Syngenta Photography Award exhibition – Review

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As you walk through the Syngenta Photography Award, its difficult to shake off the feeling that the future looks grim. We know we’re consuming resources at an unsustainable rate. And still we carry on the same. Oddly, the sheer scale of the problem makes it easier to shrug off.

Now in its second edition, the Syngenta Photography Award hopes to counter such apathy by highlighting photography that explores global challenges. Last year’s theme was Rural-Urban, this year it’s Scarcity-Waste.

On this theme, and currently showing at Somerset House’s East Wing gallery, is winning photo essays by the 2015 winners of the professional award Mustafah Abdulaziz (1st), Rasel Chowdury (2nd), Richard Allenby-Pratt (3rd) and open award Benedikt Partenheimer (1st) Camille Michel (2nd) Stefano De Luigi (3rd).

Worrying statistics accost visitors from the walls – “By nearly 2025 nearly 3.4 billion people will face water scarcity”, one reads – and objects in display cases, including a carrot discarded by a supermarket as too ugly to sell, signal an educational intent.

Environmental photography can sometimes struggle to engage viewers on a personal level. And piles of chucked out electrical goods, vast landfill sites and mountains of tyres make an inevitable appearance here. While informative and troubling, this type of imagery, with its insistence on repetition almost to the point of abstraction, can also alienate.

But elsewhere, Bénédicte Desrus’ shots of obese people in the US and Mexico, and Lasse Bak Mejlvang’s of the residents of Smokey Mountain slum in Manila, put  human faces to the issues with an immediacy that demands our attention.

Mustafah Abdulaziz, in particular, takes an ambitious, overexposed topic – water – and teases out intimate stories through portraiture, landscape and reportage. In a crowded classroom, school kids in Freetown, Sierra Leone learn about cholera. In Tharpakar, Pakistan, three women strain to pull water from a well with a rope. Linking two continents underlines the global nature of the problem. As part of his prize, Abdulaziz will continue the project back home in the US.

Another challenge is to harness the aesthetics of photography in a way that serves the story. Rasel Chowdhury’s muted palette of greys and browns give his images of pollution in Dhaka a melancholy, mournful feel.

But this can also have the reserve affect. Benedikt Partenheimer’s large-scale shots of Chinese cities just visible in the smog, a shimmering haze of pinks, mauves, and silvers, though one feels compelled to think: “Isn’t urban air pollution awful?” But then, you can’t help but think: “How pretty.”

The same could be said of Mandy Barker’s still life shots of artfully-arranged, brightly-coloured plastic debris retrieved from beaches or Carlos Cazalis’s aerial view of Mexico City’s skycape.

Perhaps the fact the exhibition presents work that makes us feel these tensions is a virtue. After all, the very human achievements – urban development, mass production – that have caused the problems of scarcity and waste areas  awe-inspiring as they are damaging. And in the final section, shaping our future, projects such as Jamey Stillings’ black and white pictures of incredible, space-age-like solar farms show that the solutions can be awe-inspiring, too.

Syngenta Photography Award exhibition runs until 10 April at Somerset House, London. More information here, and view the exhibition online.