Man asleep on the Golden Mile, Durban, South Africa. Image copyright Michelle Sank
The single image winner of BJP's International Photography Award generated an unprecedented response this year, much of it questioning why the shot was chosen. Here Nick Galvin, archive manager of Magnum London and one of the judges, gives his thoughts
Why pick the Michelle Sank image as an award winner? It’s a good question. Just what makes for a typical award-winning photograph? Another good question and one obviously open to debate as everyone will have favourites and conceptions about what the favourites might be.
The answer will always be evaluative and personal, so by choosing this I was not saying this is the best image in the world - it is not. It does however have a subtle quality. A cursory glance might dismiss it and those who are looking for the romantic ideal of a muscular photojournalism are unlikely to find it rewarding. It is not really a journalistic image, and should not be judged as such. As a single image it becomes isolated, it loses context and without such context the image itself does not really dictate to the viewer what it is about; possibly it has nothing profound to say about the world beyond that the fact the photographer took a picture of a man who was using a bag of bread to shield his face as he slept.
The image however does force questions. Another cursory glance could say it is an image of poverty, however it isn’t; its visual clues of poverty such as the dirty hoodie butt up against its other clues, the rolled up magazine in the back pocket and the bagged bread. The picture does not give up an easy answer; its meaning is unresolved which makes for uncomfortable viewing, so uncomfortable as to be easily dismissed out of hand. When this image was first suggested I dismissed it – I didn’t like it, but it grew on me. Why is this? I could drone on about abstracted formal qualities, colour and textual relationships and the like but that wouldn’t answer it. I liked this image because it challenged me – challenged my assumptions about photography in ways the other images in the award didn’t. Whilst most were technically proficient, and many were good photographs, many were derivative with familiar subjects; they simply looked like other peoples work. This is a problem.
The problem is that there is no one photography but many photographies; reportage, wedding, fashion, advertising, and art. In other words photography is a medium with many messages; each is not simple and discrete but concurrent, and increasingly the edges blur. The BJP award has to take this into consideration, and the work has to be judged with this in mind. Michelle Sank’s image is one such image that defies simple photographic convention.
Saying all this there is, of course, a place for the traditional humanistic view of photojournalism but this is not to say that all photography should follow some proscriptive type, as the danger exists that it will become ossified in its own academic structures as the culture shifts, to become desiccated and remote as any bunch of dusty academic paintings which now lie forgotten. Sometimes photographers have to take risks – not just in photographing a subject, but to take risks with the image itself. As culture shifts photography has to move with it, to change and challenge if it is to remain vital. Good photography should challenge, otherwise it could so easily be ignored.
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