Hrair Sarkissian © Kate Elliott, Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery.
Hrair Sarkissian © Kate Elliott, Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery.
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Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2024

4 out of 5 stars
Eddy Frankel

Time Out says

Death, pain and injustice course through this year’s Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize. It’s in the mass graves of Hrair Sarkissian, the feminist ire of Valie Export, the indigenous erasure of Rajesh Vangad and Gauri Gill, and the historical trauma of Lebohang Kganye. 

So while it doesn’t make for especially pleasant viewing, it does make for some powerful art. Syrian conceptualist Sarkissian greets you as you walk in with a wall of empty spaces. Each one is the last place someone was seen before disappearing during times of conflict. A corridor, a hill, a bench, a dining room, a sofa: all empty, all mute final witnesses to incomprehensible hurt. The sound of scraping and breathing comes from nearby, a recording of a forensic archaeologist digging up a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War. Metal drags, bones crack. Shocking, terrifying, horrifying. WIthout ever being explicitly morbid, Sarkissian creates confrontational, moving tributes to untold stories of loss and war.

Austrian artist Valie Export has spent her career tearing at the misogynistic fabric of modern society. Her performances from the 1960s onwards saw her strap a box to her chest to allow strangers on the street to cop a feel, or walk through a cinema with her genitals exposed at eye height, or tattoo a garter on her thigh. She’s brilliant, funny, righteous, angry, intelligent, but these photos feel like documents of work, rather than works themselves. 

Downstairs, beautifully stark overpainted monochrome photos are the result of a collaboration between Indian photographer Gauri Gill and indigenous Warli artist Rajesh Vangad. Gill captures the shifting landscape of a culture that’s being slowly erased, while giving voice to someone profoundly affected by those changes. Pollution, decay, history, all captured with flowing geometric motifs and simple figuration. It’s a testament to the power of collaboration in the face of injustice. 

Lebohang Kganye’s big cutouts of family photos feel more directly personal than the wider political statements in the show. This dramatic installation is full of narratives of displacement and the consequences of colonialism, but equally feels like some of the most traditionally photographic work in the show, and less adventurous and successful as a result. 

Through all the anger, sadness and pain here, you get the sense of these artists using photography to fight against societal wrongs. This is the camera as witness, as testament, and, more than anything, as weapon.


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