Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize @ The Photographers’ Gallery
3rd March 2023 – 11th June 2023
Frida Orupabo | Bieke Depoorter | Samuel Fosso | Arthur Jafa
The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize consistently demonstrates its ability to shortlist photographers on the cutting edge of contemporary photography. That’s not to say that I always like what’s shortlisted and this year was no different, but it’s never conventional and always demands of the viewer an engagement that goes beyond the images themselves. In fact the images are often only the handle with which to wrestle with wider societal concerns.
With previous winners including Andreas Gursky, Boris Mikhailov, John Stezaker and Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, the four shortlisted this year have earned attention.
Good photographers manage to engage with difficult areas. Areas that are either difficult for the wider public to access, or areas which hold a mirror up to what we as a society have become. Three of the four photographers here present us, the viewer, with what it is to be black and shed a light on their black experience.
Frida’s focus is on the way black women are depicted, historically through use of archival images or currently through images found on the internet. The images depicting the black woman two-dimensionally as slave and/or object fitting a pre-constructed misogynistic or racist narrative in a society predominantly geared towards the white male. Frida’s work refashions these images of nameless women through collage, to produce a black woman with a new identity; One with more complexity and ambivalence; attributes absent in the originals.
‘Seated With Two Hands’ (2021)
‘Girl With Necklace’ (2021)
Depoorter states that her works start from chance encounters with people. The relationships that she subsequently builds with these people, guides and defines her work. There is therefore an element of uncertainty in the outcome, which is of course the point of these photographic studies. This is exemplified by the two cases on show here. Michael is the story of a man she met in Portland, Oregon. As a result of his subsequent disappearance, Depoorter reconstructs his life through the images and information she has of him. The gallery therefore acting as both shrine and investigation room of Michael’s life, akin to a police office of a hunt for a missing person.
The second person that Depoorter encounters is Agata. This too has proved problematic in that the relationship between photographer and subject evolved to a point where the power dynamic also shifted. Agata has since questioned Depoorter’s right to use the images of her or to present her study.
For me, both these cases are intriguing up to a point. Ultimately, they are very personal but have little to say beyond giving a philosophical insight into our relationships with other people. The fact that these two people are ‘ordinary’ makes it a light exercise.
The eventual winner of the prize, Samuel Fosso photographs himself inhabiting the bodies of other black figures. His African Spirits series shows him reimagined as Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Haile Selassie and Malcolm X amongst others. His purpose, to pay homage to their struggle for racial equality, liberation and independence, whilst also constructing a visual archive of pan-African independence.
Earlier photographs show self-portraits, with Fosso in a variety of poses and outfits exploring the intersections of gender, sexuality and post-colonial African Identity.
Perhaps most poignant were the two images from his Allonzenfans series in which Fosso, dressed as black soldiers, pays tribute to the seldom acknowledged contribution of those African soldiers who fought in both World wars as part of allied colonial powers. Fosso’s aim, “to show the black man’s relationship to the power that oppresses him”.
From the ‘Allonzenfans’ series (2013)
Martin Luther King Jr. from the series ‘African Spirits’ (2008)
Angela Davis from the series ‘African Spirits’ (2008)
Installation View from the series ‘African Spirits’ (2008)
Jafa’s section of the exhibition was the one which felt like it didn’t do the artist justice. His body of work, including both static and the moving image is so large that this snippet of his exhibition ‘Live Evil’ felt disjointed.
Jafa’s aim was to depict the black narrative as a representation of the wider human narrative. The fact that black bodies have been under duress for so long is something that he explores here.
‘Mickey Mouse was a Scorpio’ (2016 – 2018)
‘Ex-Slave Gordon 1863’ (2017)
The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize at the Photographers’ Gallery is always worth a look. Four artists at the forefront of contemporary photography. If it has one weakness, it is that it is only able to provide a taste of the exhibition that these artists were nominated as a result of. In Jafa’s case certainly, this was a real pity.
What is increasingly clear though is that the voices of the marginalised are the ones that resonate loudest.