The Prix Pictet, the world’s largest photography and sustainability award, is making its debut in China to shed light on the beauty and plight of our planet today – one staggering image at a time. We sit down with the award’s executive director, Isabelle von Ribbentrop, to find out more.
Perhaps in our ability to carry on in adversity lies hope for us all,” said the late honorary president of the Prix Pictet, Kofi Annan, in his closing remarks for the 2017 award ceremony. Since 2008, the Geneva-based photography award has been the world’s most prominent celebration that shines a light on social and environmental sustainability issues, with a prize of CHF 100,000 going to the winning photographer.
Hope, in all its courage and unsettling beauty, was the theme of the Prix Pictet’s eighth edition in 2019. Featuring compelling works by 12 shortlisted photographers, the winner was Joana Choumali, who directly embroidered patterns onto photographs taken three weeks after the 2016 Grand-Bassam terrorist shootings at a resort in her native Ivory Coast. Others on the list include Lucas Foglia, who captured icefield researchers traversing the Juneau Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the world, and Rena Effendi, whose work underscores the tranquil beauty of haymaking season in northern Romania.
This year, Prix Pictet is bringing its mission to spark meaningful change through art to China for the first time, where the Hope series is currently showing at the Shanghai Center of Photography until October 24 before making its way to Beijing’s Today Art Museum in November. Ahead of Prix Pictet’s China debut, executive director Isabelle von Ribbentrop sits down with us to reveal why there are few more poignant ways to celebrate the resilience of the human spirit than through the universal language of photography.
Can you tell us about the origins of Prix Pictet and how it has evolved over the decade?
We founded the Prix Pictet in 2008 with the mission to shed light on issues of sustainability, particularly environmental sustainability, through the medium of photography – and our mission hasn’t changed. Since then, though, the photograph has become ubiquitous, as everyone has access to smartphone cameras. The prize has certainly evolved with the medium and our last winner actually took the images in her series with an iPhone. Yet, the overwhelming number of images taken every day can dilute the messages that are important, so we continue to strive to highlight the world’s most pressing issues.
What is your role as executive director at Prix Pictet and what drew you to become a part of it?
My role is to uphold the values and mission that we set out to achieve over a decade ago. I’m most inspired by the impression that these photographs have on people all over the world and the Prix Pictet’s ability to give exposure to photographers who are transmitting such urgent messages. Having four children myself, I’m deeply honoured to be part of a project that aims to make the world a better place for future generations.
From newspaper articles to documentaries, sustainability has been discussed widely across numerous mediums. Why is photography such a powerful form for telling stories about sustainability?
Photography is a particularly important medium to transmit messages of sustainability because it reflects the immediacy and urgency of the problems we face. “A photograph can speak a thousand words” is a common phrase, but in this case it’s really true. It allows viewers, no matter their nationality or literacy level, to understand that which cannot be said: how we are in constant flux, destroying and rebuilding the Earth, taking more than we should and blaming others for it. Photographs have the ability to capture this in a way that I believe other artistic methods might not.
Tell us about Hope, the 2019 series that’s showing in China. Why was this theme chosen?
Hope is something we need today more than ever. Much of the information we receive in relation to sustainability can be daunting. It’s an immense task that seems impossible to achieve. Yet, the images that were nominated and shortlisted for our eighth cycle, Hope, show the strength of perseverance, the power in resilience, and the light in love. With all of the natural and manmade tragedies happening around the world, hope is so vital to the sustainability fight. It inspires the human spirit even in the darkest of times.
Winner Joana Choumali’s Ça va aller series is especially striking, featuring embroidery interwoven into her post-attack photography. Why did she stand out?
We don’t interfere with the jury, but in my personal opinion, Joana’s work is particularly striking not only because of its incredible visual composition and use of colour and string – their reflection on an age-old feminine tradition of weaving and stitching society back together – but because it reflects a wider truth in people’s inability to address trauma. I believe the world is in trauma and in order to heal, we need to speak about what ails us; we must address that which has not been said.
After nine editions, we’re thrilled to hear about Prix Pictet’s inaugural exhibition in China. How did this come about?
The Prix Pictet seeks to reach global awareness, so with every new cycle, we try to visit new regions and cities. We believe that China will have a significant role to play in global sustainability, and hope that these images will shed light on the world’s most pressing environmental and social issues.
As we excitedly look forward to seeing the works in China, the shortlisted photographers for the ninth edition, themed Fire, have just been announced. Can you tell us about the latest edition?
We have been delighted by the reception to the newly announced shortlist and theme of Fire, which we believe to be incredibly relevant today – it has hardly been out of the news since the inferno that consumed the Notre Dame in Paris in early 2019. We have seen record rainforest blazes in the Amazon; bushfires in Australia, Turkey, and Greece; and conflagrations in California. It’s an element that destroys as it renews – and for many, it means survival and economic prosperity. Yet our abuse of this most capricious of elements is the source of most of our environmental woes. We’re very excited to see how the exhibition comes together and which of the 12 shortlisted series – all so different – wins the prize this time, to be announced at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on December 15.
Over the last decade, how have you seen the art world respond to the topic of sustainability? What role can photography – and by extension, art and artists – play in our rapidly fatigued world?
When we started the prize, sustainability was not a commonplace word. Today, it’s everywhere – and rightly so. Our unsustainable appetite and overconsumption are slowly killing our planet. We must reconsider our lifestyles and priorities if we’re to go forward. The role of artists has never been more important in transmitting these messages – forcing people to look, through beautiful yet horrifying images, where they might otherwise have not.
Out of the hundreds of shortlisted entries presented over nine series, have there been any works that have particularly made an impact on you?
I’ve always been taken by Rena Effendi’s photographs. Her images have a clarity of vision, softness of touch, and strength of character that astound me every time I view them. I particularly like her images from Hope on the rural traditions in Transylvania that are, somehow, surviving the onslaught of Western industrial farming. There’s something beautiful in these communities that are so connected to the Earth.
When it comes to luxury and high-end living, there can sometimes be a paradoxical relationship with sustainability. What is sustainability to you?
Sustainability to me means thinking long term – being able to visualise how something that will give you instant gratification will only harm you and your offspring later. I think sustainability can and must apply to every area of our life.
What’s next for Prix Pictet?
We’re very excited to be opening our Hope exhibition in Shanghai, followed by Dublin, then Beijing, and ending the global tour with a show in Milan. Afterwards, we’ll be opening our Prix Pictet Fire cycle in Japan – the first time we’ve ever had an exhibition without knowing who the winner is! – followed by the award ceremony and exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in December. We’re still arranging the exhibition schedule, but we are planning to visit New York and Zurich, among other locations. Next summer, we’ll be announcing our tenth theme, so keep an eye out for the subject that will mark our decade-long anniversary.