Michael Schmidt wins Prix Pictet as V&A unveils new sustainability and photography exhibition

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Michael Schmidt was last night awarded the prestigious Prix Pictet photography prize for Lebensmittel, his global exploration of the food production industry.

First founded in 2008 by the Pictet Group in Switzerland, the Prix Pictet focuses on the kinship between photography and sustainability, with this year’s theme being ‘consumption,’ challenging its entrants “to confront the most pressing social and environmental challenges of today”.

Schmidt was given the CHF100,000 (£66,200) award by honorary president Kofi Annan at a reception at the V&A museum in South Kensington, London. Today, the museum will open an exhibition of the 10 artists – from nine different countries – shortlisted for the prize.

Annan said of the award: “This collection of extraordinary photographs shows us why a new economic model is needed – one that is global, inclusive, co-operative, environmentally aware and science-based.”

The Prix Pictet’s judges, which included V&A director Martin Roth and Sir David King, the foreign secretary’s special representative for climate change, described Schmidt’s Lebensmittel as “an epic and hugely topical investigation into the ways in which we feed ourselves”.

Lebensmittel, the German word for ‘foodstuff’, is a project seven years in the making. Schmidt took images from across the spectrum of mass food production, from factory farms to industrial slaughterhouses and on to plastic-wrapped, sanitised portions of food in supermarkets.

Schmidt, a 68-year-old German photographer from Berlin, was one of 275 photographers from 66 different countries to enter the competition. Ten photographers were shortlisted, including renowned US photographers Adam Bartos and Laurie Simmons, the Belgian-born British photographer Mishka Henner and the Chinese photographer Hong Hao.

Also featured on the shortlist were Motoyuki Daifu (Japan), Rineke Dijkstra, (Netherlands), Juan Fernando Herrán (Colombia), Boris Mikhailov (Ukraine), Abraham Oghobase (Nigeria) and Allan Sekula (United States).

Beyond Schmidt, the most notable works at the exhibition came from Adam Bartos, who was born in New York in 1953 and has previously seen his work displayed at the city’s Museum of Modern Art. His pictures focus on old, utilitarian, household objects hoping for a second life at yard sales across America’s mid-west. “Though originally an unintentional sustainable practice, this form of localised business has grown during the recession,” Bartos says. “The yard sale economy contrasts starkly with the Walmartisation of America, which relies heavily on the rapid exploitation of natural resources.”

Also on display are the remarkable photos of America’s endless cattle ‘feedlots’ from Mishka Henner.

Henner’s images are not technically his own creations. Instead, he finds, assembles and recontextualises images that are, at least theoretically, readily available.

The 38-year-old Belgian-born photographer, who now lives in Manchester with his partner and toddler daughter, uses satellites to focus on the truly global beef and oil industries.  Henner – who was awarded the International Center of Photography (ICP) Infinity Award for Art and shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2013 – previously used Google Street View to capture prostitutes at work in remote areas of Italy in his series No Man’s Land.

For this project, Henner trawled Google Earth to find the vast, barren expanses of American land where cows are artificially fed and slaughtered, as well as large-scale aerial views of oilfields across the world. There are over 700 feedlots across Colorado alone, with 100,000 cattle in each.

In the centre of one of Henner’s pictures lies an inky pool of intense red. After studying the picture, one realises the red is the body waste of slaughtered cattle; hundreds of thousands of gallons of entrails, manure and urine. According to Henner, such feedyards represent “the systematic intent to maximise production and yield to satisfy human consumption”.

Abraham Oghobase, the Lagos-based artist refused visa-entry by the British government to attend the photography competition, is an understudy of the celebrated Nigerian photographer Deji Ajose, and uses his own body as subject and material for his performance-based work. His untitled series, taken from 2012, evokes the “robust, large, informal economy” of Nigeria’s capital Lagos, with its 10 million inhabitants, “where competition for space is a daily struggle, extending from competition to advertising”. Oghobase’s monochrome images are influenced by Dorothy Lange, but are a playful, sometimes ironic, exploration of whether such guerrilla marketing has any effect.

The Prix Pictet exhibition is on show at the V&A from 22 May to 14 June. Admission is free.

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