It was announced last week that the American photographer Jim Goldberg had won this year’s £30,000 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. The prize, run by the Photographer’s Gallery in London, is awarded from a shortlist of four nominees, selected on the basis of their perceived contribution to ‘the topics and conceptual approaches that have been the most significant and influential in contemporary photography, in Europe, over the previous year’, usually a published or exhibited major body of work.
I wasn’t at the event where the winner was announced the other night, but judging from the tweets by various people who were, and from conversations with other people involved in photography that I’ve had over the course of the last few days, there was widespread support, if not a little relief, that Jim Goldberg had been selected as the winner from this year’s shortlist, for his long-term, multimedia project Open-See, documenting the experiences of migrants around the world.
The Deutsche Börse prize (and, by extension the Photographer’s Gallery itself) has attracted much criticism in the past for focusing too narrowly on conceptual ‘art’ photography and photographers, at the expense of other areas of practice such as photojournalism, fashion and advertising. In his recent article on the subject, the Guardian columnist Sean O’Hagan asked the question ‘When is contemporary photography not photography?‘, and suggested that both the Deutsche Börse prize and the Photographer’s Gallery should perhaps be rebranded.
I would argue that O’Hagan’s views are fairly typical of many in the photographic community in the UK (although interestingly he also argues that Thomas Demand is the most interesting photographer on this year’s shortlist). However, a glance at the list of winners of the prize since 2005 perhaps de-bunks the ‘conceptual art heavy’ theory a little – Luc Delahaye, Robert Adams and Paul Graham are undoubtedly serious, concerned photographers, if admittedly not hardcore, ‘on-the-front-line’ photojournalists. Aren’t they?
Goldberg is far from your conventional photojournalist either. But his win should certainly be celebrated by anyone interested in socially concerned photography. His collaborative approach to working with his subjects in displaced migrant communities in Europe and Africa is as inclusive and two-way as any I can recall seeing over the last few years (one of his approaches is to invite his subjects to write their stories onto the surfaces of his photographs and polaroids). OK, there’s still something a little unsettling about the presentation of some the work on a gallery wall (as part of an art exhibition), but the work also exists in printed book, online and video forms – and each encounter with it is equally powerful.
He may have been seen as ‘the outsider’ for the Deutsche Börse prize, but it may also just have been a masterstroke on the part of the judges. Displacement and mass migration of people, whether because of conflict, persecution or economics, is one of the greatest challenges society faces today. In Goldberg, the Photographer’s Gallery has at least (and at last) selected a photographer who is relevant outside of the art world.