Founded nine years ago by Swiss private bank the Pictet Group and Candlestar – the company behind Photo London, the prize draws attention to environmental issues but also reflects the strategies and approaches used by photographers to tackle socio-political concerns. The first edition, in 2008, was themed Water and was awarded to Canadian photographer Benoit Aquin for his photo essay The Chinese Dust Bowl, while Munem Wasif was commissioned to shoot a story on water shortages in his homeland, Bangladesh.
Over subsequent years more conceptual approaches have been shortlisted in response to changing themes, which have included Power, Consumption and Disorder, won by Lucas Delahaye, Michael Schmidt and Valérie Belin respectively. “The intention was never to just feature photojournalism, much as we all love it,” says Michael Benson of Candlestar. “It was about opening up to all genres of photography.”
For the Russian photographer, the migrants’ journeys across Europe represented a transgression of space – the crossing of literal borders as well as something much more personal, moving from home to a place both unknown and idealised. “Their pasts were no more than a memory immortalised in the bright family photographs they’d saved on their smartphones,” he says.
“Their whole lives were encapsulated in the few possessions they’d managed to bring along in their rucksacks. These fragments of a broken, far-off land that each migrant carried with them are now scattered across Europe…The refugees continued forward, entering into a strange, unknown but sheltered space. Sometimes they didn’t really know where they were or where exactly they were headed.”
Others have taken on the idea of space to explore transgression of both territory and of the relationship between photographer and subject. Munem Wasif (nominated for a second time since the Water commission in 2008) photographs the unmarked edges of the blurred boundary between Bangladesh and India. In Land of Undefined Territory this “mundane land” simultaneously hides and represents the ongoing struggle between dominance and subjugation, and ideals of liberty and independence.
Richard Mosse is shortlisted for Incoming, which was recently on show at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery in London. The Irishman also photographed migrants’ journeys through Europe but used a military-grade thermal camera, allowing him to capture them from miles away, oblivious to his presence. The heat signatures of the camera deprive Mosse’s subjects of facial expressions and cultural demarcations – even of gender, race, age or sex.
By inverting the sense of space between photographer and subject – when so much of documentary photography is defined by closeness and intimacy – the idea is that he elevates the people at the heart of the migration crisis to symbolic stature. “We captured people asleep, people embracing each other, people at prayer,” says Mosse. “There’s a stolen intimacy to it. There’s no awareness, there’s no self consciousness. They are, instead, authentic gestures.”
Michael Wolf and Benny Lam provide a more direct interpretation of space – or the intense lack of it. Wolf’s series Tokyo Compression was photographed largely on commuter trains at Shinjuku railway station, capturing rush hour at a rail hub that averages 3.6 million passengers a day, making it the most crowded in the world. His images, he says, depict “complete vulnerability in the most extreme of cities”.
Lam, meanwhile, focuses on the private spaces of a city. Commissioned by the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), he created a series of overhead images of poor families, singletons and elderly people living in Hong Kong’s cramped outer slums.
“Hong Kong is regarded as one of the world’s richest cities but lurking beneath the prosperity is also extreme poverty,” says Ho Hei-Wah, director of SoCO, referring to the thousands who live in caged homes and wood-partitioned cubicles, as well as the constant flow of new arrivals from mainland China.
From the space between photographer and subject to how a photographer understands the space around him – Sohei Nishino is nominated for his ‘diorama maps’ of cities, each painstakingly created from thousands of images taken on solo urban wanderings. Once back home in Tokyo, Nishino edits down handprints in his darkroom and pieces the images together in a mosaic. The photographs are detailed studies of buildings, streets, people and everything else that goes with city life.
A composite map emerges from each but such studies share little with geometric ordnance surveys. This is a more psychological understanding of space – one in which perspective, scale and proportion give way to mood, experience and emotion.
Space has also been used in highly conceptual ways by photographers selected for the Prix Pictet shortlist, not least by Mandy Barker. Her images could be mistaken for Victorian glass-plate photographs; in fact they are ornate, long-exposure studies of the plastic debris that pollutes beaches in and around Cobh in Cork Harbour, Ireland.
The series is part of an ongoing photographic study of human contamination of the world’s oceans and coastlines. The work she is nominated for presents unique ‘specimens’ that echo the pioneering discoveries made by marine biologist John Vaughn Thompson in the same area during the 1800s.
Thompson conducted pioneering research on plankton while living in Cobh, documenting the microscopic organisms using the photographic technology of the time; Barker’s plastic particles are presented as microscopic samples that recall Thompson’s early scientific investigations.
Germany is particularly well represented on this year’s shortlist, with photographers Saskia Groneberg, Beate Gütschow and Thomas Ruff all in line for the prize. Groneberg is nominated for her mediations on “artificially moulded nature”, photographing manmade parks, landscapes and ornamental plants designed to mimic the natural world. Here she focuses on a very specific German term, Büropflanze, which translates as ‘office plant’.
“These bits and pieces of nature, almost unconsciously brought to the workplace, seem to reveal lot about the basic needs of human beings when artificially placed into an inorganic, standardised environment where everything present is assigned to fulfil a specific function,” she says.
By focusing on such organic forms, often in the context of highly institutional environments, Groneberg hopes to capture “a tiny bit of anarchy amid the rigid clockwork, something amorphous among the geometric forms, a spark of life within the mechanisms of control”.
Gütschow interprets space in a way that might be considered in the canon of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Her images are architectural studies of the borders that exist in a highly built-up environment, inspired by a line from Georges Perec’s book Species of Spaces: “To live is to pass from one space to another while doing your very best not to bump yourself.”
“The built environment is the greedy counterpart of the natural realm,” Gütschow says. “A space is defined only by differentiation from another space, for which it needs walls that serve as barriers or borders.”
Thomas Ruff, the celebrated student of the Bechers and the Art Academy in Düsseldorf – the city in which he still lives – is also represented on the shortlist. His interpretation of space veers dramatically from others on the shortlist, understanding the term from a different etymological perspective in his ma.r.s. series, which considers photography’s relationship with the universe – the infinite space beyond Earth.