Jury Review - Robert Pledge


Grant and Challenge

Our mission, as members of the jury of the New Documentary Prize, was well defined: “discover, encourage, and provide support to (a) lens- based artist [...] concerned with social change and minority groups, and offer opportunities to creatively expand the boundaries of documentary photography.” Such are the stated purpose and goal of the Inter Art Center’s newly established award to be given out every-other year.

Very lively exchanges and votes took place all along within our small yet very eclectic and diverse group: different backgrounds, generations, and countries.

This allowed us after several rounds to select, as required by the rules, ten outstanding nalists from the impressive and carefully reviewed applications that together constitute a strong assessment of where Chinese documentary photography is standing today.

Before pursuing the process — as we would late into that evening — the jury took time to pause and envision the next steps in light of the unique concept of the award. It was not a matter for us to recognize “the best photographer” nor “the best photography of the moment” as many existing prizes already do in China, but rather, as we have indicated above, to “discover” and “encourage” a lens-based artist, in other words someone who is not already famous for his or her work within the photographic community; someone who would attempt to expand the prevailing boundaries of documentary photography.

The 200,000 RMB award is not meant as a recognition for past or present achievements, but as a powerful push for an artist to develop his or her project as thoroughly and independently as possible over an extended amount of time and, most importantly, without any of the financial limitations, burdens and anxieties that commonly interfere with such endeavors. It is intended to help to produce or further new work in an innovative fashion, within an immediate future. In the West, such an award is known as a grant: an amount of money unconditionally given that offers the opportunity for its recipient to carry out a project that would be dif cult to achieve or complete otherwise. The ‘W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography’ has been awarded annually in the USA since 1980 (now $35,000). In France, the ‘Grand Prix International Henri Cartier-Bresson’ has been presented every two-years since 1989 (now € 35,000). The W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund and the HCB Foundation both legitimately expect the bene ciaries of their generosity to keep them fully informed about the progress of the projects. They are also to be assured by the grant recipients that the money given is solely spent in relation with the projects. Trust and honesty are essential components here.

With all this in mind, the ten chosen submissions are meticulously re- examined. They all express meaningful concerns using different approaches in their photographic practices, as the present exhibition and catalog clearly show: large-size traditional film formats and video; black-and-white and/ or color; portraiture, straightforward reportage or more conceptual attempts. They re ect the wide range of topics and visual styles that have shaped the long history of documentary photography across the world: from Henry Mayhew, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine to Gene Smith, Don McCullin, Lu Nan, and Mary Ellen Mark; or today, Sebastião Salgado, Lu Guang and Matt Black. Social and ecological issues, the plight of the marginalized, vanishing communities and cultures, forgotten minorities, children and educational concerns...

After much back and forth, the ten nalists are rst narrowed down to half as many, then to two. Intense and passionate discussions and exchanges generate emotional responses, new thoughts, and an occasional change of mind. Finally, a secret majority vote concludes the daylong process: Yang Wenbin becomes the recipient of China’s rst New Documentaries Prize.

Yang Wenbin is young and still finding his voice. His innovative photographic approach is in search of a more definitive shape. He is growing and exploring. His project is personal and calls to be expanded and completed. He is himself very much part of it, contrary to most of the other finalists who tend to be observers of worlds they do not necessarily live in, nor belong to. To record what he sees, Yang uses the tools and the visual language of his times. others around him might be randomly taking similar-style images. The difference is that Yang Wenbin had an idea that he turned into a concept, then a narrative. He is developing his project with a vision and determination. And, most importantly, in real time: this is the only moment in his life he will “biologically” nd himself in such a circumstance. If older, he would in turn just become another observer. He shares the story of those of his very own generation who form the “Society of University”: they are borne from the one-child policy adopted by China in the late seventies and actively participate in shaping the country’s new social landscape. It is something we know little about, that we are discovering through Yang’s unusual documentary undertaking.

The grant should help Yang Wenbin to go further, to dig deeper, to broaden his visual research, to undertake things he otherwise could only have dreamt of trying, to experiment with other tools, old and new, to develop different angles in presenting his work, to express how strongly committed he is and, above all, to tell us all what we should really learn and understand about this important social issue in China today. The jury did its job by offering him an exceptional opportunity. It is now up to him to show all of us, that the Jury of the 2017 New Documentary Prize made no error in offering him the grant. Such is the challenge he is facing. The ball is now in his court. 


Robert Pledge


Contact Press Images (New York & Paris)

New York, April 29, 2017