Prix Pictet winner: power

The Prix Pictet poses unusual challenges. The SFr100,000 ($106,000) photography prize, now in its fourth cycle, looks for a series of superb photographic images but also aims to reward work that raises awareness of environmental issues. It’s a tricky balancing act – to consider how each photographer’s work speaks to the theme, or contains within it a narrative powerful enough to do so, while matching that with the highest aesthetic standards.

If good intentions and high art are famously difficult bedfellows, then as subject matter, environmental issues bring with them the perils of familiarity and cliché. We see melting icecaps, creeping deserts and drought-stricken people nightly on the television news: we are, sad though it is, inured to such images. Can a photograph bring a vision fresh enough to make us feel again what we have come to see as routine?

This year’s judges, of whom I was one, announced in London on October 10 that the prize had been awarded to French photographer Luc Delahaye, not only for his superlative work but also for his ability to carry off this particular conjuring trick.

Our theme was Power – the past three cycles have focused on Water, Earth and Growth. Power may seem an abstract concept with which to tackle the very concrete issues of sustainable development within the environment, and the range of responses, from the hundreds of photographers whose work we pored over, was startling. It was not so much about power itself, we soon realised, as about seeing the world – and especially the politics of the environment – through the prism of power, with all the creative reach that implies. It was also about abuses of power, through human agencies such as war or maltreatment of others – or about greater powers of nature.

The 12 photographers on our shortlist, whose work is now on show at the Saatchi Gallery in London, represent something of this range. Two contrasting views of devastated land and sea come from the veteran Robert Adams, with his classical images of deforestation – fine, still pictures that are breathtaking in their detail and beauty – and from Daniel Beltrá, whose vividly coloured aerial shots of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico lend a shimmering, lurid glamour to a scene of horror.

Other vibrant work comes from the lightly surreal Belgian Carl de Keyzer. His huge boat marooned in a field of grazing sheep is a witty take on perilous water levels. And the unholy power of tsunami waters is evoked by Philippe Chancel in images that emphasise our powerlessness against an unruly planet.

The effects, many years on, of another terrifying power unleashed are vividly brought home by the Azeri photographer Rena Effendi, whose “Still Life in the Zone” makes strangely beautiful and painterly still lifes in the pathetic kitchen of one of the few remaining residents in the Chernobyl area: blighted corn, contaminated scrawny chicken.

Edmund Clark offers probably the bleakest account of the abuse of human power. His pictures taken in the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay are neat, bright, clean, utterly empty. A pitiless detention cell; a pile of ankle shackles; an isolation unit that is just a metal stool within a metal cage; a regimented display of the brightly coloured tins of food used for force-feeding, with the necessary tube alongside. Starkest but perhaps most eloquent of all is a shot across a plain concrete floor showing just two things: a ring set in the cement, for attaching leg-shackles, and a small arrow painted on the floor showing the direction of Mecca.

The judges debated long and hard over the Algerian-French Mohamed Bourouissa, whose series Périphérique is a sequence of staged shots, filmic and moody, that recreate the simmering violence of Paris’s suburbs, and are rich in references to Caravaggio, Géricault, the art of the Revolution. Bourouissa is Jeff Wall with menace.

And so to our winner. Luc Delahaye took the theme of power and shook out its multiple strands to create a loose thematic essay: a tank almost obscured in a cloud of dust after an ambush in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006; the grim fur-hatted faces of an opposition rally in Belarus; a single figure standing forlornly on a sea of flattened debris to remind us of the tsunami we’ve already forgotten, in Indonesia in 2005. “House to House” has the backview of a young male figure, jaunty in magenta polo shirt, running through the door of a house in Libya. There’s a lurch in the gut as you notice, only on second glance, the machine gun in his hand.

To say that every one of these intensely powerful yet lyrical pictures contains an urgent narrative might itself be a cliché, but it is nonetheless true. “Man Sleeping, Dubai”, on this page, needs no explanation: we can each tell the story to ourselves, and it’s a story about forms of power.

‘Prix Pictet: Power’, Saatchi Gallery, London, to October 28,

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