Prix Pictet Shortlist 2009: The Great Divide – where are all the women photographers?

There are a distinct lack of women photographers in the upper echelons of the industry and it seems that now is the time to start doing something about it. This is not a rally call for positive discrimination measures to be put in place to deal with structural inequalities, or for women to be given extra special consideration, but a call to take stock and look at where, and how far, we may have come.

Now’s the time to start to examine the contemporary landscape and reflect on what has, and is, happening. For example, I received the Prix Pictet Shortlist 2009 invitation for the preview of the shortlisted work and book launch. And surprise, surprise? Not one woman photographer has made it to the shortlist. Does this matter? Not if it is a one off, but sadly, I think this is a trend that persists, even as we approach 2010.

The shortlisted photographers are: Darren Almond (Britain); Christopher Anderson (Canada); Sammy Baloji (Democratic Republic of Congo); Edward Burtynsky (Canada); Andreas Gursky (Germany); Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan); Nadav Kander (Britain); Ed Kashi (USA); Abbas Kowsari (Iran); Yao Lu (China); Edgar Martins (Portugal); Chris Steele-Perkins (Britain).

From the list and the inclusion of brackets with the nationality of each photographer, it seems that some attention has been given to creating a shortlist including photographers from nine different, mainly developed countries, as well as a smattering of developing economies. But women seem to have fallen off the page in reaching the Final 12. Why?

I wonder what the judging process involved and whether the absence of women in the shortlist was of concern for the seven jurors, at least three of whom are women. Perhaps women are not working on the types of projects submitted for this prize, or do not get the commissions required? If not, then why is this? Perhaps the work just didn’t make the grade? Perhaps women market themselves less aggressively? Kander is also up for one of the IPA Lucie Awards, ($10,000) so is in the running for some big cash prizes if he wins.

The work goes on show in London at the Purdy Hicks Gallery in a couple of weeks and the grand prize of, yes, £60,000 (CHF100,000). Financial Times photography critic, Francis Hodgson, chair of the judges said: ‘The artistic and technical quality of the entries from photographers around the world has been quite exceptional and the power of the messages the photographers have been able to communicate is extraordinary. The brief – to communicate sustainability issues through photography, with particular reference to this year’s theme of ‘earth’ – has been interpreted with tremendous variety and vigour. Whether reporting in detail on development or aiming more broadly to stimulate thought, the photographers have achieved a very high level of impact. I and the other members of the panel look forward with keen anticipation to selecting the winner of this exciting and prestigious prize.’

While women appear to make up at least 50%, if not more, of the intake on photography, or lens-based courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level in the UK (at least from my observations) they seem to fall away in droves as the pyramid structure of the photography industry and art market pushes upward to reach a point where (mostly) men command the top spots, fees and prices for work. Interestingly, I know of an occasion where an all-female judging panel was proposed for a photography competition but because it was all women, it drew the attention of the sponsors, who noticed the lack of men and commented. A male juror was drafted in. I’d like to know how many women were nominated initially. Surely there are many women photographers or artists out there whose work fits into the Prix Pictet “annual search for photographs that communicate powerful messages of global environmental significance under a broad theme.”

Entry to the Prix Pictet is by nomination (“over 70 leading experts in visual arts from five continents”, including museum curators, critics, journalists, gallery directors). These people “propose a maximum of ten photographers each” and there were entries from over 300 photographers. The book Earth – launched in the first week of October – includes work that didn’t make the shortlist but has been included in the publication alongside “the work of the 12 shortlisted artists”.

Another observation is how the term artist is used on occasion in the invite, while the term photographer is used throughout the rest of the blurb. This intermingling of the term ‘photographer’ and ‘artist’, in the same text, is also worth investigating, but I’ll leave this topic to another post. For now, it’s simply worth seeing how photographers and artists are variously defined, and how they also variously define themselves. Sometimes it gets very confusing.

One response to “Prix Pictet Shortlist 2009: The Great Divide – where are all the women photographers?

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