The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is the best way to sum up the year just gone, to dive into colours, eyes, smiles and tears and to deeply understand the faces and places of 2015.
With 4,929 submissions from 70 different countries entered by 2,201 photographers, the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is the leading competition to promote the best in contemporary portrait photography and to form an astonishing portrait of the world we live in.
Judged anonymously over the course of two days, this year, it also features previously unseen prints from a new body of work by Pieter Hugo, South African photographer chosen by the Gallery for his extraordinary approach to portraiture.
The judges of the 22nd year of the exhibition are Dr. Nicholas Cullinan, Dr. Phillip Prodger – Director and Head of Photographs at National Portrait Gallery, respectively – photographer Hannah Starkey, Scottish National Portrait Gallery photography curator Anne Lyden, director of Cardiff Ffotogallery David Drake, and Tim Eyles, Managing Partner of the award’s sponsor, Taylor Wessing LLP. The most highly rated portraits of this year are by photographers Anoush Abrar (Iran), Ivor Prickett (Ireland), David Stewart (England) and Peter Zelewski (USA).
Entering the two connected rooms where the exhibition is displayed, all the photographs are placed on white walls, which make the bright colours of each picture even more alive. Surrounded by the photos, it seems like the subjects of the artworks are staring at you, and you could talk to them and ask them about their stories. Beside each photograph there is a caption showing the name of the artist, his/her qualifications, the title of the picture and a little description of how the artist came up with the idea of the photo.
What is extraordinary about the exhibition is its simplicity. The subjects of the photographs are not flawless and some of them are not even posing. Realism is the common theme of the exhibition. The viewers can feel as if they enter the photographs, find themselves in different countries, experience new realities, get to know cultures and traditions that would usually be too far away to discover.
The photographs convey a sense of pure energy, as if some of them could light up the room, while others could make it dark and silent.
“Yngvild”, by Tereza Červeňová, recipient of the 2015 John Kobal New York Award, is my favourite photograph of the exhibition. The artist, born in 1991, who experienced trouble modelling for a few years, took the photo the first time she met Yngvild, young model and artist herself, in August 2014. Each element in the photo is interconnected to the other; Yngvild looks strong but weak at the same time, the dark background makes her skin light up, gives her more energy, which the viewer can feel just by observing her. She looks tense, as if she is posing for a worldwide famous magazine; her long wavy hair looks so real that I can almost touch it. I find the photograph touching, wonderful but sad at the same time. Yngvild is a model, motivated to reach perfection, but unavoidably not flawless. Tereza can read Yngvild’s mind because of her own experience and it shines through the photograph itself.
“Happy Pupil of Budaka” by Mark Chivers is the photograph that makes me smile the most. Chivers shows to the viewers that it is possible to find beauty and happiness in the most unlikely places. The photo displays blurred students in the background while the camera is focused mostly on one pupil. Owen is a young Ugandan boy whose education is funded through a charity known as Lessons for life. His infectious smile is so genuine and heart-warming he not only makes his entire fellow peer group smile, he even draws a smile from the most hardened face in the Gallery. The photograph is particularly powerful due to the fact the kid is smiling because of the gift of education, which it is not fully appreciated in our richer reality.
David Stewart’s portrait of his daughter and her friends, “Five Girls 2014”, which is the first prize winner of the year, mirrors a photograph he took of them in 2008 when they were about to start their studies. Anyone could tell the girls belong to the same group, they are wearing similar clothes, eating the same food and all have similar phones. What Stewart wants is for his viewers to focus on the girls’ eyes, the way they are all staring at something far away, as if their minds are in different places, even though their bodies are not moving. There is an element of distance between the five girls and that is what makes the photograph special. How many times could we watch this scene walking into a café in a big city? How many times have we been the subjects of this picture without even realising it? The original photograph of the five girls was displayed in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2008 exhibition and this year is the sixteenth time Stewart has had a photograph in the exhibition.
“The neighbour”, from the series Poetry of Daily Life, makes me shiver. The photographer, Viktorija Vaisvilaite Skirutiene, caught in the photograph a little boy standing on his father’s desk in front of a big window while pointing a gun towards his neighbours’ house. The boy is naked and standing as if he knows exactly how to get ready to shoot, as if it is something he does every day or has seen many times before. The black and white photograph makes the viewers aware of different realities in other countries. Things that might be normal somewhere in the world could be unusual elsewhere.
Visiting the exhibition is definitely worth it, it is an unforgettable experience for both professional photographers and art’s lovers. Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2015 is at the National Portrait Gallery, London from the 12th of November 2015 to the 21st of February 2016.