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Sony World Photography Awards 2016

27 April 2016 | Tom Faber

London plays host to a range of wonderful photography exhibitions, but few have the range of Sony’s World Photography Awards. This year’s winners and finalists fill Somerset House, presenting a stunning portrait of life, landscape and art through a lens.

Photography is one of the rare mediums that can deal elegantly with both documentary and artistic work. The impressive range of possibilities is explored in the latest incarnation of Sony’s World Photography Awards at Somerset House, where 230,000 entries from 186 countries have been trimmed down to the very best in fourteen categories. The selection ranges from provocative to playful, shocking to beautiful - sometimes all at once.

The exhibition is divided between Somerset House’s West and East wings, with the professional entries on one side and the other reserved for the youth and open competitions. Much of the best work comes from the more experienced photographers, whose photos are split between the documentary and art sections, with seven prizes for each.

Of the documentary photographs, many deal with tragedy. Iranian photographer Asghar Khamseh won the coveted Iris d’Or prize for his pictures of acid attack victims in his home country. The photos of these men and women, their faces disfigured, their skin given a plastic sheen by reconstructive surgery, force the viewer to face these realities head-on. Khamseh captures the survivors’ inner strength while railing against a local culture that all too often blames the victims for such attacks. It’s uncomfortable to see, but an important reminder of the daily horrors that still occur around the world. Others take a similar approach to the themes of animal testing, female genital mutilation and climate change, each a powerful call to arms which will hopefully increase public awareness.

Not every documentary entry tackles its subject so directly. Abandoned spaces feature heavily, such as Andrea & Magda’s unsettling snaps of Sinai Park, an Egyptian tourist spot now deserted following a series of terrorist attacks. We also see photos of Pripyat, close to the Chernobyl site, where piles of dusty child-sized gas masks are more eloquent than a photo of the explosion could ever be. The pathos is similarly subtle in Kiki Streitberger’s sensitive portraits of the few objects that Syrian refugees carried to England from home: a doll, a t-shirt, a falafel maker.

 

© Swee Choo Oh, Malaysia. Winner: Open Arts and Culture

 

Some of the documentary categories are less focused on contemporary tragedy. Jetmir Idrizi, winner of the Campaign category, shows a pride and force of character in his transgender Brazilian subjects. Kevin Frayer’s stunning portraits of eagle hunters in Western China depict a culture on the verge of disappearance, while Sandra Hoyn’s oddly touching spread depict the daily life of a man who lives with (and loves) a lifelike silicon doll. The sports category further harbours some powerful emotions beyond the usual action shots. Nikolai Linares’ ‘Second Best’ are intimate portraits of boxers just after losing important fights, their gazes fixed and stoic. One of the exhibition’s greatest pleasures come in Michael Hanke’s sepia-tinted photos of children at a high-stakes chess tournament - the victor’s irrepressible jubilation, the loser comforted by his young mother with heart-wrenching devotion.

The section of the exhibition devoted to art rather than documentary is not immediately different, as some of the more artistic projects also deal with current affairs. Marcello Bonfanti’s portraits of women who have lived through Ebola are depicted in velvety monochrome, focusing on their strength as survivors rather than their lot as victims. One label tells of a woman who was miraculously healed and returned home only to be cast out by her family, who put her recovery down to sorcery. Similarly moving are Fauzan Ijazah’s shots of stateless women who arrive in Indonesia from Myanmar seeking asylum, shot in a gorgeous golden light against dark wood, noble in their purgatory.

Many of the landscape photographs depict the wilder regions of China, but the deserved winner of the category is Maroesjka Lavigne with her Namibian series ‘Land of Nothingness’. These depict the washed-out landscape of one of the earth’s least densely populated countries, including a particularly striking photo of a white rhino whose edges seem to bleed into the bleached sand and sky.

 

© Hiroshi Watanabe, Japan. 3rd Place: Professional Still Life

 

A few of the exhibitions most striking images are also their most surreal. Japanese photographer Hiroshi Watanabe took third place in the Still Life category for his bizarre project ‘Meaty Foodscapes’. These are macro shots from within a topography of carved meat, blue rivers running through canyons of beef. Similarly unreal are Stephan Zirwes’ aerial photographs of swimming pools, investigating water used as a private asset for pleasure. The millions dying around the world for lack of clean water are not pictured. Zirwes has made his point.

Many of the artists on display are so talented that it’s a shame not to be able to see more of their works. This is why it’s a pleasure to have three rooms dedicated to RongRong & inri, the Chinese/ Japanese couple who have charted their intimate life in Beijing through a series of arresting portraits. One image is particularly memorable - the pair sitting on a bed, the long black hair of each coaxed into a single braid like a double helix, separate but fused.

The range of subjects, moods and styles at this awards display is profoundly impressive, and a great testament to the myriad possibilities of the camera. Crucially all of the finalists’ works are on display, so if you don’t agree about the selected winner, you’re free to judge for yourself.

 

Sony World Photography Awards display their finalists at Somerset House from 22 April - 8 May. Tickets are on sale at their website.

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