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Australian wins international portrait prize

Sydney-based photographer, David Prichard, has won the UK National Portrait Gallery 2021 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize for his series, Tribute to Indigenous Stock Women.

Mildred Burns. Photo: David Prichard.

The 55-year old photographer captured portraits of First Nation women who spent most of their lives working as stock women on cattle stations in Far North Queensland. Prichard has documented indigenous Australians for most of his career, stating it’s always his intention to be ‘respectful of cultural and social sensitivities and subsequently built trust with the community, which led me to be invited to photograph the women. The project is not about me. I am only the vehicle for the women to tell their stories.’

The stock women work in physically demanding environment and are often poorly paid, with a range of duties from cooking and other homestead chores to maintaining the welfare of the livestock.

Gloria Campbell. Photo: David Prichard.

Prichard was commissioned to create Tribute to Indigenous Stock Women by the Carpentaria Shire Council in Queensland, an honour for the photographer to record a group of people who had rarely had their voices heard.

Any level of investigation into Australian history reveals the years of trauma that indigenous people have suffered,’ Prichard said to the National Portrait Gallery. ‘One can only imagine what stock women endured, living in remote areas, in a world dominated by white colonial culture and law. I wanted to produce portraits that were dignified, strong and beautiful, and worthy to represent these women today and into the future.’

Shirley Mary Ann McPherson. Photo: David Prichard.

Here’s an excerpt of an article and interview published by the NPG:

Prichard’s four sitters – Kurtijar women Merna Beasley, Shirley Mary Ann McPherson and Gloria Campbell and Gkuthaarn woman Mildred Burns – were also interviewed about their experiences as part of the project. Gloria was a housekeeper and cook from her mid-teens, and describes the experience as ‘hard work from morning to night’. For Merna, who was employed at stations from the age of 15, the satisfaction of working with horses and cattle was tempered by often harsh treatment she received at the hands of ranchers. ‘Once, when I was out bush working, my aunty passed away in town,’ she recalls. ‘My family sent a telegram to the station to tell me she died and when her funeral was, but I didn’t get the message because the manager threw it in the bin, where I found it a few days later.’

From the nineteenth century, white owners made fortunes from beef production by seizing ancestral lands and exploiting indigenous workers, who lived in poor conditions and were often paid in rations. It wasn’t until 1968, following the recognition of Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution and decades of organised protests and walk-outs, that pastoralists were legally required to honour equal pay. Today, the industry remains hugely profitable. In June 2021, the Miranda Downs station, where Merna, Gloria and Mildred once worked, was sold for £100m, a record sum for an Australian ranch.

Prichard took the portraits at the Burns Philp Building, a former store and warehouse in Normanton, built by the eponymous shipping company that, during the 1800s, was involved in what is referred to as the Australian slave trade – the forced transportation of South Sea Islanders to work as labourers. It now houses a library and information centre. ‘The building was the obvious choice of location, offering a relatively cool space, and also abundant natural light. The walls of the building are adorned with the history of European explorers and I included parts in some of the frames to subtly suggest the ever-present reminder of colonial times.’

With limited time to complete the portraits, he used a 35mm SLR digital camera, directing his sitters only in regards to light and to ensure they were comfortable. ‘It was hot as hell,’ he recalls. ‘Being elderly, the women suffer from health issues, including diabetes, and find it very hard to get around, so getting them to the location was a big deal, including managing Covid restrictions.’

In making the series, Prichard was acutely aware of the complex history of the representation of Indigenous people in Australian photography. He worked hand-in-hand with members of the Indigenous community, including Gkuthaarn man Jason Callope and Kurtijar woman Angeline Pascoe, who put forward sitters for the project, and Clarene Rainbow and Noelene Beasley from Kurtijar Aboriginal Corporation, who assisted with their transportation.

Merna Beasley. Photo: David Prichard.

Prichard won £15,000 ($27,500).

Second prize went to French photographer, Pierre-Elie de Pibrac, for his series Hakanai Sonzai, a series of natural light portraits of Japanese people who show ‘fortitude in the face of adversity’.

‘Each portrait emanates from long discussions I had with my subjects about a painful event in their lives,’ de Pibrac said. ‘In all the pictures I forbid any movement, as if they are trapped by their surroundings with no visible escape.’

Miyashita San. Photo: Pierre-Elie de Pibrac

See the series, along with other shortlisted images, here.

Photo contest criteria

Organising group: UK National Portrait Gallery
Status/Objective: An international competition that celebrates and promotes the very best in contemporary portrait photography.
Entry fee: £20 per photograph entered.
Prizes: £15,000 for first prize, £3000 for second, £2000 for third.
Sponsors: Taylor Wessing, a global law firm.
Judges: National Portrait Gallery director, Dr Nicholas Cullinan; Open Eye Gallery curator Mariama Attah; photographer and chair of the Southbank Centre, Misan Harriman; curator and writer, Dr Susan Bright; and National Portrait Gallery senior curator of photographs, Magda Keaney.
Number of entrants/submissions: 5392 submissions entered by 2215 photographers from 62 countries.
Categories: Just the one category prize.
Exposure: This contest results in an NPG exhibition showing at the Cromwell Arts Hub in South Kensington.
Transparency: It’s transparent.
Communication: Readily available.
Estimated Gross Revenue: 5392 entries x £20 = £107,000 (just under $200K. The exhibition is also ticketed at £8. Wowee!
Copyright standards: No word on retaining copyright, but also no rights-grabbing clauses!
Overall rating: The contest is a pretty big investment, as photographers must also print their photos to enter them. So entrants should be confident that their photos have a chance at winning. Seems like a pretty big revenue generator. That being said, it’s a top international photographic portrait contest.

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