Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg first went to Los Angeles back in 1993, not long after the LA Riots – aka the Rodney King Riots, after the motorist whose violent arrest at the hands of the LAPD (and the police’s subsequent acquittal) had sparked the unrest. The mood was still uneasy, and the mainstream media focus on short-term news.
“The media focused on the Bloods and Crips [gangs], and would come in a van, shoot an item, and leave,” Lixenberg recently told The Guardian. “I felt photography was a way to step into the real scenario. I worked with a large-format camera on a tripod, slowing down the process, and focused on details and body language.”
She started taking photographs of the residents and community in the Imperial Courts housing project in the Watts neighbourhood of South LA – a neighbourhood which had become infamous after the riots of both 1992 and 1965. She ended up working on the project for 22 years, taking photographs until 2015 and publishing the book Imperial Courts that year, and making a web project with Eefje Blankevoort, www.imperialcourtsproject.com, which uses audio and video to allow the residents to speak for themselves.
“Over the years, Imperial Courts has gone from being the epicenter of race riots to an anonymous deprived neighbourhood,” write Lixenberg and Blankevoort in their introduction to the site. “The media attention has died down, but the lives of the residents go on.”
Now Lixenberg has won the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize with the project, beating off stiff competition from Sophie Calle, Awoiska van der Molen and Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs to win over the panel of judges – curator Susan Bright; artist Pieter Hugo; Centre Pompidou curator of Karolina Lewandowska; and Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation director Anne-Marie Beckmann.
“This comprehensive and measured series impressed all of the judges through its affirmation of photography’s power to address important ideas through pure image,” commented Brett Rogers, director of The Photographers’ Gallery and non-voting chair of the 2017 jury.
“Lixenberg’s work is simultaneously understated and emphatic, reflecting a cool sobriety, which allows her subjects to own the gaze and their contexts without sentimentality or grandiosity. Originally presented in book format, each portrait operates as a self-contained story. Dana Lixenberg has expertly harnessed the photographic medium to rethink stereotypical representation and empower a community with direct voice and visibility.”
Lixenberg wins £30,000, and her work will remain on show at The Photographers’ Gallery until 11 June, alongside the other finalists’. The exhibition will then travel to the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt (29 June- 17 September 2017), and to Aperture Foundation in New York (16 November 2017-11 January 2018) – the first time the prize has gone on show in the US in its 20-year history.
Born in 1964, Lixenberg studied photography at the London College of Printing and at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, and now lives in Amsterdam and New York. Her other books include Set Amsterdam (2011), The Last Days of Shishmaref (2008), Jeffersonville, Indiana (2005) and united states (2001), and she also works with publications such as Vibe, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Newsweek and Rolling Stone.