Congratulations to Michelle Sank, who has won the Single Image Category in the British Journal of Photography's International Photography Awards, with this shot of a man sleeping on the grass...
This shot? Really? Maybe I should go skim that article again...let's see...powerful shot...surreal and disturbing...picked out from 338 other entries...microcosm of South Africa...wins a Sigma DP2s...right, 'kay, guess that's right then.
I'd like to humbly suggest we stage our own contest. The TOP Post-Exposure Reconceptualization Processor Award for the person who can come up with the invented caption that manages to make this nondescript picture interesting. I'll kick things off with two attempts of my own:
"M'bato Ngyui of South Africa demonstrates his celebrated divining technique. He presses his left ear to the ground for several hours and then advises villages where to dig their wells. He is paid in bread."
"The Monstunto Corporation, reacting to charges that it cares little for the welfare of farmers, has responded by developing a genetically modified turf that is comfortable for unemployed homeless farmers to sleep on. It drains well when wet and is said to be 'delightfully spongy.' "
(Note also the comments under the original article....)
(Thanks to Hilton)
UPDATE: I contacted Diane Smyth, the BJP Deputy Editor who wrote the article. She confirmed that the article was not a spoof and that the shot really is the winner (I wasn't 100% sure).
UPDATE #2: As a further indictment of the choice, the prize-winning image is entirely uncharacteristic of the work of Michelle Sank, who is a portraitist with a very definite style (usually full body or three-quarter-length, head-on color environmental portraits of one or two people, usually using light fill flash, sometimes a little foreground-heavy)—and one who very distinctly works in terms of groupings of pictures organized around sociological concerns. (I.e., not in single images.)
Here's a characteristic Michelle Sank shot from her website:
It's from a set called "Into the Arms of Babes." In describing the project she is characterically blunt about her intent: "England has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe and this statistic is of growing concern. In this project I am exploring the current phenomenon of teenage mothers, and in some cases, teenage parents. Essentially these parents feel like children themselves, and it is this vulnerability that I am trying to convey. I am also interested in showing the relationship and bonding that exists between young parent and child as well as revealing the dynamics that are apparent between the mother, her partner and the extended family."
And finally, we need to retain a sense of perspective here: saying a picture isn't a standout single image worthy of an award isn't the same thing as saying the picture is totally worthless or that it doesn't have any meaning for anybody. The prizewinner here just isn't special. Fail. I think "period," although I sort of admire those with sufficient confidence to disagree.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Caption by John Krumm: "A contestant participates in the annual 'worm whispering' derby. Earthworms are most active at night and can be lured to the surface with the proper call."
Caption by Judith W.: "After 37 years of her nagging him to tie his shoelaces, Samir suddenly realized what a smart woman his mother actually was."
Caption by Ned: "Trapped coal miners encouraged by voice from above."
Featured Comment by Ed Hawco: "Nice capture! ;-)"
Featured Comment by David S.: "The comments on this post remind me of the reaction when William Eggleston had his first exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art: 'It's a picture of a tricycle! My kid could have taken it!'
"Your first mistake is to confuse technique with meaning. Perhaps you would have preferred a nice HDR photo of a sunset?
"Art is not about technique. The fact that it's a photograph most of you would never have even bothered taking doesn't invalidate it. It just means the photographer saw something you were incapable of seeing.
"Photography is not a 'difficult' medium. All photographs are, by definition, 'easy' to make—you just push a button. The value of the medium lies in the photographer's calling a moment in time to our attention—a moment we might otherwise have missed—and saying 'this is important.' It takes something simple and fleeting and turns it into something emblematic.
"Art is not about pretty pictures. It is first and foremost about the human condition.
"The photograph is about murder. It's about latent violence, and the brutal, animal nature of human existence. Dostoyevsky would have loved it. Weegee would have loved it. It demands the viewer's active participation in parsing out its meaning and its narrative. The picture might as well have been taken 50,000 years ago—a photograph of a man and his most basic tool, a blunt instrument of violence."
Featured Comment by Nick: "P.S. It's a loaf of bread, not a brick."
Featured Comment by Daniel: "What a crock of sh*t! I know many have commented already, but here's my local take on this image, considering I'm based in Durban and a photographer. This gentleman is most likely not poor; it's actually very common to see people taking a quick nap on the grass during the day. It doesn't mean they have no-where to sleep, they are just having a siesta.
Featured Comment by Andrew: "I live in Durban and often photograph on the Golden Mile. To suggest that this photograph is 'a microcosm of South Africa' is ludicrous. South Africa is a complex multi-cultural society historically burdened with extremes of wealth and poverty. This image represents none of that. He is not the epitome of 'poor' in South African terms—he has servicable clothes and a loaf of bread. If you want 'poor' then photograph the AIDS orphens living at rubbish dumps, but for God's sake give them a loaf of bread, they desperately need it. There is no sense of place, juxtaposition of cultures or fortunes or personal story. It's a sad reflection on the BJP."
Featured Comment by Mike Chisholm: "Mike, I'm not immediately impressed by this image myself, but aren't you—as a professional contrarian—even a little bothered by the strength and unanimity of the negative response to it?
"Think back to the reactions to f64, New Topographics, John Gossage, Paul Graham, Alec Soth...almost always 'Why, these aren't proper photographs! They're so banal!!'
"For sure, I'm not saying this is an outstanding photograph—it looks very ill-considered to my 56-year-old eyes—but it is very typical of what some thoughtful young photographers are producing, perhaps in reaction to what us oldies hold dear about our photographs.
"I think it's wise to try to stay open to the 'Hendrix Moment' ('Coltrane Moment,' if you prefer)—when something new arrives that trashes certain expectations of a previous generation. This may or may not be such a moment.
"I hope not, personally, but I'm reserving judgement until I understand what is really going on. I don't know about you, but my instinct is always to head in the other direction to the baying of the Flickr crowd...."
Mike replies: Mike, I'm secure enough to accept being part of the reactionary crowd if that's to be my role here. I feel I'm reasonably open to exploring how photographs work, and to engaging with work that doesn't immediately appeal to me.
Still, I'm a middle aged white man, for better or worse. Heck, I don't like piercings or tattoos either for that matter. That marks me as part of my generation and social class, but the fact remains that I am indeed part of my generation and social class. So, so be it. That's not going to make me pretend to like tattoos.
Back to the picture: sometimes bad is good, but, to quote a song of our generation, sometimes bad is bad.
Featured Comment by Stan B.: "I've finally gotten off the initial 'high' this photo first inspired. Michelle Sank (you wouldn't know it from this photo) is a very gifted portraitist. And while I can see some of the things this photo almost has going for it (e.g., the shape of the shirt, the disembodied hand, the muted color palette, the contrasting patches of grass, and the extraterrestrial loaf of bread)—it's still an 'almost' shot, one ascended from two of photography's laziest beginner genres, the sleeping student on the lawn, and the down-and-out guy. Do we really need yet another picture of a down-and-out person of color—even if supposedly operating within the realm of 'Fine Art?'
"I hope Ms. Sank uses the money to produce more of the fine photography she is so capable of...the kind that may not win her this prize, but that does both her and her subject matter justice."
Featured Comment by Lynn Burdekin: " 'Man Asleep on the Golden Mile.' I beg to differ. He is obviously just loafing."
Featured Comment by Craig Lee: "In the end, any contest comes down to the opinion of the judge/judges. Theirs is the only one that really matters.
"I myself was recently in a local photography competition where the 'Best in Show' was generally regarded as a snapshot by most of the visitors to the gallery. When I mention being in this particular contest and show to other area photographers, the first question I get is 'What did you think about the winner?' The next few minutes are descriptions of the photograph that are very similar to most of the reactions in this thread to this particular image.
"My response is that it was just one person's opinion and not something that I'll loose sleep over. There were many beautiful photographs in the contest's show that I would never have seen before, and I've met several local photographers that I would not have know before. Besides, the judge had to know what he was doing since I placed third in one of the categories. ;-)
"A judge's opinion just doesn't raise my blood pressure all that much. Different images will speak to different people in different ways. I am constantly surprised when someone likes a photograph of mine which I thought was a reject. They see something that I captured, yet didn't notice myself. That is something that, to me at least, makes photography a most surprising art form."
Mike replies: That last paragraph is a great insight. A classmate of mine, Pam West, found a shot of mine on my contact sheets and convinced me to print it. I had ignored it completely. Yet if I end up printing a 'best of' portfolio of my own 35mm work in my new darkroom, that picture will make the cut.
Very interesting. Very mysterious.