Highlights from the 2017 Sony World Photography Awards

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Highlights from the 2017 Sony World Photography Awards

by Coleen MacPherson

As I took in the images throughout this year’s Sony World Photography Awards at Somerset House, I was struck by the variety of photographic lenses presented to the viewer.   From Photographer of the Year: Frederik Buyckx, to images by youth and students.   There was a particular focus on England’s, Martin Parr, known for his satirical and anthropological lens, who was awarded Outstanding Contribution to Photography this year.   What struck me were the images by Parr, which are rarely showcased, and images by photographer Tasneen Alsultan of Saudi Arabia.

Martin Parr has been recognised for his particular ability to capture ordinary, everyday life in Britain, and to satirise images of cultures, people and particularly the tourism industry.  At the Sony World Photography Awards there was a special presentation of his work, including black and white photographs focused on abandoned Morris Minors set in the countryside along the West Coast of Ireland.  Unlike his other work, these photographs display a gentle and ethereal world, with a keen eye for humour. Mist, awestruck hills, ducks, chickens stare fondly out of the front windows; there is clearly a serene effect these pictures emit —contrary to Parr’s usual work.   

Another photographer of interest was Tasneen Alsultan of Saudi Arabia.  Her work: “Saudi Tales of Love” which won first place in the Contemporary Issues category, cracks open stereotypes in Saudi Arabia. In a country often deemed the international symbol of Islam, there exists a vast gap between the Qur’an and local traditions—which Alsultan eagerly revealed through her pictures. One can see this gap through her sensitivity to detail.

Alsultan was born in the United States and educated in England before moving to Saudi Arabia. for her undergraduate studies and began to study ethnography of Saudi women abroad.   She married at seventeen and lived as a single parent for six years of her ten-year marriage. was later looked down upon for her divorce. After her divorce, Alsultan realised there were many other Saudi women experiencing the same issues she was, and she became fascinated in uncovering these realities through the images. Alsultan followed widows and women happily married to women who were divorced; to weddings and intimate moments with strangers.  Gathering these stories was about exploring the concept of love and utilising her lens to capture expectations of marriage, through ritual and marriage ceremonies.

As I lingered in front of her images it seemed to me that Alsultan is asking us: is marriage the only path towards love?  Could there be other forms of love?  Does not being married mean that you will forever be lonely?  Her work at the exhibit clearly captures the dilemma between women and marriage and puts the viewer inside the question about our ready-made thoughts about Saudi Arabia and Islam.  In particular, there is a picture of a woman in her wedding dress, looking out the window, perhaps dreaming beyond the confines of marriage itself as her husband sits in the shadows in the background.  Another image that is striking is of a woman alone in bed with words scrawled above on the headboard:  “than be miserable with someone else.”   As the viewer, we complete the sentence and know that the complexities of our lives are sometimes too great than the confines of custom.  There is another way.   Alsultan states she wanted to answer questions that were shared by many such as: ‘do we need marriage to signify that we have love?’ and ‘do you need a husband to have a meaningful life?’

Both Parr and Alsultan’s work arrested me, and it is something special when a photographer can capture hidden stories of humanity from all corners of the world.

-Coleen MacPherson

Coleen is a Canadian writer and theatre director with a thirst to explore the world. She trained at École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, where she mentored with French playwright, Michel Azama. She has recently founded Open Heart Surgery Theatre:  a group of international theatre-makers, creating work in London at Camden People’s Theatre, Mimetic Festival, Old Vic New Voices; in Paris at Plateau 31 and recently presented ‘This is Why We Live’ in Toronto at The Theatre Centre and First Draft at Falaki Theater in Cairo.  She is constantly inspired by photography and the power of the image.