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Friday, 18 May 2018

Congratulations to Laia Abril and Luke Willis Thompson

The move towards directness in photography, and long term self-initiated visual research projects continued with Laia Abril's winning the Tim Hetherington Trust Visionary Award for her ongoing project, On Misogyny. It's a long project, she could spend all her life doing it, and her brilliant book On Abortion is simply the first chapter.

This award will help her fund her next chapter on Rape Culture. So winning does matter as it allows her to spend less time writing grant proposals and more time working.

On the same day (and rather overshadowing the Tim Hetherington award) the award for the Deutsche Borse Prize was announced. The most direct of the Deutsche Borse finalists was Mathieu Asselin who presented a new fifth chapter in his exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery. It is a work that involves deep research. In some ways it's not photographic with its emphasis on images that link to captions that suck you into the wider body of the work, and with a link to how the book and the images in the book have been recontextualised throughout the course of the post-project.

It was superbly curated, packed a punch and showed the human costs of Monsanto's activities and their links to the markets, monopolising, suppression of freedom of trade and beyond.

It also linked Monsanto to Deutsche Borse, the sponsors - and I did see somebody on their phone at the awards ceremony checking some kind of commodity prices saying, "this is going up, you want to buy this, this is going down, this declares its figures next week, they're going to be good, this is having a merger..." which was beyond irony.

But the winner was Luke Willis Thompson for his beautiful piece autoportrait. This is his response to the video that Diamond Reynolds shared on social media in the immediate aftermath of the police murder of her partener, Philando Castile. That video was filled with violence and mayhem. It's video as evidence.

This is film as evidence, but in contrast to the social media video, this is a quiet, contemplative piece. Curiously, it's the most photographic of all the pieces on show even though it's moving image. It's film, you can see the celluloid move through the sprockets. It has surface. it's black and white, it references classic studio portraiture through lighting and angles chose by Diamond herself. It's so photographic. the only thing that isn't photographic is that it's moving - a bit.

There is no sound, it's still, it's beautiful it exists solely as a installation piece, so it's not been uploaded by Thompson on social media as a moving image. Ironically, as a still image of the installation it's the hands-down winner of the best-looking image from all the four contenders, and probably the most shared. That matters. It shouldn't but it does.

Thompson is a Fijian New Zealander, so has very direct experience of racial oppression both now and going back into the past, and his earlier work reference this directly and very powerfully. Very powerfully.

There is some resistance to his victory and it seems a lot of it stems from the title and the lack of clarity in the statement. Claims are made for the collaborative nature of the piece and the title is autoportrait - which comes with very strong ideas of the author as subject.

This is  Diane Smyth reporting on the award for the BJP.

“...the panel decided to award the 2018 prize to Luke. His singular and uncompromising portrait, made in collaboration with its subject, Diamond Reynolds, was conceived as a way to return agency to the protagonist.

“As a contender for a prize focused on photography, the jury felt autoportrait imbued the moving image format with the singular and almost obsessional quality of a still photograph, drawing attention to its materiality, and challenging viewers to consider the personal stakes of representation in an environment at once intimate and collective.

“Ultimately though, the project was felt to invite a timely and prescient conversation around the nature of image control, authorship and distribution in a way that expands rather than shuts down the debate.”

Statements matter and titles matter and if you have autoportrait as your title and are claiming it to be a very collaborative piece - and it is a collaborative piece - you do have to front load that. There does need to be some sharing of authorship in the naming. So it needs to be Diamond Reynolds and Luke Willis Thompson named as the creators of the work. And then that means the prize is shared and it can be autoportrait, because it is an autoportrait.

If you have only Luke Willis Thompson as the author, then any autoportrait is an autoportrait of him. I. I was with somebody reading the caption for whom this really matters and she was going through apoplexies at this. It's a simple indexical thing and people notice that. The title and the idea of the piece simply do not connect. Share the authorship and they do. Or change the title. It's very simple.

Anyway, titles matter, statements matter, but ultimately they don't. It's a great work, and you get the feeling all the elements that are mentioned above are in there somewhere, and obviously there are other things happening that  but are not quite expressed as well as they could be.

Directness is good.

I can't help but feel like I'm missing something.

 It's a great piece, never mind the semiotics. And that is the end of that.

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