A Spanish Londoner has won the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 for a picture of a camera shy Bolivian woman. Jordi Ruiz Cirera, 28, who studied at London College of Communication, snapped the photograph of a 26-year-old woman from Bolivia – who was reluctant to sit for the camera. The £12,000 award was presented to the London-based Spanish photographer at the National Portrait Gallery, London, last night (Monday 5 November 2012). The winning portrait goes on show at the Gallery from Thursday 8 November 2012. This is the fifth year that international law firm Taylor Wessing has sponsored the Prize. The judges have selected 60 portraits for the exhibition from 5,340 submissions entered by 2,352 photographers.
Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘My congratulations go to all of this year’s photographers. Jordi Ruiz Cirera’s portrait is a superbly crafted study of an unexpected but fascinating subject.’
The winning image of a Mennonite woman, seated at a kitchen table, is part of Menonos, Ruiz Cirera’s long-term project to document the daily life of a religious community – one which forbids images. Having travelled to South America on two occasions, Ruiz Cirera gradually won the trust of the residents of several colonies located south of Santa Cruz. The Mennonites’ uneasy relationship with the camera is reflected in the winning portrait of Margarita Teichroeb, pictured at the home she shares with her mother and sister in the Swift Current Colony in Bolivia. ‘I wanted Margarita to look at the camera, but that was a problem for her, and I guess that’s why she is partially covering her face,’ says RuizCirera. ‘She seems to be afraid of the photographer, unwilling to expose herself to our gaze. Her awkward expression says a lot about the tradition, isolation and lifestyle of this community.’
Ruiz Cirera took the portrait in the large, starkly furnished but light-filled room with a digital 35mm Canon 5D mkII, using only available light. ‘Almost all of the houses have tables in front of their windows giving fantastic light to the scene, he says. ‘Sitting in front of the camera was not easy for Margarita, photography is forbidden for Mennonites and having her direct portrait taken was quite difficult so I could only take two frames of her. Even though we were enjoying the situation, Margarita posed with this sort of awkward expression.’
Since some Mennonites consider photographs to be a form of graven image, Ruiz Cirera struggled to break down their aversion to the lens. ‘It was a really difficult project,’ he recalls. ‘They were willing to host me in their homes, but they weren’t initially willing to be pictured. In some cases, it is forbidden. I stayed there for a month, living with different families, then returned a year later. That’s when most of my pictures were taken.’
More than 50,000 Mennonites live in Bolivia, descendants of Christian Anabaptists who left Germany in the sixteenth century. Famously reclusive, the pacifist sect still speaks Low German and their society prohibits the use of cars and electricity. ‘It’s a very humble existence,’ says Ruiz Cirera. ‘They live as their ancestors did, in small, conservative communities devoted to God and sustained by hard work in the fields. Mennonite society is very patriarchal and gender roles are strict.’ Mennonite settlements have previously been documented by Magnum photojournalist Larry Towell, and the renowned photo agency’s pioneering images have been a profound influence on Ruiz Cirera. His subjects include displaced migrant workers living in refugee camps following the Libyan conflict, and Palestinian children attending the ground-breaking Freedom Theatre in the West Bank.
Born in Spain (25.06.1984), Ruiz Cirera studied Design at Elisava College, Barcelona, before moving to the UK and gaining an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication. Ruiz Cirera’s work has been included in numerous exhibitions and this year he has won the AOP Student Awards as well as the Deutsche Bank Award in Photography.
There were three other prizes from the 2012 shortlist awarded at the National Portrait Gallery, London, last night (Monday 5 November 2012), together with a new prize The John Kobal New Work Award given to a photographer under the age of thirty selected for the exhibition, who will undertake a commission to photograph a sitter connected with the UK film industry for the National Portrait Gallery Collection.
The following artists have also been commended in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 and receive the following prizes:
£3,000 Second Prize: Jennifer Pattison for Lynne, Brighton
Born in Hertfordshire (17.04.1978), Jennifer Pattison gained a BA in Photography at the London College of Printing before beginning a career as a photographic agent and producer. Her shortlisted portrait is of her friend Lynne and was taken in the empty bedroom of a derelict house in Brighton. It is part of a currently untitled series of naked portraits and landscapes. Pattison says: ‘There is an interesting shift in the consciousness of the sitter during the slow process of making these portraits; a moment in the quiet where they become unaware that they are naked. I capture them as they drift to another place. With no direction Lynne adopted this straightforward pose, bare and undaunted, looking straight down the lens and beyond.’ Pattison has worked for many photographers including David Sims and has worked as an intern at the photographs department at the V&A. She is currently focusing on her own career as a photographer.
£2,000 Third Prize: Spencer Murphy for Mark Rylance
Spencer Murphy (22.09.1978) grew up in Kent and studied at the Kent Institute of Art and Design before gaining a BA in Photography at Falmouth College of Arts. His shortlisted portrait is of actor Mark Rylance and was commissioned for the cover of The Telegraph Magazine to mark the actor’s return to Shakespeare’s Globe to play Richard III. Murphy says: ‘I’ve always enjoyed working with actors as there’s no awkwardness or discomfort in front of the camera and they are able to understand direction and react to it very easily. Mark was no exception.’ The recipient of many awards and shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards in both 2010 and 2011, Murphy’s work has been exhibited internationally. His work has been exhibited as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize six times, although this is the first time he has been shortlisted.
£1,000 Fourth Prize: Alma Haser for The Ventriloquist
Born into an artistic family in the Black Forest, Germany (28.02.1989), Alma Haser moved to the UK in 1995 and gained a BA in Photography from Nottingham Trent University. Her shortlisted portrait, taken in her shared house in South London, is of friends Luke and James who have known each other since they were twelve. Struck by their hairstyles, Haser initially planned to take separate portraits but it was difficult to get them to concentrate so she decided to photograph them together. She says: ‘I asked them to sit on a tiny, wobbly coffee table, forcing them to almost cling onto each other. Ultimately I wanted to turn their verbal banter into a visual image. The title is designed to help viewers make up their own stories about what is going on.’ Chosen by the British Journal of Photography as one of the four best graduates of 2010, her work has featured in 10 exhibitions internationally and she received third place in the People’s Choice at Foto8 Summer Show 2012.
The John Kobal New Work Award
The winner of the John Kobal New Work Award is Matthew Niederhauser (16.01.1982), for his portrait The Nine Lives of Ai Weiwei. Matthew Niederhauser’s fascination with China was forged during his high-school studies in Mandarin, and the American photographer now lives in Beijing, where he documents aspects of Chinese life for a range of publications including the New Yorker and Time. Artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, the subject of Niederhauser’s entry, has crossed those lines on many occasions. At the time the portrait was taken, as a commission for Foreign Policy magazine, Ai was being held under virtual house arrest and forbidden to leave China following his three-month detention a year earlier. Wanting to capture Ai with one of the many cats that hang around his compound, Niederhauser persuaded him to pose with a ginger stray, its colouring setting off the teal-blue gates of the studio. ‘There was a tense moment when I didn’t think the cat was going to cooperate, but it finally glanced back, allowing me to get a few frames with everything melding together.’
Tim Eyles, UK Managing Partner at international law firm Taylor Wessing, says: ‘Many of the portraits selected this year have an enigmatic quality that will leave the viewer wanting to find out more. Collectively, they reflect a cultural and social variety that will doubtless come together as another hugely stimulating exhibition. Our congratulations go to all the shortlisted photographers and our thanks, as ever, to the National Portrait Gallery.’
From 8 November 2012 until 17 February 2013
National Portrait Gallery, London.