru’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, Krajnak’s biological mother travelled to Lima to work as a maid; she was raped, and gave birth to Krajnak in 1979, ‘the year of the orphans’. Instead of attempting to resolve these personal and political narratives, Krajnak invents mothers, imagines lineages and initiates what she calls ‘misremembrance’. The asymmetrical sequences pull our attention in fractured ways, moving through re-photographed images from political magazines, oral testimonies of women born in 1979 and the artist’s interactions with projections in which temporalities enmesh like palimpsests. Krajnak’s sharp prose and deliberate mistranslations bestow an added intensity to this book’s reckoning with subjectivity as much as history, all the while collapsing the boundaries between them. With El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan, Krajnak shows that affinity can be innate, even historical, persisting in the psyches of those separated by space and time yet linked by collective knowledge, memory and trauma. Theirs is a storied history, seen through a glass, darkly.

5. Catherine Opie
Phaidon

Boasting lavish printing and impeccable production values, Phaidon’s survey of Catherine Opie’s prodigious output is of the highest order and entirely befitting of one of the great chroniclers of this century. There is much to be praised for the ways in which over 300 photographs, spanning 40 years, have been mapped, not chronologically, but thematically across three chapters: People, Place and Politics. Yet, the lines which delineate them are almost non-existent. One spread pairs a headshot of Pig Pen (Opie’s long-time friend and subject) donning a fake moustache with a photograph of a lesbian couple seated in their backyard with arms interlocked; another the iconic ‘Self-Portrait/Cutting’ (1993) with a literal manifestation of the domestic scene carved-out on Opie’s back. They are juxtapositions that steer us towards the central paradox of Opie’s oeuvre: for all its supposed extremity in staging the queer body as a site of self-actualisation, there is, at its heart, a yearning for the fundamental. Because, whether documenting human, ecological or architectural subjects, she never strays far from home, hence the tome’s modest, perfectly-judged cover, which displays the young artist photographing herself in the mirror alongside potted plants and a wood burning stove. Opie’s work feels vital; it always did.

6. Raymond Meeks, Somersault
MACK

Raymond Meeks’ very beautiful and affecting ode to ­his daughter, Abigail, is a charged companion piece to his much admired aubade, ciprian honey cathedral (2020). Through imperceptible yet tenderly convicted narrative shifts, Meeks unveils the inner-world of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood and leaving home. He coaxes out Abigail’s emotional subtleties in a way perhaps only a parent could; she is alternately timid, whimsical, inquisitive and fearless. However, Meeks honours the guarded mysteries of adolescence, too. Abigail becomes, for her father, a horizon where intimacy and loneliness converge, as mirrored by Meeks’ sublime evocation of the wilderness that envelops their home, delicately tethered by train tracks, telephone wires and wilting daisies. His impossibly lucid visions crackle with longing throughout until we reach the parting words of Abigail herself, who recalls the innocent daydream of her younger self: ‘She wants to climb on a train and go where it takes her.’ The grace of Somersault is to measure distance whilst recognising that few distances are ever fixed.

7. Zora J Murff, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis)
Aperture

Where Zora J Murff ’s previous book, At No Point in Between (2019), takes as its subject the historically Black neighbourhood of North Omaha, Nebraska, his new book is nation-wide in scope. Beneath the swirling surface of True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) – currently displayed in exhibition form at Webber Gallery, London – lies a provocative meditation on America: its fragile bonds, elective affinities and colonial legacies. From police brutality and lynching to redlining and economic oppression, violence – fast and slow – runs through the veins of this book, so arresting in its dense web of image types: vernacular photography, newspaper clippings, Internet screenshots, video stills, landscapes, portraiture and more. Murff’s dexterous use of juxtaposition – often contextualising his own photographs alongside found and appropriated material – brings into focus the medium’s complicity in creating and maintaining racial hierarchies through the spectacle, commodification or erasure of Black bodies. This book serves as not only a complicated, oft-impenetrable ‘manual’ for coming to terms with the country’s past and navigating its present, but – true to its title – an autobiographical retelling of the epiphanies of a young Black artist finding his voice. And it’s emphatic.

8. Massao Mascaro, Sub Sole
Chose Commune

Sub Sole ­– a classical, richly-layered piece of narrative work which was recently exhibited in an elegant show curated by Fannie Escoulen at Fondation A Stichting, Brussels – follows after Homer’s The Odyssey (c.750 BC), traversing the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Its waters have, since time immemorial, been a crucible for voyages: some mythical and heroic; some real and tragic. Against the backdrop of such tense, intersecting contexts, Massao Mascaro furnishes our gaze across relics, architecture and the gestural relations between those who have sought refuge in Europe. These passing impressions are loosely arranged through nine visual poems, each introduced by a literary fragment which rolls along the bottom edges. The clarity of Mascaro’s frames; the lyricism of his sequences; the mesmerising gradations of Mediterranean light: all of them are a function of the casual grandeur of the world he has crafted. Yet, there is also a deeply disturbing cycle to this book, which ultimately feels suspended in time – timeless even – as intimated by the dialless clock that decorates its front cover, or the line from which its title derives: ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes, 1:10).

9. Frida Orupabo
Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim

Although the subversive strategies of Frida Orupabo are best experienced via her Instagram feed, @nemiepeba, and on the gallery wall, this debut monograph affords a persuasive translation of her work in book form. The opening black pages (preceding incisive essays by Stefanie Hessler, Lola Olufemi and Legacy Russell) showcase Orupabo’s social media images, offering flashes of the artist’s extraordinary online archive – a ‘voluptuous trail of black continuity’, as Arthur Jafa called it – which she uses as a laboratory to make her paper collages. Whilst the inclusion of installation views here attests to the uneasy transitions these physical pieces undergo when they enter the gallery’s white space, it also evinces the manifold ways of seeing Black bodies that Orupabo compels. W. E. B. Du Bois’ notion of ‘double consciousness’ – that is, viewing oneself through the coloniser’s eyes – is undeniable, but so too is bell hooks’ ‘oppositional gaze’. Orupabo’s greatest triumph might be in the transmission of a wholly new consciousness, found in the unforgettable, searing stares of her feminine protagonists. Their pasts are fraught, but, in Orupabo’s curative hands, they embody the spirit of resistance that literally underpins them.

10. Alexis Cordesse, Talashi
Atelier EXB

The catalytic inquiry of Alexis Cordesse’s subtle entry into the vernacular genre is this: how does one evoke a tragedy that is paradoxically made invisible through too many images? The tragedy in question is the Syrian civil war, an ongoing conflict that has displaced over half the country’s population since 2011. Seeking an alternative to the sentimental dramatisations of war all too often circulated by mainstream media, Cordesse performs an act of collective remembrance by collating personal photographs belonging to those living in exile in Turkey, Germany and France; those who entrusted him enough to share the memories they hold dear. These artefacts have, like their owners, survived perilous journeys, for, if they had been seized as pieces of evidence at the borders, they might not have made it – and, indeed, many didn’t. Such is the precarity of Talashi, whose title translates from Arabic to Fragmentation, Erosion or Disappearance. Slowly weaving what ultimately becomes an ever-vanishing tapestry of home, this book quakes with a quiet, mournful energy: a reminder that though all photographs are silent, some are more silent than others.

+1. What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999
10×10 Photobooks

The advent of photobook history – a still relatively new field of study – set in motion the books-on-photobooks. Although doing much to further our understanding of the medium, they have failed to redress the canon’s long-standing male biases. Enter What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999. In the foreword to this important anthology, editors Russet Lederman and Olga Yatskevich stress the issues of access and funding or lack thereof; ergo their necessary expansion of what constitutes a “photobook” via the inclusion of albums, scrapbooks and maquettes. Indeed, marginalised histories are not just a question of gender, but of class and race too, hence the scarcity of, for example, African photobooks as opposed to books-on-Africa. The anthology countervails these factors through its signature turn: an interwoven, parallel timeline that charts publishing, magazine and small press events which might not have realised “photobooks” in the narrow, Western sense, but certainly influenced history. Many of these notations are incomplete, acting more like leads. Of course, one wishes that such a sole dedication to female authors did not have to exist. However, until it doesn’t, it prevails as a critical resource for discovering forgotten parts of photobook history: a history that is longstanding, forever rich yet still being written.♦

Alex Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words. 

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University. He lives and works in London.

Images:

1-Gilles Peress, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing (Steidl, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Steidl.

2-From the chapter ‘The Last Night’ in Gilles Peress, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing (Steidl, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Gilles Peress Studio.

3-‘Betterland’ (2019) from Gregory Eddi Jones, Promise Land (Self Publish, Be Happy Editions, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Self Publish, Be Happy Editions.

4-‘Untitled’ from Hoda Afshar, Speak The Wind (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

­5-‘Dead Ringer/Self-Portrait as Found Photograph (1979 Lima, Peru)’ (2018) from Tarrah Krajnak, El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan (Dais Books, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Dais Books.

6-‘Joanne, Betsy & Olivia, Bayside, New York’ (1998) from Catherine Opie (Phaidon, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, New York/Hong Kong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples and Peder Lund, Oslo.

7-‘Untitled’ from Raymond Meeks, Somersault (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

8-‘Stole-On (or, I wanna be a world star)’ (2021) from Zora J. Murff, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) (Aperture, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Webber Gallery, London.

9-‘Untitled’ from Massao Mascaro, Sub Sole (Chose Commune, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Chose Commune.

10-‘Untitled’ (2017) from Frida Orupabo (Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim, 2021). Courtesy the artist, Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim.

11-‘Untitled’ from Alexis Cordesse, Talashi (Atelier EXB, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Atelier EXB.

12-Spread from Christina Broom and Isabel Marion Seymour, Women’s Social and Political Union Postcards Album (self-published, 1908–14). Courtesy Museum of London.

Top 10

Photobooks of 2020

Selected by 1000 Words

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from the tumultuous year that was 2020 – selected by 1000 Words.

1. Andy Sewell, Known and Strange Things Pass
Skinnerboox

Readers of 1000 Words will recall last year’s feature on Known and Strange Things Pass. Now published in book form by Skinnerboox, Andy Sewell’s meditation on the complex entanglement between technology and contemporary life seems more apposite than ever given the socially-distanced times in which we exist – not to mention the illusory propinquity of screen-based connection. Within a kinetic, non-linear sequence of images that aptly push and pull, ebb and flow, cables – carries of immeasurable quantities of data – weave across the Atlantic Ocean’s bed, and resurface on either side in alien concrete facilities; so rarely seen, these are the material infrastructures that both literally and metaphorically underpin our hyper-connected world. Ambitious, understated and fleeting, Known and Strange Things Pass explores the ways in which the ocean and the Internet speak to each other and speak to us, whilst probing photography’s ability to render visible such unknowable entities, infinitely vaster than we are.

2. Poulomi Basu, Centralia
Dewi Lewis

It has been quite the year for Poulomi Basu, whose docu-fictional book Centralia has earnt the artist the Rencontres d’Arles Louis Roederer Discovery Award Jury Prize, and a place on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. Beneath its blood-red, sandpaper-rough cover, Basu takes us through the dense jungles of central India, where a brutal war between the Indian state and Maoist insurgents over land and resources has waged for fifty years, in turn casting light on the woefully-underreported horrors of environmental degradation, indigenous and female rights violations and the state’s suppression of voices of resistance. Embracing a disorientating amalgam of staged photography, crime scenes, police records and first-person testimonies – all punctuated by horizontally-cut pages and loose documents – Centralia traces the contours of a conflict in which half-truths reign over facts. Though not for the faint-hearted, this open-ended account of an ongoing war affords us space to reflect on what we have seen, and to choose what we believe.

3. Buck Ellison, Living Trust
Loose Joints

A worthy winner in the First PhotoBook category for the 2020 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Awards, Buck Ellison’s Living Trust, published by Loose Joints, requires us to study the visual iconography of privilege as embodied by white, upper-middle class lives – or W.A.S.P. – in the United States. In these carefully constructed and performative photographs, insignia such as wooden cheeseboards, organic vegetables, acupuncture bruises, car stickers, lacrosse gear and even family Christmas card portraits examine how whiteness is exhibited and ultimately sustained through everyday structures, internalised logic and economic prowess. Deftly drawing on the language of advertising and commercial photography, Ellison conjures an uneasy world where the “whiteness project” manifests itself over and over again all the while perpetuating deadly inequality both in material and ideological terms.

4. Antoine d’Agata, VIRUS
Studio Vortex

As the title suggests, this book squares up to our present moment amidst the global health crisis with an unflinching intensity characteristic of the famed Magnum photographer. As soon as Paris entered a lock-down in March, Antoine d’Agata took to the emptied streets with his thermal camera. Here, civilians, medical workers and hospital patients are rendered as spectral, flame-tinged figures that flash across the pages. With temperature the only marker differentiating each pulsating body from the next, d’Agata proffers a haunting yet visceral mood piece laden with an existential dread that is befitting of our times. Beyond the limits of reportage, VIRUS is ultimately borne out of an impulse to get to the heart of things, to make sense of the incomprehensible and to visualise what the naked eye cannot: an invisible enemy, at once everywhere and nowhere. A dystopian masterpiece, these images refuse to be shaken off quickly.

5. Lina Iris Viktor, Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter
Autograph


Although there is no equivalent experience to witnessing the allure and intricacy of Lina Iris Viktor’s paintings up close, her debut monograph more than makes up for it through its fittingly-regal design. Published to accompany her solo show at Autograph in London earlier in 2020, it takes us into the British-Liberian artist’s singular world, embellished with luminescent golds, ultramarine blues and the deepest of blacks. Drawing from a plethora of representational tropes that range from classical mythology to European portraiture and beyond, Viktor’s practice playfully and provocatively employs her solitary body as a vehicle through which the politics of refusal are staged, and the multivalent notions of blackness – blackness as colour, as material, as socio-political awareness – come to the fore. Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter is a spelling-binding survey of an artist who is paving the way for new and unruly re-imaginings of black beauty and brilliance.

6. Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth, Tree and Soil
Hartmann Books

The intrinsic splendour of the natural world takes centre stage in Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth’s first book since their highly-acclaimed Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin (2012). Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Dutch duo set out on a five-year-long project to examine the devastation wrought on the region’s biosphere. Expertly edited by curator Iris Sikking, Tree and Soil combines photographs depicting nature’s reclaiming of the deserted spaces with repurposed material from the archive of German explorer, Philipp Franz von Siebold, which includes a collection of botanical illustrations, animal specimens and woodblock prints amassed during his trips to Dejima, a Dutch trading post, in the early 19th century. The result is an enigmatic yet radical dialogue between two distinct histories – the post-colonial and the post-nuclear, respectively – which speaks of the hubris of humankind and the value of nature, in the process ruminating on the disturbed relationship between the two.

7. Amani Willett, A Parallel Road
Overlapse

Another book of first-rate investment in narrative forms of photography comes from artist Amani Willett. Chronicling the oft-overlooked history of black Americans road-tripping, A Parallel Road deconstructs the time-worn myth of the ‘American road’ as a site in which freedom, self-discovery and, ultimately, whiteness manifests. The book’s direct point of reference is Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936), a guide which provided newly-roving black road-trippers tips on safe spots to eat, sleep and re-fuel at a time when Jim Crow laws subjected them to heightened oppression, hostility and fear of death. Whilst maintaining the original’s scrapbook details – from hand-held dimensions to sewn binding – Willett has adroitly juxtaposed archival material with photography, media reproductions and Internet screenshots from the present day to lay bare the ongoing realities of systemic racism in the United States. A harrowing yet urgent title in a year in which the dangers posed to black people when out-and-about have been undeniable.

8. Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara
Aperture

In yet another dazzling year for Aperture’s publishing arm, with Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures and Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph amongst notable releases, perhaps the standout is Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara. Here, the Armenian-American photographer reimagines her mother’s leap of faith as she abandoned her husband in post-Soviet Russia to start a new life in the United States with her children. Family snapshots, film stills and re-enactments by actors play out alongside a script written by the original screenwriter of the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara, which, for a generation of regime-weary Russians tuning in through their television sets, embodied the promises of the American dream. For all its experimental edge – rigorously merging fact and fiction – this book retains its deeply intimate take on the themes of migration, memory and personal sacrifice. With the project slated to show at the SFMOMA in early 2021, Markosian’s work continues to enthral audiences.

9. Yukari Chikura, Zaido
Steidl

Also excavating personal histories is Yukari Chikura in this strong contribution to the year’s offerings. Shortly after his sudden passing, Chikura’s father appeared to her from the afterlife, imparting the words: “Go to the village hidden deep in the snow where I lived a long time ago.” Committed to honouring this wish, Chikura embarked on a voyage to the remote, winter-white terrains of north-eastern Japan. The resulting publication documents what she found: Zaido, a good fortune festival dating back to the 8th century. Printed across an exquisite array of papers under the direction of Gerhard Steidl, images imbued with magical realism reveal costumed villagers gathering before shrines and performing sacred dances. Whilst the accompanying ancient map and folkloric parables lend this book an ethnographic feel, there is something more incisive at work too. Intertwining the villagers’ spiritual quests with Chikura’s own journey through the darkness that pervades mourning, Zaido is a tale of collective soul-searching that seamlessly traverses cultures as well as centuries.

10. Raymond Meeks, ciprian honey cathedral
MACK

No annual ‘best of’ book list seems complete without a monograph from skilled book-maker, Raymond Meeks. Characteristically poetic and perceptive, his new release with MACK invites readers into the domestic world shared between he and his wife, Adrianna, during a period in which they were packing up their home. Opening with a flurry of photographs which depict Adrianna asleep, bathing in the soft, early morning light, both the tone of imagery and its rhythms sets forth an experience that is akin to a waking dream. What follows is an intercourse of image and verse that pairs the quiet, quotidian rituals that populate each passing day with topographical observations of a house laid bare: mounted stacks of dishes, cracked walls and overgrown tendrils. Herein lies the melancholic undercurrent which vibrates throughout ciprian honey cathedral, a bittersweet evocation of the things memories cling to, and the things we leave in our wake. ♦

Alex Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words. 

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth UniversityHe lives and works in London.

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020

False signals and white regimes: an award in need of decolonisation

Editorial | Tim Clark

Tim Clark on Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize’s reproduction of structural inequality, Mohamed Bourouissa’s ambivalent ‘victory’ and the implications for curatorial responsibility


Algerian-born artist Mohamed Bourouissa has been announced as the winner of the £30,000 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020, an award founded in 1996 by The Photographers’ Gallery, London and now in its twenty-fourth year.* Bourouissa was among a shortlist of four artists that included Clare Strand, Anton Kusters and Mark Neville, having been nominated for his mighty impressive exhibition Free Trade first staged within Monoprix at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2019.

Free Trade was a survey showcasing fifteen years of Bourouissa’s creative output. His work examines the value and visibility of marginalised and economically bereft members of society, as well as productions of knowledge, exchange and structures of power. Video, painting, sculpture, installation and, of course, photography are routinely put to powerful use. So too is an impressive range of imagery that encompasses staged scenes, surveillance footage and even stolen smartphones. Ideas come into focus and vibrate against one another, laying bare some of the terrible realities and injustices of late capitalism, all the while questioning the means of an image and politics of representing the ‘other’. It felt sharp, sobering, confounding, mysterious, critical and intelligible on its own political terms. In the context of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize display here in an extended run at The Photographers’ Gallery, Free Trade has been very capably distilled into a satisfying-enough iteration of the work, despite the typical space restrictions and challenges of staging this annual group show.

Nevertheless Bourouissa’s ‘victory’ betrays an alarming fact: he is just one of four artists of colour to win this highly-coveted prize during its twenty-four year history, joining Shirana Shabazi (2002), Walid Raad (2007) and Luke Willis Thompson (2018) who have come before him.** In tandem with this disturbing revelation we must also consider another uncomfortable truth: no black artist has ever won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize as it approaches its first quarter of a century in existence.  

What this amounts to is curatorial malpractice on the one hand, and capitalist oppression on the other – a form of reproducing and perpetuating racial inequality, both in material and ideological terms. A quick, top-level calculation of the monies awarded to just the winners alone (these figures exclude the smaller sums given to runners up) shows that a total of £485,000 has been awarded to white artists (82%), in comparison to £105,000 awarded to artists of colour (18%)  – a wildly unequal distribution. Not only this, but it subsequently impacts on the discrepancies in levels of press coverage received, as well as interest from galleries, museums and collectors with implications for their markets and price points of artworks. Clearly no honest observer can say that such devaluation, in every sense of the word, isn’t a problem. And it’s a white problem that needs to be urgently addressed going forward.

It may also come as no surprise then, but is still nonetheless shocking, that the five members of the jury for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 – including a non-voting chair – are all white.*** However highly-respected and accomplished they may be as artists, editors and curators, this too is shameful and inexcusable. Regardless of this year’s outcome.

Whitewashing on the part of the establishment is obviously harmful to our profession, and therefore to society and culture at large. In effect it’s sending out the message to young artists and curators of colour that ‘there are no opportunities for you and your chance of attaining this level of recognition are slim – there is no space for you, and your work is not valid within the narrow parameters of this prize’. It makes it seem like a rigged system, blocking the development of black and brown excellence, while depriving us all of richness of the contemporary photographic landscape we deserve. Indeed that’s precisely how the whiteness project manifests itself over and over again. For this is a continuum, not an isolated incident. We know that as a ruling principle whiteness is most effective when it is unnamed and unseen, an idea that is consolidated by upholding status privilege while neglecting other non-hegemonic modes of being in the world, thereby reasserting itself and the normalisation of its proponents’ limited worldview. But it’s detected here in the case of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, an award in need of decolonisation despite last night’s seemingly positive result. Only then can we begin to generate the right conditions for a level playing field.

We might think of one of Stedelijk Museum’s newly appointed Curator-at-Large, Yvette Mutumba’s conception of the task of decolonisation and what it entails. In her recent interview on frieze.com she commented: “It means understanding that decolonization is not a matter of ‘us’ and ‘them’, but concerns all of us. It means acknowledging that this is not a current moment or trend. It means recognizing that BIPoC/BAME/POC are not necessarily particularly ‘political’: we simply do not have the choice to not be political. It means admitting that having grown up in a racist structure is no excuse.”

Of course we all need to check ourselves, and what we’re doing in order to be mindful of our own privilege and positionality. It has obviously occurred to me that as a cis white man mine is a voice that certainly doesn’t need liberation but we can’t just sit and wait for change to come. I am also aware many people who look and sound like me don’t speak at all – let alone take action – lest they might ‘fail’. A perennial double bind. This is something the photographer and writer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa reminded his audience during an ‘in conversation’ with Sunil Shah early on in lockdown, as part of Atelier NŌUA’s Once Upon a Time talks series, in which he summoned Samuel Beckett’s sage words: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” It’s worth noting that Wolukau-Wanambwa also shared his more general observation relating to the false consciousness that somehow, by default, those working in the arts, given that they are creative with a proclivity to ‘openness’, are not thought of – or think of themselves – as adopting racist and discriminatory practices.

At a minimum it would certainly give some meaning to the countless statements of solidarity that accompanied black squares during Instagram’s #BlackOutTuesday, not to mention the performative allyship that ensued, manifesting in platitudes such as “we must fight systemic racism” or “don’t stay silent” only to never hear from such people again on the matter or see any changes in their respective programmes and activities. Now is the time for white people who are genuinely taking on anti-racism work to attend to what we say and do. The comments from Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (2017) author Reni Eddo-Lodge in an interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 continue to orbit my imagination: “those annoying white liberals, who luxuriate in passivity as it’s not directly affecting them. They are like, ‘I support this and want everyone to do well but I’m not going to do anything.’” In short, it is a matter of deciding to use white privilege to end white privilege.

Of course, there exists no absolution. All white people run the risk of “the danger of good intentions” as Barbara Applebaum has articulated it in Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility and Social Justice Pedagogy (2010). We must though “foster an attitude of vigilance”, in the words of bell hooks. Turner Prize-winning artist Tai Shani reminds us of this in Why Art Workers Must Demand the Impossible on artreview.com: “The bewildering ethical paradoxes of the artworld have become as much part of the artworld as art itself. These paradoxes have been sustained by a façade of equilibrium, of a liberal centrist political position that has been hardwired into the operational models of galleries, museums, institutions, art schools, and art organisations.”

For my part, it would be particularly remiss not to name these issues in light that I led the first Photography and Curation ten-week course at The Photographers’ Gallery in 2018-19 on the invitation of and in collaboration with London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. This public course examined the various ways curating can shape our encounter with and the understanding of the photographic image. Participants were exposed to various key philosophical insights – from defining what an exhibition or curator is to future practices in the era of the networked image – as well as practical insights relating to the constantly evolving display, organisation and public dissemination of photographs. At its core lay the fundamental question of what constitutes curatorial responsibility?, drawing on Maura Reilly’s Curatorial Activism: Towards An Ethics of Curating (2018) as the key reading, in which Reilly encourages us to not only listen to others but ourselves: “What are my biases? Am I excluding large constituencies of people in my selections?; Have I favoured male artists over female, white over black – if so, why?”

I’m therefore duty bound, since evidently black and brown colleagues have bore this burden for too long, which by all accounts is exhausting and dispiriting. Halting this long-standing pattern of suppression should be all of our project. I’m aligned with Holland Cotter’s piece Museums Are Finally Taking A Stand. But Can They Find Their Footing? written on nytimes.com this June: “…which raises the question of why is it left to a black-identified institution to address the matter? Because race consciousness is widely assumed to be somehow a black issue, not a white one? Even people who once believed this can see, just from watching police violence and protests on recent news, that they’re wrong.”

The collective task then, is one that partly extends beyond the reach of and even precedes The Photographers’ Gallery and Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation’s work. To a certain extent it falls to the academy of 150 nominators of which I am part – who are proffering their two selections to The Photographers’ Gallery on an annual basis every September in order to create the long-list – to properly interrogate ourselves and consider any ‘unintentional’ biases before submitting. It’s a matter of individual responsibility and institutional accountability – a single voice that must advocate for and pursue change. It therefore also begs the ‘controversial’ question: should The Photographers’ Gallery be imposing a quota to ensure equality across the genders, sexes and races? Whatever it may be, some mechanisms certainly need to be introduced in order to fight the prize’s in-built and long-upheld discrimination given hierarchies and biases are repeating very close to home. So too is a sector-wide paradigm shift required, right through from the reading lists university lecturers set their students to who specifically galleries support and represent; from the type of media coverage allotted in the art press to museums boards, directors and curators diversifying their organisation from within, all with the view to resisting, confronting and challenging these deeply-entrenched problems within our industry.

If the tragic lynching of George Floyd and countless others at the hands of the police – Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain and Ahmaud Arbery in the US alone – has taught us anything, it is the following: “You can feel that this is different. These [Black Lives Matter] protests are not driven by empathy but by implication – ‘I am complicit and responsible therefore I must act’; this is a much more honest relationship to white supremacy and anti-black violence,” as affirmed in an ‘in conversation’ hosted by Lisson Gallery in June with the artist John Akomfrah that was led by Ekow Eshun, together with academics Tina Campt and Sadiya Hartmam.

But it is also going to take some serious soul-searching, vulnerability and ontological insecurity. As Daniel C. Blight has written in his book The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization (2019), this “means white people must work to accept that they are sutured to whiteness and that removing those stitches is a lifelong pursuit rather than a single, narcissistic point of arrival.” Blight also cites a particularly pertinent extract from George Yancy’s Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race in America (2017), in which the firebrand philosopher notes that this requires “a continuous effort on the part of whites to forge new ways of seeing, knowing and being.”

In wake of this I am compelled to ask: how, in good conscience, is it possible for an Arts Council England-funded organisation of this size and stature, in a city like London which is known for its vast range of cultures, nationalities and ethnicities – those that make up our diverse communities and multiple publics – to achieve such a historically woeful lack of representation in the case of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize? How can this feasibly be considered productive or desirable when it comes to composing a jury for arguably the most prestigious prize within our medium? Is there genuinely that little interest to engage some of the perspectives of non-white artists, writers, publishers, curators, and so on? Did the jury members not stop to question that being part of an all white jury is problematic?****

And, in any event, what sort of meaningful, or realistic, statement do the implicated institutions really expect to make on the state of photography, given that their high-profile prize is predicated on exclusion and erasure, having enabled artists of colour to be largely subjugated and therefore not granted their share of resources and funds? How can it possibly be a viewed as a legitimate history of contemporary photography, or, at the very least, a snapshot of those artists who have made significant impact on the medium during the past three decades? Why is there only, at most, one artist of colour on any given shortlist during the prize’s history? Is that all that is allowable? Is a bare minimum ever really enough? It reeks of tokenism.

The bigger question, of course, is whether The Photographers’ Gallery, under its current direction, is properly equipped to deal with the brave new world into which we have been thrust. We need cultural leaders within contemporary photography and visual culture to step up and lead the way. Those individuals that can offer long-term and enduring strategies of resistance, create solutions that will ensure equal opportunity, exposure and remuneration; and for them to harness art’s potential for change, championing work, ideas and concepts that infuse and enrich the world and the world of images. To tackle difficult issues head on – or at least back their skilled curators to do it – all the while understanding and insisting on the difference between diversity and anti-racism to avoid any institutional hypocrisy and opportunism. “In order to move into a white self-critical space beyond anti-racism,” Blight explains in his book, “whiteness must do more than make liberal gestures in the form of pro-diversity work. We must transform our comfortable denial and unwitting ignorance into something that is, in essence, new.”

Part of that new world could be a publicly funded gallery and a prize not centred on whiteness, one that takes those vitally important, other ways of being, seeing and thinking into a traditionally white institution in order to dismantle processes of marginalisation and instead collectively build an abundant space for difference to thrive. Ultimately, we need new regimes of truth that are more compatible with the present moment, similar to what Novara Media’s Co-Founder Aaron Bastani cites in Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (2019) as “a strategy for our times while carving out new figureheads for utopia, outlining the world as it could be and where to begin.”

With an eye to the not-too-distant future, I hope this deeply unjust cycle can be disrupted and that the prize makes amends in the forthcoming years. Let Mohamed Bourouissa’s fantastic, albeit somewhat ambivalent, ‘win’ be the start of something new. But whether or not there is an actual appetite for meaningful, positive change remains to be seen. Clearly there is much woke work to be done, curatorial correctives to take place, new support systems to be built, destructive enterprises to be divested from, uneasy conversations to be had, discomfort to sit with, spaces to give up, injustices to be called out (and acted upon), interventions to be made. And it is going to hurt.♦


Tim Clark is the Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University
. He lives and works in London.

Images:

1-Mohamed Bourouissa, NOUS SOMMES HALLES, 2002-2003. In collaboration with Anoushkashoot. © Mohamed Bourouissa, Kamel Mennour, Paris & London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

2-Mohamed Bourouissa, Installation view. Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 The Photographers’ Gallery, London. © Kate Elliott and The Photographers’ Gallery

3-Mohamed Bourouissa, NOUS SOMMES HALLES, 2002-2003. In collaboration with Anoushkashoot. © Mohamed Bourouissa, Kamel Mennour, Paris & London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

4-Mohamed Bourouissa, Installation view. Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 The Photographers’ Gallery, London. © Kate Elliott and The Photographers’ Gallery

5-Mohamed Bourouissa, BLIDA 2, 2008. © Mohamed Bourouissa, Kamel Mennour, Paris & London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

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Support

The Photography Prize has been realised with the support of Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation (ongoing), Deutsche Börse Group (2005-2015) and Citigroup (1996-2004).

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Previous winners

1997 Richard Billingham £10,000
1998 Andreas Gursky £10,000
1999 Rineke Dijkstra £10,000
2000 Anna Gaskell £10,000
2001 Boris Mikhailov £15,000
2002 Shirana Shahbazi £15,000
2003 Juergen Teller £20,000
2004 Joel Sternfeld £20,000
2005 Luc Delahaye £30,000
2006 Robert Adams £30,000
2007 Walid Raed £30,000
2008 Esko Männikkö £30,000
2009 Paul Graham £30,000
2010 Sophie Ristelheuber £30,000
2011 Jim Goldberg £30,000
2012 John Stezaker £30,000
2013 Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin £30,000
2014 Richard Mosse £30,000
2015 Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse £30,000
2016 Trevor Paglen £30,000
2017 Dana Lixenberg £30,000
2018 Luke Willis Thompson £30,000
2019 Susan Meiselas £30,000
2020 Mohamed Bourissa £30,000

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The 2020 Jury

The members of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 were Martin Barnes, Senior Curator, Photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom; Melanie Manchot, artist and photographer, based in London, United Kingdom; Joachim Naudts, Curator and Editor at FOMU Foto Museum in Antwerp, Belgium; Anne-Marie Beckmann, Director of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, Frankfurt a. M., Germany; and Brett Rogers, Director of The Photographers’ Gallery as the non-voting chair.

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I am deeply ashamed to have taken part in my last all-white panel for an award as recently as February 2020. I have since turned down two other similar invitations and will ensure this never happens again.