When the leading photography award Prix Pictet opened an exhibition of its 12 shortlisted nominees in London last November its chosen theme, “Hope”, already felt important. Conversations around the cataclysmic effects of climate change and the whims of authoritarian governments were dominating the news agenda – and motivation for change was wanted. The show later embarked on its customary world tour but, come March, its path was halted. Yet the shortlisted images shouldn’t be denied an audience: that’s why monocle has gained exclusive access to show this selection.
Seen from a world in lockdown these images – and that word, hope – carry a renewed power. Ever since its beginnings in 2008, the prize has had a focus on sustainability as its overarching topic; even when the images stray from an obvious environmental concern, they still deliver on this driving leitmotif. Their potency and poignancy stems from the fact that they remind us of the lesson that the pandemic has brought home for many of us: everything is connected – the personal and the political, the economic and the environmental.
“When we announced the theme of ‘Hope’ in summer 2018, there was a feeling that the submissions had become more and more depressing,” says Stephen Barber, chair of the Prix Pictet. “We felt we needed to turn this around. As soon as we talk about hope, we’re thinking about how we can find a way to keep up humanity. And maybe there are lessons here for the policies we need to have towards the environment.”
At a time when many urban dwellers find themselves cut off from access to greenery and open air, images such as Rena Effendi’s study of a rural community in Romania speak loudly of an alternative way to structure our lives. American photographer Lucas Foglia’s series Human Nature reminds us how much more complex our relationship with nature can be: it’s not just a dichotomy of spoiling it or finding refuge in a pristine idyll. “In this lockdown, people have begun to notice their surroundings again because they’re not rushing from one place to another,” says Barber. “They’re watching the spring, seeing how nature unfolds every year – it’s a real revelation.”
But there are harsher images in the shortlist too; photos of conflict and battered communities. It’s harder – but perhaps more important – to find a glimmer of joy in those contexts. “Even in the darkest moments of human history, there’s always hope – hope for life, hope for survival,” says Prix Pictet executive director Isabelle von Ribbentrop.
Consider the winning series by Ivory Coast photographer Joana Choumali: taken in the aftermath of 2016’s terrorist attack in Grand-Bassam, these pictures show people slightly lost on their city’s streets. Choumali decided to embroider every image in bright colours to add a layer of hope to a grim reality. “That’s where her series is very, very striking,” says von Ribbentrop. “Especially now, because she talks about, ‘How do I help myself overcome certain things in life that really affected me, my family and my country?’”
There are certain answers to that question that only an image can give; a proud glance, a defiant smile. Even though each of these series comes with its own remarkable story, it’s their initial impact that drives the point home. “Making the selection, we say that they have to be powerful as art and in the message they convey,” says Barber. “But they should be readable without the backstory.”
A photography award isn’t just important for the snapper who wins it and their career (although it surely can’t hurt). It’s important for the viewers who head to the exhibitions and take their time over the prints. In the barrage of imagery that submerges us every day, we can learn to recognise those worth remembering.
‘End of a Caliphate’
Irish-born Prickett works as a photojournalist for The New York Times, capturing images from the frontline of the fight against Isis in Iraq and Syria. He is a World Press Photo award winner and a Pulitzer prize nominee. The images of this series were all shot between 2016 and 2018.
“The notion of hope was hard to find but in the end we manged to find these examples of people surviving. What drives me is to uncover stories that are going on, particularly in the context of war”
Webster’s family emigrated from Greece to South Africa and the posed portrait that hung in their hallway had a special evocative power for the photographer. In this series, she decided to help create family photos for whoever came to the makeshift studios that she had set up on the street. Often, Webster also built her sets inside refugee camps.
“When people come to the studio to pose, they take it seriously because their descendants might see these photos; this is proof that they were here, that they mean something”
‘Ça Va Aller’
Choumali’s series, which translates to “It Will Be Fine”, celebrates the resilience of Ivorians in the face of the trauma after the terrorist attack on the beach of Grand-Bassam in 2016. Embroidering her pictures gives a dream-like quality to the scenes – as well as being a way for Choumali to focus and channel her emotions into her work.
‘Transylvania: Built on Grass’
Born in Azerbaijan but based in Istanbul, Effendi travelled to Romania to show the hay-making culture in the northern Carpathian mountains. She discovered a community that lives harmoniously with nature – and where nature depends on human care. Tools the farmers use have changed little since the Middle Ages but as the young move away, traditions are at risk of dying out.
“The self-sufficient communities I documented in Maramures were not wealthy, yet they lived happy and balanced lives. The care that they put in nurturing the environment around them, to me, is the embodiment
Growing up on a farm in New York state, Foglia developed an intimate relationship with nature from a young age. Every image in his series takes us to a different ecosystem (from forest to lava flow) to chart the activities of people fighting for a better future for the environment – and to show us why we feel such a need for the wild.
“When I see someone having joy in nature, that gives me hope. If a person believes in the value of something, they vow to save it”
Founded in 2008 by Swiss bank Pictet, the Prix Pictet recognises the winning photographer with an award of CHF100,000 (€95,000). Find all images from the ‘Hope’ edition at prixpictet.com/portfolios.