New Discovery Award 2017

Atelier de la Mécanique, Arles; 03/07/17 to 24/09/17

This exhibition features 10 up-and-coming photographers (actually duos in a couple of cases) proposed by photographic galleries.

Compared to last year the selection is weighted towards documentary in various forms, which is a shame in my opinion; generally speaking I found last year’s selection to be more diverse and artistically conceptual, which for me means more interesting.

There were a couple that stood out but I will briefly comment on the rest as well.

Norman Behrendt: Brave New Turkey

This is one of two projects covering contemporary Turkey (which struck me as odd in a final list of only 10), but for me the more interesting one. Behrendt followed the construction of new mosques in Turkey over recent years, as the Erdogan government seeks to reverse the trend towards secularism and embed a more religion-centric culture onto the country – the government is the main investor in thousands of new mosques.

For me, what lifts Behrendt’s work above typology-driven documentary is his distinctive approach to bringing the viewer closer to the subject of the photograph, even when the subject isn’t always in the photograph. This sounds odd, but it makes sense when you see the show: most of his images are wide-angle architectural landscapes of under-construction or completed mosques, plus a few portraits, but he overlays each with the reverse side of a Polaroid that he took at the same time, with a written comment from the person he spoke to, usually one of the construction workers.


In this way he manages to evoke the experience of shooting the image, and brings the viewer closer to the person he’s interviewed not by showing the photograph of them but by their words. The fact that the Polaroid exists but the viewer can only see the reverse is a disorienting experience – I wanted to reach through the glass and turn it over. This technique manages to simultaneously make the viewer feel more engaged with the subject and respect the privacy of the interviewee. Interestingly the project’s presentation online and in the Arles catalogue is of the straight documentary images, without this visual quirk, which I think is a great shame. I found the quirk more interesting than the main photographs.

Overthinker’s Corner: I noted with interest that Behrendt was born in pre-unification East Berlin, and wondered whether that has anything to do with his interest in national identity and conflicts therein (communism/capitalism, religion/secularism)?

I’m increasingly drawn to work where the presentation forms part of the overall message, or provides an additional layer of meaning. I’m collecting examples of photographers who have done this, and am finding lots of examples where some kind of visual manipulation of the physical print is part of the technique.

Carlos Ayesta & Guillaume Bression: Retracing Our Steps: Fukushima Exclusion Zone, 2011–2016

This won the overall Discovery Award prize, and deservedly so I think. The pair captured the Fukushima nuclear accident site soon after it happened and returned to continue tracking the aftermath. This is one of those situations where the reality of the scenes is in itself visually compelling – not to take anything away from the work of the photographers.


The sheer surreality of both the immediate and prolonged aftermath of such an incident takes your breath away: cars and streets sealed off with industrial cling film; train platforms overgrown with five years of weeds.

There are a few different styles used here: the most successful images for me are the static, empty street scenes; there’s also a set of still life images of objects; finally, and least successfully for me, portraits of survivors revisiting their homes after years of exile – oddly, I found these last less engaging and less empathy-arousing than the people-less shots. That may say more about me than the photographers…


There is one off note: a single constructed image entitled Bad Dreams / Mauvais Reves that depicts a fish suspended in a bubble at a beach. The caption card speaks of ‘fiction revealing reality’, but for me adding in one fictional image into what is already a surreal (yet wholly real) set of images is bafflingly disruptive. It almost makes you question how much of what else you’ve seen is real. It undermines itself.

Guy Martin: The Parallel State

The second Turkey-centric collection, with a broader remit than Behrendt’s more focused study. Martin turns his camera on authoritarianism in Turkey, around the failed 2016 coup and subsequent clampdowns. An interesting twist is that he intertwined images from real Turkish life with stills from a soap opera project he was working on simultaneously – making a comment on the slippery nature of ‘truth’ in an increasingly controlled society. One aspect of the presentation stood out: a scrolling social media / news headline feed, mostly from around the Turkish coup but mixing in snippets from Trump’s USA and rather worryingly Theresa May’s announcements on human rights – the clear implication being that creeping authoritarianism is not uniquely a Turkish problem.


Juliette Agnel: Nighttime

This is a visually sumptuous set of hyperreal nocturnal sky images which positively sparkle, and they are undoubtedly beautiful to look at. However, I failed to find the metaphysical significance that the accompanying blurb suggested I might. A couple of the images, shots of sky only with no anchoring land or horizon, unfortunately reminded me of Joan Fontcuberta’s fake astronomical photography, which was in fact negative images of insects on his windscreen. So the real thing here reminded me of a fake!


Ester Vonplon: Wie Viel Zeit Bleibt der Endlichkeit

A set of predominantly blue and white abstracts based around ice, snow, cold and elemental nature. They resemble paintings more than photographs, and are both beautiful and melancholy. I liked looking at them, and found them strangely calming – I could imagine one hanging on a wall at home (but that doesn’t mean I find it deeply interesting – it might mean the opposite).


Mari Bastashevki: State Business

A documentary series concerned with the arcane and secretive world of inter-state business, especially with nations engaged in conflict. I found it difficult to engage with, and I suspect the editing necessary to fit into this exhibition lost much of the context of this dense, complex subject. It does however feature one of my favourite images in the show.


Philippe Dudouit: The Dynamics of Dust

This is a work of geopolitical documentary that looks at Saharan territories increasingly considered dangerous to travel through, due to a combination of Islamic terrorism, poverty and lack of state development. It’s a mix of landscapes and portraits, and I found the former more interesting to look at.


Alnis Stakle: Shelter

A project about history repeating itself – the Cold War, nationalism, propaganda. Stakle’s home country of Latvia was part of the Soviet Union until the 1990s and so there are some thematic parallels with Looking for Lenin, though this takes a more conceptual visual approach. It’s a work of appropriation and archive recontextualisation that resembles graphic art more than pure photography. I found some of the images intriguing, especially those with circular frames (as they seemed to imply surveillance?) but I didn’t fully appreciate the “new and ironic meanings” mentioned in the artist’s blurb.


Constance Nouvel: Plans-Reliefs

This series is, like Stakle’s above, more akin to graphic design or collage than photography – I believe that art that uses photographs is subtly different to photographic art (although the distinction is not a value judgement). The handful of large images on show are concerned with spatial arrangements, the tensions between two dimensions and three; they are oddly architectural – somewhere between plans and models. Though compelling to look at and admire, as with many of these Discovery Award projects I’m not certain I’ve grasped any deeper meaning.


Simon Brodbeck & Lucie de Barbuat: In Search of Eternity II, Japon

This is a video project first and foremost, and although I generally think of myself as open-minded in terms of photographic art, my initial reaction to seeing video work in a photographic award is to furrow my brow (I know how closely photography and video coexist and overlap, but fundamentally the experience of a still photograph is undoubtedly different to that of a short film, and it’s not as though film doesn’t have its own outlets…). Having said that, this did actually win me over. It’s video, yes, but it’s the closest to still photography than I’ve seen video achieve. There’s a hypnotic slowness to the panning that feels like scanning one’s eyes across an incredibly long panaorama rather than watching a film. The people, when seen, look frozen even though the camera constantly moves. The sense of looking at a never-ending photo is enhanced by the setting, with a wraparound panoramic image surrounding the screen.


Main takeaway

I took some specific learnings and inspirations from a couple of projects (the first few covered above) but my lasting impression is that this format – 10 mini-exhibitions edited to fit the space – makes it a little harder to really engage with each body of work. It’s partly that each project is given limited space and contextual positioning, and partly that the sheer number of them means that (if you’re as pressed for time as some Arles visitors are) it’s difficult to give each of them the headspace to really try to engage with the artist’s intent.