Much has been said about the endless photographic mediocrity of the digital age. The infinite glossy ads, the stream of cheap tourist snaps and sea of selfies. You’d forgive a young photographer for feeling disillusioned. In a world where 2 billion images are uploaded to the internet every day, how can you ever be original? What power is there even left in photography?
Spread over the east and west wings of Somerset House, the Sony World Photo Awards (open until 7 May) answers these questions at full tilt.
The pictures in this mammoth exhibition were selected from over 220,000 online entries from 183 countries – amateur and professional. As an add-on, there’s a collection of work by famed British photographer Martin Parr.
Walking through the gallery, you’d be stretched to find something which didn’t move you in some way. The incredible spectrum of human experience on display is humbling enough.
Dario Mitidieri’s simple yet haunting ‘Lost Family Portraits’ hit you head on. In the middle of a Lebanese refugee camp, Syrian families stand against a black screen. From their expressions, you can see their spirit is almost broken – beside them are empty seats where their loved ones should be.
Photography and film can inspire human empathy for another’s suffering in a way no other medium can. But over the last five years, the world has been bombarded with so many appalling images of the Syrian conflict that many people are simply numbed to a war that seems so far away. What’s so wonderful about Mitidieri’s family photos is their subtlety. There is no horrific violence just broken families and emptiness. You could so easily substitute your own family into the frame, and ask the dreadful question, who’s missing?
Another inspirational series is Yuan Peng’s photo story of two tiny Chinese sisters undergoing the brutal training to be future Olympic gymnasts. For his efforts, he won first prize in the professional sports category of the Photo Awards. Stand in front of his huge prints and you can see why. In one appalling shot one of the twins is bent head over heel, her neck is bent almost 90 degrees backwards and her small face screwed up in pain as the trainer bends her past her limit. In the instant before her toes touch the floor in front of her face, you want to scream ‘stop’ and tackle the trainer before he snaps her in two.
Ralph Gräf won the coveted place of best travel photo of the year against countless globetrotters with a picture many of us have seen before in endless Hollywood movies. In his shot, somewhere in the vastness of North America, a simple red 4×4 turns off an empty highway into a gas station café. No exotic subject matter – no Indian masses, Vietnamese fishermen or Siberian herdsmen – but somehow the shot is so perfectly composed, so full of symmetry, that it looks like it’s been painted.
Surprisingly the highest award of photographer of the year didn’t go to some war-hardened photojournalist fresh from the battlefields of Middle East, but to a Belgium man doggedly in pursuit of a simple thing: snow. For Frederik Buyckx’s stunning ‘Whiteout’ series, he travelled across Scandinavia, the Balkans and Central Asia in search of breath-taking ethereal white landscapes. In his most powerful shot, somewhere in the cold wilderness, a donkey collapses from exhaustion. There is a deathly calm in his black and white shots – an absolute brilliance to the bleak landscape.
The exhibition can’t be recommended enough. Without a doubt you’ll leave inspired, knowing that in the age of the smartphone, mediocrity is not king.