Susan Meiselas wins the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019
The acclaimed documentary photographer, Susan Meiselas, whose career spans five decades, was awarded the prestigious £30,000 prize at an evening ceremony held at The Photographers’ Gallery on Thursday 16 May.
The award was presented by the Turkish/British award-winning writer and activist, Elif Shafak, who, before making the announcement, talked passionately about the need for us all to remain connected to art, especially in times of division and intolerance.
Meiselas was nominated for her European retrospective Mediations held at Jeu de Paume, Paris in 2018. The 2019 jury considered Meiselas to have made a consistently outstanding contribution to the medium of photography, exemplifying a unique commitment and personal investment in the stories, histories and communities she documents, and enabling a critical revision to the possibilities of documentary photography that has left an indelible mark on the photographic landscape.
Meiselas is widely acknowledged for her work in the conflict zones of Central America (1978–1983), and in particular for her powerful photographs of the Nicaraguan revolution. Meiselas favours an immersive approach, often collaborating with the communities she photographs over long periods of time, and focusing on a wide range of challenging issues from ethnic and religious conflicts, human rights violations and the sex industry. Mediations was the most comprehensive European retrospective of Meiselas’ work to date, and brought together series’ from the 1970s to the present day.
For the presentation as part of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize exhibition at the Gallery, Meiselas chose to show the body of work, Kurdistan/akaKurdistan, which documents a long-term engagement with the Kurdish dispora. In 1991, after the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, Meiselas began to photograph destroyed villages, mass graves and exhumations and she continues to this day to gather visual evidence to give shape to a collective memory, which evolved from a book, to a website akaKurdistan.com to a StoryMap in the exhibition space. Ultimately this ongoing project offers a layered, lived history of Kurdistan, driven by the momentum of its contributors.
The 2019 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize jury comprised:
Sunil Gupta, Artist, Writer, Activist and Curator; Diane Dufour, Director of Le Bal, Paris; Felix Hoffmann, Chief Curator at C/O Berlin; Anne-Marie Beckmann, Director, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, Frankfurt; Brett Rogers OBE, Director, The Photographers’ Gallery, London as the non-voting chair.
The work of all 2019 shortlisted artists, Laia Abril, Arwed Messmer, Susan Meiselas and Mark Ruwedel, remains on display at The Photographers’ Gallery until 2 June 2019.
The show will then tour to the Deutsche Börse's headquarters in Eschborn/Frankfurt from 14 June until 23 August 2019.
Watch the Winner Announcement at the Gallery on 18th May 2019
Elif Shafak’s speech transcription (Starts at 19:38)
It’s really wonderful to be here to celebrate the work of such remarkably talented artists. I think the work of the photographers that we’re honouring tonight shows that they are not only very visibly talented but they’re also very thoughtful; they’ are caring, they are thinkers and I think they are very brave. The subjects that they tackle are also universal; very important and timely. I think these artists are telling us stories that we might or might not be ready to face. As a storyteller I am always chasing stories, as are we all, but at the same time, I believe I am also drawn to silences – the things we cannot talk about easily in a society at a given time in history.
When I look at the works of these artists I think they too are drawn to silences and taboos: political, sexual, cultural, and trying to give more voice to those silences. This has always been important but perhaps more important today in the age we’re living in than ever before.
In 2017, Freedom House issued a report showing that 35 countries across the world had made progress in terms of democratising, and yet the next line in the same report said that 71 countries, twice as many, had been going backwards in an unpredictable way and with bewildering speed. There’s no doubt that my motherland, Turkey, is one of those countries. And as well as Turkey, there’s Poland, Hungary, Venezuela, Brazil, The Philippines…the list is very long, and I’m afraid it’s getting longer and longer.
If it is true then that history does not necessarily go forward, it is also true that it can sometimes go backwards. I think we women need to be more concerned and more alarmed. Because when countries go backwards and they tumble into ultra-nationalism, tribalism, religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, or any other kind of toxic politics. I think sexism is on the rise and homophobia is also on the rise – so it becomes even more important to be able to talk about those taboos in today’s world.
As you know, one of our [nominated] artists talks about a very difficult issue, abortion, made even more of an issue now we have Alabama. It’s an issue where we’re losing new answers and we don’t hear individual stories anymore, so her work is incredibly important. We have another exhibition that invites us, encourages us, to take a closer look at the landscape and what’s happening to those landscapes as we go through major political, cultural and geographical shifts. We have another artist who is encouraging us to think about extremism, what happens when people are frustrated with the existing system, the status quo, and how easy it become to be drawn to the extremes. And I think, again, this is very relevant. Perhaps you have come across this recent study that shows, in the UK, in the US and in Germany, the number of young people who are today identifying themselves with extreme left or extreme right has doubled. And in one interesting country, that number has tripled, and that is Sweden. So again, we have a very relevant conversation there. And, we have another exhibition that encourages us to think about minorities: extinction; survival; family stories; what happens and why we shouldn’t forget.
When I look at all these photographs, all these works, even though they’re so different – there’s an incredible diversity there – I see a common resistance, if you will, against inequality, discrimination, of all kinds; and also perhaps against collective amnesia. A resistance against forgetting - not in order to get stuck in the past, but to be able to say, that memory matters, that memory is important, and we need to learn from the past, hopefully so we never again make the same mistakes.
I think what The Photographers’ Gallery, what this prize is doing, is in a way, holding our hands and gently taking us out of our comfort zones and helping us to take a closer look at issues that we might not even be aware of or think we know about. I find that very important because there’s one thing that strikes me when I read the memoirs of writers, poets, novelists, artists, who have gone through very dark chapters in human history. Almost all of them are saying something very similar. They are saying, the opposite of goodness is not necessarily badness, the opposite of kindness is not necessarily wickedness. In other words, they are saying, bad things happen in human history not necessarily because people are bad – there are some bad people, but the numbers are relatively small – but bad things still happen. How? What these survivors are saying is that the opposite of goodness is in fact numbness. It’s the moment we come become numb, it’s the moment we become indifferent, de-sensitized, disconnected. And that is why I think this work is incredibly important.
This prize celebrates artists who are engaged, committed, caring and passionate in their approaches to photography and their subject matter. But, perhaps it is also reminding us we live in an age in which we all need to become engaged and committed and caring and passionate. Photographers, writers, students, bakers, teachers, whatever we do in our lives, I think we all need to become caring and committed and engaged - re-engaged citizens in this world.
So, it is my big privilege to announce the winner…this is wonderful.
The winner is Susan Meiselas for her wonderful retrospective exhibition, Mediations.