‘Wasserstiefel’ by Roman Signer, 1986
Cibachrome Print, 34 x 26 cm
Weissbad, caton Appenzell, Switzerland
In the wake of a credit crisis that has left governments reeling from having to step in to salvage economies worldwide, the publication of the Living Planet Report by the WWF, the Global Footprint Network and the Zoological Society of London brings another outlook with a similarly macabre disposition. The so-called ‘ecological credit crunch’ as illustrated by the 2008 report serves to reflect the environment’s deteriorating state as a result of the outstripping of natural resources heavily inflicted by unstifled human demand, as well as the eco-footprints that citizens worldwide leave on the earth due to their carbon-laden, waste-fueling consumption seeming to know no end. Perfect timing, then, to have announced the winner of the new Prix Pictet photography award only two days ago at a Gala Dinner in Paris: with its prime focus on the issue of sustainability, this year’s theme focused on climate change, and more specifically on the current (and future) state of the world’s natural resource of water.
Having lived south of the Nile Delta for several years during which I became involved with fronting design for an NGO dealing with the contested river system whose supply of water proves a vital lifeline in the arid East African region, I find the issue of water sustenance and its politicization in availability and sanitation extremely pressing. Undoubtedly symptomatic of the many environmental challenges we all face as citizens of the world in which we live today; and with statistics such as the estimation that forty percent of the world’s impoverished will have no access to clean water by 2010, the need to spread word of these dire consequences and begin to put in real effort to reverse such tragic trends immediately cannot be impressed upon the public enough. The exhibiting of the Prix Pictet’s winning entries at the Palais de Tokyo plays a part, though more importantly the Prix casts its spotlight on organizations, charities and projects striving to address the issue, whilst aiming to support its very own sustainability project with a commission worth up to approximately £21,500 in addition.
The first annual prize of £53,600 has been awarded to photographer Benoît Aquin of Montreal, formally presented by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Aquin’s series entitled The Chinese ‘Dust Bowl’ tells the story of the conversion of 400,000 square kilometres of productive cropland into sandy desert in China due to unsustainable practices in Chinese farming. In his statement, he describes how farmers have over-exploited the grasslands through cultivation and the depletion of river-water in the oases regions, with the Yellow River standing as the last bastion of hope in preventing the land from delving further into its destruction. Such a dire situation in the emerging economic giant whose infrastructure and future remains marred at present by the desperation of poverty plaguing many of its people and offsetting the reality of success brought forth in spite of the continuous environmental degradation underlying its manufacturing sector booming in export trade, the ten photographs in Aquin’s series send a very urgent if succinct message — a message that must be heard, seen and understood in its entirety.
Sponsored by Pictet & Cie in association with the Financial Times, the expansive 2008 shortlist of eighteen photographers are also equally impressive in their ‘photographic activism’ elements, all portraying similar scenarios from other countries facing challenges in the supply of water. My favourites amongst them are Susan Derges’ intimate portrayal of water in her Eden series, David Maisel’s aerial views of the Great Salt Lake of Utah in Terminal Mirage, and Roman Signer’s artistic take on the topic in his submitted collection of ‘action sculptures’ (example shown above). Edward Burtynsky’s series also highlights the issue of oil in Oil Fields for mesmerizing visual impact; and almost inevitably, photographer Reza Deghati’s work includes imagery from the waters of Egypt. The short-listed images will be exhibited at the Palais from 30th October to 8th November, and can be viewed in full online for those not in Paris next week.
Sarah Badr © MMVIII
See also: UN Water for Life