Jury Review - Erin Barnett
Expanding the Boundaries of Documentary Photography
Documentary photography continues to play a vital role in contemporary society by offering deeper insights and emotional connections to complex global and local issues. It exposes viewers to unseen realities by amplifying ideals of shared humanity, focusing on minorities and subcultures, or highlighting injustices. The Inter Art Center New Documentaries Prize was established to provide financial support and exhibition opportunities for artists creatively expanding the boundaries of documentary photography. As the director of exhibitions and collections at an institution dedicated to “concerned photography”—the creation of socially and politically minded images that have the potential to educate and change the world—it was a pleasure to see such work supported and encouraged in China and to see so many photographers engaging with important topics from a variety of perspectives.
In a 2001 New York Times review of Sebastião Salgado’s work, critic Michael Kimmelman summarized the main problem with moral photojournalism: “It's a tricky business to get people to look at other people [or events] they may have spent a great deal of time trying, consciously or otherwise, not to notice.” One way photographers get viewers to pay attention is to create beautiful images that lend gravitas to their subjects. However, this approach can also backfire, leading to dehumanized and aestheticized depictions of misery. Through sustained engagement with their subjects, the best documentarians are able to move beyond stereotypical and sensational depictions to create more nuanced and dignified views of communities they document. Ideally, the work should compel the viewer to engage with the subject and think about it in a new way. The ten shortlisted photographers and filmmakers for the Inter Art Center New Documentaries Prize with the strongest work carefully and skillfully balance these political and formal concerns.
Many focused on specific, local projects through which larger issues could also be examined. For example, several documented the traditions of subcultures or minority communities. Chen Bo has been photographing the inhabitants of the Songzhuang Art Village as well as their daily lives and artistic practices for over fifteen years. Degjinhuu and Liu Jinxun capture the traditional clothing and rituals of the people of Inner Mongolia in very different ways; Degjinhuu makes formal and lush black-and-white portraits of his relatives and other members of his family’s extended community while Liu Jinxun employs color in his The Name of the Huns series to create a more fragmentary and atmospheric view. In Villages on the Cliffs, Chen Jie focuses on the spectacular story of children climbing to school on rope ladders over treacherous mountains to investigate the lack of infrastructure as well as the relationships and financial implications for families living in these rugged and remote parts of the country.
Other projects highlight how humans alter the landscape. In his multimedia Reclamation series, Du Zi uses still photography, drone-captured video, and maps to create a rich portrait of island-building projects along China’s eastern coast. Stamlee’s work explores the effects of natural resource-exhaustion on the land and people in cities across China on both a macro and micro level.
Other artists use images to explore psychological issues. In our increasingly globalized world, more people are experiencing the sense of dislocation and nostalgia sensitively and lyrically explored in Jin Xiangyi’s Out of Place project. Wu Hao and Zhang Qi’s documentary Another Kind of Living focuses on metal health, an issue not often publically discussed or effectively treated. Their film humanizes depression through the personal stories of those suffering.
Two projects are much more rooted in China’s specific history and culture. Han Meng’s documentary film China’s Forgotten Daughters investigates the personal and societal implications of the country’s one-child policy by following women who were given up by their birth parents and are now searching for them and for answers. In Society of University, Yang Wenbin exposes the clubs created by students who are finally freed from the pressure and conformity of the Chinese secondary educational system. Unsurprisingly, the groups they create are microcosms of China’s political and consumerist society. Rather than aestheticizing these groups, Yang takes a more clinical and critical approach. In fact, he reproduces WeChat conversations that deny him permission to photograph a plenary session as well as group chats about the student union’s upcoming events as part of the work itself, thereby expanding the boundaries of documentary photography and exposing the logistics and inner workings of the group he’s documenting.
All of the work of these shortlisted photographers and filmmakers tackle systemic issues that require resolve and cooperation to understand and change. I hope these projects all succeed in capturing attention and mobilizing communities around complex issues of globalization, educational and land reform, resource allocation, mental health, and community preservation. I am thankful that the Inter Art Center New Documentaries Prize encourages documentarians to continue to create nuanced visual stories about pressing issues. By highlighting injustices, these artists provide a sense of optimism and hope for the future in our increasingly interconnected world.
Director of Exhibitions and Collections
International Center of Photography (New York)
New York, April 4, 2017