Sony World Photography Awards

The portrait above, haunting yet dignified, is of a farmer’s wife called Rasathi from Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state that is facing its worse drought in 140 years. It was taken by Italian photographer Federico Borella, winner of this year’s Photographer of the Year at the 2019 Sony World Photography Awards and featured in this year’s exhibition at London’s Somerset House. The woman’s husband committed suicide by hanging himself in his own field.

Five Degrees is a series in the Documentary category in which 35-year-old Borella draws attention to the real effect that climate change is having on people’s lives. Nearly 60,000 Indian farmers are estimated to have committed suicide over the past 30 years. 

Like this woman’s husband, they invest their money in their farms but get trapped in a spiral of debt as drought and short-sighted water management damages their harvests. Experts warn that temperatures in India could rise by 5ºF by 2050, hence the title. Coincidentally, on the day the exhibition opened, round the corner from Somerset House protesters were occupying Waterloo Bridge warning of the potential consequences of not addressing climate change.

Stumps exposed from the water levels on the manmade Alder lake on the Nisqually River Dam, Washington. ©Hal Gage

There are low water-levels in this beautifully composed photograph called Stumps by American Hal Gage. It’s from Alder Lake on the Nisqually River in Washington state. It came first in the Open Landscape category. The awards are grouped into 10 Professional categories in which series of photographs are entered. Then there are Open categories for single images. There are also Youth and Student sections. In all, a record 326,997 submissions by photographers from 195 countries were entered and judged by a panel of six experts from around the world. More details can be found on their website 

Harmony, © Christy Lee Rogers

This ethereal work by Nashville-based Hawaiian photographer, Christy Lee Rogers, at first sight could be a Baroque painting. She shot it underwater and at night so she could control the lighting which allows for beautiful, natural effects such as the refraction of light and the sense of movement. The underwater setting exposes both the sense of freedom and vulnerability of the subjects which Lee extrapolates to mankind in general. It won her the Open Photographer of the Year award both for its visual narrative and its technical excellence.

Shadow Puppetry © Pan Jianhua

I love this work by Chinese photographer Pan Jianhua that won the Open Culture category. It’s so intimate and atmospheric. The shadow puppet show which transfixes its village audience is an art form dating back 2,000 years and one can imagine scenes like this being not too dissimilar down the centuries. The position of the photographer is vital to the picture.

Each year the World Photography Organisation awards a prize for Outstanding Contribution to Photography. This year it was given to Nadav Kander, a photographer born in Israel, raised in South Africa but who has been based in the UK for many years. His works cover a range from celebrity portraiture to atmospheric landscapes and the award recognises his “versatile, powerful and thoughtful contribution to the medium”.

Priozersk XIV (I was once told she held an oar), Kazakhstan 2011 ©Nadav Kander courtesy Flowers Gallery

I’ve picked out the above taken from a series he shot in 2011-12 entitled Dust. He spent time in two cities on the Russian-Kazakhstan border, Kurchatov and Priozersk. They were in restricted military zones and used for the covert testing of atomic bombs during the Cold War. They never appeared on any maps until they were spotted by satellites being used by Google Earth.  In a highly cynical exercise, scientists began documenting the horrific effects the tests were having on the local population. The discovery of this sculpture in which the limbs are missing or broken says it all.

Kander’s work is often contemplative, with solitary figures overlooking large expanses of water. “It’s very sublime,” he tells me. “It reminds me of Casper Friedrich or Constable pictures of the smallness of man, the might of whether it’s a voyage or a contemplation or the human melancholy that inhabits us. I think all the sublime was about that.”

Meet Bob © Jasper Doest

In contrast to the melancholy of Nadav Kander, Dutch photographer Jasper Doest won the Professional Natural World/Wildlife award with the humorous tale of Bob the Flamingo. Bob is from the Dutch island of Curacao where he flew into a hotel window leaving him severely concussed. He was cared for by a local vet at a wildlife rehabilitation centre but his disabilities mean he can’t be safely released into the wild. So, instead he has become an ambassador for a conservation charity which educates locals about the importance of protecting the island’s wildlife. Here he is walking through the hallway, past the bathroom and back to his room which he shares with another aviar rescue friend.

In all there are 800 photographs on view and hung in both the East and West wings of Somerset House. I can only pick out a few, but there is a feast here to enjoy, one which covers all examples of the genre.

The exhibition lasts until 6 May 2019.

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