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Human - what is it to be a human in the world of suffering?

Nana Smith

The Prix Pictet photography and sustainability competition draws our attention to the definition of human in times of hardship with striking imagery.

27 November 2023

Nana Smith is a cultural writing contributor based in London. Her writing focuses mainly on entrepreneurs and artists who aim to alleviate environmental and societal issues, whether that would be in their local community or beyond. Beyond Insights of an Eco Artist, she does some contemplative essays and travel-writing (Italy frequently pops up), increasingly interweaving the practice of conscious or meaningful travel.

We hear and read about major problems in the world such as natural disasters, the violation of human rights, poverty, refugees having to flee their homes; but from really visualising the impacts of such events, we see and feel the struggle, emotions, hurt, that the victims experience. This is what the photographers of the Prix Pictet Photography competition bring forth, and the works of the 2022 finalists are held in an exhibition by the V&A, a leading historical art and design museum in London. The competition focuses on sustainability and the environment across the globe, led by a different theme every year. This year, it was Human. What does this word mean to the photographers, to us? This is what the competition explores. Before the opening of the exhibition and the announcement of the winner, the V&A hosts a discussion panel with four of the shortlisted photographers: Gauri Gill, Vasantha Yogananthan, Vanessa Winship, Yael Martínez. In this conversation, they talk about their work, the experiences of taking their photographs, what their subjects have faced, and their thoughts on what it is to be human. Having explored this discussion, I visit the exhibition itself to see what the other finalists display in their works. Do we see something further in their work? What sort of ideas and messages do they convey? Ultimately, what can they tell us about the meaning of human when living in a complex world filled with hardships?

The V&A Discussion on the theme of Human  

The topics are varied by each photographer, centred on their interpretation of the theme. Gauri Gill’s Notes from the Desert focuses on the village schools of Rajasthan, an ongoing project that began in 1999. Over time, her work expanded beyond the schools, realising that the village life was more complex than expected, especially as someone who was from the city, and that life in these villages became more about survival. Throughout the years there, she has experienced a vast amount of sufferings, violence, diseases, all of which are hinted at in her photos. She purposefully chose to photograph in black and white because “Rajasthan has a history of being often overexoticised, and it’s [usually] all about the colour.” 

Being in a desert environment, it is not surprising that droughts occur, and it is one of the occurrences Gill mentions. Waterwells conveys a starkness of the village environment. The wells appear to be in the middle of nowhere. It is not a luscious environment, and it does not wholly suggest it is a safe and comforting one. Sumri, the Daughter of Ismail the Shepherd, exposes the vulnerability of young girls in the environment they live in. It is as if the goat is consoling Sumri, and Sumri is comfortable enough to release her emotions and pain towards the goat alone, as she can only trust the goat. Even if colour was the medium, the black and white format together with the moments Gill captures on her camera, makes this warming idea of colour feel much more distant.

“Maybe suffering is human, or I guess all sentient beings; but what makes us human is empathy and it allows us to transcend something…and [what also makes us human is] something about trust”. Studying these photos, we might understand why Gill thinks in this way. 

The vulnerability of children and the desire for safe spaces are evident in the work of Vasantha Yogananthan. He embarked on his 2022 project Mystery Street on the streets of New Orleans, focusing on childhood and the effects of climate change in this area. However, over time, it seemed that gun violence was more pervading, and that climate change is a topic “further down the list as there are other more pressing issues”. 

“As I was making the work, the frames got tighter and tighter of the children themselves, so the pictures are really about them being in a safe space”, Yogananthan adds in the discussion. He explains how these took place at the children’s summer camp, a safe space for them in one of the toughest neighbourhoods of New Orleans; they no longer can go out onto the streets as it is too dangerous for them. Yogananthan thought that being New Orleans, the streets would be vibrant, but in doing this project it appears that they are not so. Yet, I feel a sort of serenity in this “tightness”, especially where the children are gathered. A hand grasps firmly, but with kindness, another child’s back. The several arms outstretched to clasp one another gives a flow of solidarity, in spite of the dangers outside. 

“It is the things that we share together [that make us human]”, and the trip to New Orleans for Yogananthan was quite enlightening in this sense. The children he documented were at a time in their life where they are learning about themselves and how to be in the world, but doing so in relation to their friends and who they are surrounded by. 

The theme of childhood is also witnessed through the lens of Vanessa Winship in her series Sweet Nothings: Schoolgirls from the Borderlands of Eastern Anatolia. The “blue dresses with lace collars and embroidered bodices”, symbols of the Turkish government, run through the portraits of these girls who inhabit the borderlands that are considered “emergency areas",

areas which border Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. The uniforms represent the campaign the government launched to get more girls into school, aware that in these areas girls are typically expected to stay at home. 

“What is done in front of the camera is beyond your control”. This control is passed over to these girls, who have agency in how to act in front of the camera. Although each photograph seems similar to one another, there is individuality to these girls who have little opportunity in these regions. The girls are in pairs, threes, or on their own; their expression is little, or showing a slight smile; their similar uniforms contrast with their background, standing either in front of a simple block of flats, or out in the open natural landscape, or in a classroom. We see one classroom display Turkish flags and a portrait of Atatürk, hanging proudly and unambiguously above the blackboard, as they serve as a reminder of who brought these girls to school.

The portraits of these girls remind us of the vulnerable environment they inhabit; the girls are steering away from the tradition of staying at home, and the state in control urges them towards a new way of life, as the uniform reminds us. However, there is also a sense of hope as they pose in front of the camera in their uniform, hope that this change will be for the better. For Winship, to be human is to be “fragile, vulnerable, open,” and to have “hope”. 

Vulnerability with an emphasis on resilience is something Yael Martínez brings forth in his series with his pinpricks. Luciérnaga (Firefly) is a decade of photography working with families with missing people, as he himself also experienced. He first started with his own family, then he expanded to the communities who were also victims of such trauma. Martínez sees photography as a collaborative process, and believes in the importance of engaging with the community, to understand how they want to be represented. The pinpricks on these photos are a metaphor for the violence the families have been through in Mexico, those who still live in difficult territories and are “fighting against the system”. Yet, these illuminated pinpricks also become a symbol of resilience and hope. 

When asked what it is to be human, he believes it is to have “strength, hope, resilience”, as it is what he found in these families. The name Firefly “gives a sense of hope, and illuminates our communities who are continuing to fight against the system…for me it is this balance between the light and the darkness”. The beautiful dotted lights emerge the brightest out of the subjects like a flow of energy or a powerful spirit, and spread to its surroundings as though it is unleashing its resilience filled with hope and strength. They are showing others that they are not going to be knocked down by their traumatic experiences.

Prix Pictet, Human, the Exhibition - what do we see?

The Executive Director of Prix Pictet, Isabelle von Ribbentrop, explains the thinking behind the chosen theme of Human as the other side of the human story. That is to say, that often one “rightly celebrates human creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, but too often our triumphs in science, engineering and technology come at a monumental cost. The human story is more often a tale of conflict and despair than of nurture, love and co-existence”. This competition can make us look hard at our actions and think how we can create a more informed and better decision for the future of the people and planet. Although, in observing these photographs, we do also see solidarity and courage in these people in times of hardship and vulnerability beyond this “conflict and despair”. This, for me, taps into the definition of human, how our amazing qualities can truly pull through. This, in turn, already hints to us how we can make positive change in the world. 

Togetherness during hardship in nature

Indeed we do see in the exhibition the cost of human lives; but we also see the strength of humanity emerge, and the aforementioned panellists' idea of Human seems to align with other contenders too. Federico Ríos Escobar’s Paths of Desperate Hope shows stark suffering of the immigrants making the treacherous journey through the Darién Jungle (South and Central America), some as young as babies. The exhausted Luis Miguel rests his head against the tree with his eyes closed, whilst young Melissa looks up at him. Thick layers of mud which coat their wellington boots, their thighs, Melissa’s arms, emphasise the struggle and strenuousness of the trek. An image of a corpse intimates the dangers of the jungle and the risks people are taking for a better future. We see vividly the despair in Hamlet Devastated as he captures the man lying down on his back against a rock by the river. Hamlet covers his eyes with his arm, likely filled with tears, but his mouth reveals the pain. He is soaked and without shoes, the journey has taken him beyond breaking point. Gabriel Ynfante is stressful. We see the line of people climbing down the perilously steep hill, and the crying face of the young child on the back of their mother summarises the stress happening here. 

Escobar captures the emotions of these people so clearly, they strike us viewers hard. At the same time, however, Escobar shows us solidarity and hope. The people climbing down are linking arms with each other as if to say “I’ve got your back, we will go through this together”. 

Similarly, Human Chain also shows this when the people are crossing the river. Often in these photos, there are a large number of people together, and this human togetherness, especially when their arms are linked, reminds me of what Yogananthan similarly touched upon. In photographing these people, Escobar himself noticed how “amid the horrors, we witnessed countless acts of kindness”. Here, the beauty of humanity pulls through.

Togetherness nearer to home in the comforts of nature

This togetherness through “humanness” is the core of another series, where the setting is as close as home. Simply in her back garden in Brighton, Siân Davey welcomes passersby, who gather as a “human heart”. The Garden (2021-23) invites a variety of people from the local community to her newly cultivated garden filled with wildflowers and bees, people who have suffered heartbreak or experienced new love, who are elderly or young. For me, there is a general softness and calm throughout, a smooth harmony between the people and the natural environment. The people are comfortable, and this garden allowed them to be who they simply are amidst the natural abundance that grew around them. We see in Escobar’s series how unkind nature can be; but, here it is the harmony with it. For Davey, this project has shown that “we are not separate from nature nor from one another - we are interconnected just by being human”. Togetherness and solidarity can occur in any situation, whether in painful circumstances or joyful ones. 

Grasping onto hope in a disappearing landscape called home

In some areas of the world, the impacts of human activity have caused homes to be gone for good. Where the world is melting (2013-22), displays the impact of climate change in the areas of the arctic, and Ragnar Axelsson has seen the drastic changes over forty years when accompanying the arctic hunters. The result of global warming has forced abandonment of villages when hunting in the area is no longer feasible, and more dangerous grounds to go find food. The various indigenous peoples Axelsson photographs have all suffered from the changing environment, from hunting safely on thick ice to now hunting on boat, or leaving your birth village, as in Jens Emil’s case, who was the last man remaining in Cape Hope. These images appear to bring out the loneliness of the people against the dramatic icy landscape. The black and white format draws out the increasing melancholy and despair in this land. The togetherness is not as obvious as we have seen from the other contenders; but still, a pocket of people remain and stay resilient to the altering land.

“There is no hope in Kape Hope”. In some cases, hope has had to be abandoned. Yet, for Axelsson, “Where there is life, there is hope, and people living in the Arctic must have that hope just as much as the rest of the world”.

The World is complex; but hope in humanity has to remain

The photographs bring home the sufferings, the emotions, and the pain of these people. They grasp our hearts more directly than simply hearing or reading about them. Yet, amidst this suffering, we do see some light, and this competition is not all about doom and gloom. The subjects of the pictures, and the photographers, all demonstrate what we all essentially are, which is human, and explore what it means to be so. Within the complexity and suffering of the world, hope and togetherness repeatedly come forth. We see the courage and strength of these people, their desire not to give up, and when humans come together in this way, we see that we are at our best. In times of danger and despair, being human, which is to be loving, matters greatly. These photographs force us to pause and ponder, to question our actions, and make us realise that the good in people is a lot more powerful than one thinks.

Cover image:

Discussion panel at V&A. The four photographers from left to right: Vasantha Yogananthan, Vanessa Winship, Yael Martínez, Gauri Gill. Image courtesy of Nana Smith.

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