What’s wrong with photography competitions?

Everything’s wrong with this sort of competitions, yet they’re necessary to keep the art market alive. There are very few art prizes in Portugal and they tend to promote the most conceptual approach to contemporary art practices, one of the reasons the results are always controversial.

This week (or the week before, it’s fuzzy) Fnac announced the winners of their Photography competition. They named the prize “Novos Talentos Fnac Fotografia”, (Emerging talents Fnac Photography), and for the past years they’ve been promoting the work of people who are taking their first steps in the artistic field of photography. That is not the case this year and the problems start there. Is it dramatic? I guess not, but it is serious and needs to be addressed.

I need to make a brief declaration of interests and mention that I know this year’s winner, João, so I hesitated before writing this, for I know his intentions are on the right track.

João is not an emerging talent and it is my opinion that the jury* should justify his choice in relation to that point. Him not being an emerging talent has nothing to do with his age (emerging doesn’t equal youngster), but with the fact that he has been active in the artistic field of photography for quite some years. In 2009 we were both considered emerging talents in the biggest festival of Photography in Portugal (Encontros da Imagem), so why is he still considered a newcomer?

In the social networks, this year’s results have given us a lot to read, although very little has been said. However, people are not addressing the fact that he is not an emerging talent, but the quality of the work and the statement that João chose to give to promote the work, so let’s talk about School Affairs:

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© João Henriques, from the series “School Affairs”.
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© João Henriques, from the series “School Affairs”.
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© João Henriques, from the series “School Affairs”.
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© João Henriques, from the series “School Affairs”.

School Affairs is a collection of photographs from the time João spent in Tomar, doing a Master in Photography. João chose to promote these photographs as the result of a middle age crisis which led him back to school. That statement, which I find quite cynical, guides the narrative of this group of images: the skin, the breasts, the shoulder, the invisibility, the gaze… Yet the author’s statement functions as a walking stick: it’s white noise.

School Affairs promotes the so called authenticity of spontaneity, of the snapshot, of the tension that exists between the photographer (as predator) and the object of his desire (the prey), and it would be quite successful if it was a “true doing”. The problem is that I can see the effort, can identify and immediately get stuck in the semicolons that interrupt the work.

School Affairs reflects the impact of the academic milieu, in several dimensions. As the photographs started to circulate, a lot of vicious comments hit the streets of facebook. A photographer and colleague of ours wrote, in João’s defense, that “João Henriques achieved what is expected of a photographer worthy of such a name, namely to promote a dialogue, a narrative and question the observers, to the point they get angry and rebel!

As expected, I contest this interpretation of what a photographer “worthy of such a name” needs to achieve. Is art about communication? Does it have to be about an intellectual understanding of things? As far as I see it, the answer is no. If that was the case, it wouldn’t matter what the so called artist actually produces. It is my opinion that what has the potential to be transformative and permanent needs to be about the qualities of the work, qualities that are a clear extension of the way the artist creates, and “that way” is existential, psychological ethical, metaphysical and so on.

So, to wrap up this argument, the reason I don’t think of School Affairs as a successful work is precisely because I find no other way in except to conceptualize it, because it lacks originality, for the photographs don’t attain the self-sufficiency and aesthetic qualities that would “come to them” if they weren’t chosen to abide by a too conceptual premise.

Interestingly enough, the controversy keeps on escalating. João’s most commercially appealing photograph (of course this is debatable) in School Affairs is the photograph of a public outdoor depicting one portuguese actress. The original photograph is by another portuguese photographer. I think for most of us who live immersed in the visual arts field, we don’t even think of this as an issue, but rather as something that came to be part of our visual language: to appropriate public discourses, public strategies of seduction and consumption appeal.

But as we are often remembered, a big part of the observers don’t feel the same way and think of reproduction as appropriation and then equate appropriation with theft. It’s easy to call out these observers for their lack of knowledge of cultural discourses, but where does it lead us? Isn’t it more fruitful to actually reflect upon this huge gap?

The actress called out João’s work on facebook, saying he “had won the prize […] with a photograph of [her] person, taken by photographer André Brito in 2013”. Most of the comments that followed are pure gems. People insult the photographer, the jury, revealing the fussiness that exists between the commercial and the artistic world of photography. The language is the same, scaffolded on semiotics, but the aim is very different. Commercial photography is only successful if its finality is achieved, and once that is done, the photograph consumes itself, it dies. On the other hand, artistic photography need to rely on its aesthetic qualities and on its power to trigger the viewer’s imagination. Does João’s photographs do the former, the latter or both?

I rest my case for now. Hopefully the controversial will pass on and he will go on to address the photographic specificities that interest us.

* This year’s jury comprised the following personalities:
Margarida Medeiros, author and lecturer; Augusto Brázio
, photographer; Mário Teixeira da Silva, owner at Módulo; Sérgio B. Gomes, jornalist and editor for the blog Arte Photographica.
João’s work can be seen here.

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