Discrepancies in how people live are sometimes hard to see from the ground. The beauty of being able to fly is to see things from a new perspective - to see things as they really are. Looking straight down from a height of several hundred meters, incredible scenes of inequality emerge. Some communities have been expressly designed with separation in mind, and some have grown more or less organically. Oftentimes, communities of extreme wealth and privilege will exist just meters from squalid conditions and shack dwellings.
I began taking these photographs in the country where I live, South Africa, where the spatial segregation created during apartheid still exists. Seeing the "buffer zones" created between neighborhoods separated by race is shocking and continues to organize the populations of major urban centers like Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. I have also shot inequalities in Nairobi and Mexico City, and continue to grow the project around the world.
My desire with this project is to portray the most Unequal Scenes around the world as objectively as possible. By providing a new perspective on an old problem, I hope to provoke a dialogue which can begin to address the issues of inequality and disenfranchisement in a constructive and peaceful way.
Taking up the tradition of landscape photography to situate my musings, I probe photographic methods as well as the truth in color perception. My photographs are strikingly abstract, psychedelic in the way that they vividly depict valleys and vistas, yet they maintain a certain realism in the subject matter. Utilizing an unorthodox set of tools to capture my chosen terrain—I travel to the far reaches of the world to find new sceneries—I call into question the role of the camera as vicarious viewer relative to an image making process that involves other mechanical and non-mechanical agents. As was said by Goethe in his Theory of Colors, colors belong to the eye; I convey this in my images, which are entirely true in their retelling of light and, therefore, vision, while they are also altered in their process prior to the instant of the photograph.
For the past ten years, I have focused on documenting the human, social and environmental issues that faced the Americas. I found myself especially drawn to the plight of immigrants in the border area, which divides Mexico and the United States.
Of all the borders dividing the US with Mexico, Nogales has seen the largest number of undocumented migrants during the last decade and the greatest number of recovered remains of migrants who perished in the extreme conditions of the southern Arizona desert.
Far fewer migrants from Mexico are successfully entering the US illegally than a decade ago due to stepped up border enforcement. Many are getting caught and quite a few are giving way before crossing the border. The US has spent billions since 2005 on border security and there is evidence that the spending has significantly deterred illegal border crossing. Despite the fact that fewer migrants are trying to cross into the US, the misery of those who do is shocking and the suffering profound.
Over the last three years I have photographed on both sides of the border in Nogales, following deported migrants as well migrants who tried to cross the border to either find work or to reunite with their families who already live in the US. I wanted to know more about these people, called migrants or illegals and learn why do they risk their life to cross this unforgiving desert? We all have seen many photographs from migrants on their route. In my photographs, I put the focus on the faces, to create an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject and at the same time to evoke interest in the individual story.
I chose the title ‘The Backpackers’, because the only thing migrants carry on their route across the border is a backpack.
This series, Ice Formations, captures ice patterns appearing on ponds, lakes and river in the beginning of winter around Fairbanks, Alaska. The photographs were taken over the past seven years with a medium format film camera, which allows me to capture delicate details of the ice. Many of these are frozen bubbles of gases like methane or carbon dioxide trapped under ice. When lake, swamp and river water freezes, it turns into ice slowly from the surface and traps the gases. The bubbles create unique geometric patterns. The actual diameter of the ice formations in my series is about 10-40 inches (25-100 cm). Because methane gas is considered as one of the fundamental causes of greenhouse effects, scientists in Alaska are researching these frozen bubbles in relation to the global climate change. The water also shows other beautiful patterns in fall and winter. Snow falls on lakes and rivers, freezes, melts, refreezes and creates unique organic patterns on ice. The vapor in the air freezes as frost and grows intricate ice crystals. It's amazing to me that the wondrous formations appear quietly on surface of frozen water for no one: they are not for humans or other creatures. It makes me think wonders of nature and respect the environment. We see various forms of water throughout the seasons in Alaska. I hope that the images of dynamic changes of water captured in my series would help viewers feel connected to nature, and inspire their curiosity to natural phenomena and invite them to explore the beauty in the details of the organic patterns. In our everyday life, there is beauty and wonder. However, many are subtle, ephemeral or too small to be noticed. Photography enables me to pay attention to those moments and subjects, take more time to observe them, examine from different angles and understand them more deeply. Each image on film is scanned, digitally split-toned and printed 20"x20" size on Archival Pigment Print.
We are constantly surrounded by images. We check Instagram the minute we wake up, expect high-quality photos to accompany the news we read, and are inundated daily with advertising.
So, what makes for compelling, game-changing photography? What makes a body of work not only demand our immediate attention but — more importantly — keep it?
As I looked through submissions, what kept my attention was work that tackled universal themes through distinctly original and subversive methodology. I gravitated toward photography that pushed boundaries, gave me a sense of place, and also transported me.
These projects speak to our current global moment — a point where everything seems volatile and fraught with anxiety. And yet, I saw heartening glimmers of hope, community, and tenderness. Recurring themes surrounding identity, displacement, death, and the rural landscape connected to our basic humanity and shed light on everyday issues. The personal is political.
I chose work that resonated with me for days after I first saw them, as well as projects whose artistry and ingenuity could not be ignored. That’s what great art does — it seeps into our subconscious and makes us discover something we didn’t know before. Photography shouldn’t always be easy to look at, or even comfortable. It should challenge us and our perceptions.
As a community, industry, and as storytellers, how do we best push our medium forward and beyond? We continue to invent methods of visual storytelling. We deconstruct processes. We bear witness to moments and artfully, thoughtfully, document them. I’m deeply honored to be a juror for the 2017 Project Launch. Thank you to Center for trusting me with this responsibility; I can’t wait to see what the future holds for our medium.
When I first viewed Brendan Pattengale's series "Color of Love," I couldn't look away, and I'm thrilled to select this series for my Juror's Choice Award. I was immediately drawn to the vibrant color and otherworldly feel. His images are paradoxical: what we see is land, yes, but it looks like another planet. His images are both graphic and downright painterly. Brendan is able to show us a landscape — something we've seen in images since the invention of the camera — in a new, transformative way. Indeed, this project challenges the very notion of what landscape photography is or can be. He has beautifully pushed boundaries of interpretation and representation, and I look forward to seeing more work from him the in future.
The range of work submitted for the Project Launch is enormous – and the challenge to select down to reach a shortlist immense. Inevitably, when faced with so much strong work, many excellent projects fail to make the final cut.
This year’s winner Johnny Miller was, however, not a difficult choice. His project, ‘Unequal Scenes’. brings a new visual vocabulary to an issue we are all aware of. These are powerful aerial images confirming something we sense but often turn our back on – the painfully close proximity within which wealth and poverty co-exist, the blatant inequalities that society does little to redress.
Often, as a member of any jury you sense a zeitgeist, a particular theme or focus that is repeated across many projects. Interestingly, for me, in these submissions I wasn’t consciously aware of this at all. The range of subjects and styles has been wide. I’ve enjoyed studio portraits of sheep, felt guilty at the sad fate of the captive Polar Bear and been introduced to worlds totally new to me, many swiftly vanishing from sight.
And yet one of the projects which immediately drew my attention was one which dealt with an issue which has been prevalent over several years – that of migration across the USA / Mexico border. The work by Petra Barth, entitled ‘The Backpackers’, is extremely powerful. At one level it can appear as simple and straightforward – face on, studio style portraits in black and white – and yet these images carry an emotional intensity which is both disturbing and revealing. These are people willing to risk their lives crossing the desert as they leave Nogales in search of new opportunities in the States. Whilst the number who make the journey has reduced, it is hard to forget just how many have died over the recent years making this very same trip. To look at these portraits, to look into their eyes, has to make you empathise, to understand, at least just a little more.
Being a photographer comes with responsibilities: an obligation to look carefully at the world and a duty to help other people to see it anew. That can mean offering fresh perspective on an often overlooked detail of daily life. Or it can mean providing a glimpse into a community to which we might not normally have access. It’s not easy to hold attention these days, as images flow by so quickly with the simple swipe of a finger across a screen, but many of the photographers we reviewed took their responsibilities seriously. Several were especially adept, wielding tried and true tools—careful selection of subjects, thoughtful framing, tonal range—to urge more careful consideration of today’s most pressing concerns: vanishing ways of life, the legacies of the past, environmental degradation, identity politics, systemic inequalities. The photographers to which I was particularly drawn didn’t just point and shoot but attentively composed, edited, and sequenced their work. They didn’t merely take photographs, they made them.
Many of the more elliptical images, those that addressed contemporary concerns indirectly, were particularly arresting. Some of the projects I found most engaging juxtaposed or layered images, creating complicated visual fields that required time to navigate and to try to unpack. I appreciated the chance for different views of otherwise well-rehearsed relationships with nature, with history, with the built environment, with our bodies, and with each other.
In their statements, several photographers referenced the difficulties of making their work. The sheer number of applicants is testimony of artistic perseverance in the face of logistical, physical, emotional, and financial complications. It’s heartening. Actually, it’s more than that. It demonstrates the power of photographs to raise awareness, to spark laughter, to foster empathy, and to stimulate dialogue. We’re sorely in need of each lately.
My juror pick is Ice Formations by Ryota Kajita. The series, made with a medium format camera, registers ice patterns in Alaskan waterways with mesmerizing detail. Fantastic abstractions, the photographs address global warming by evoking a more epic cosmology. They offer the hopeful reminder that sometimes fractures are the start of new, stronger formations.