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Highlights from the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 - raw emotion, not always human | reviews, news & interviews

Highlights from the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 - raw emotion, not always human

Highlights from the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 - raw emotion, not always human

One inveterate - and so far unsuccessful - participant sizes up this year's successes

César Dezfuli is interviewed in front of his winning portrait of Amadou Sumaila© Bill Knight

What does it take to be included in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition? This year 2,423 photographers entered 5,717 images: 2,373 of those photographers are left wondering what it takes to make the grade. Remarks from the judges are a little on the Delphic side: "Those we have selected provoked a connection that resonated in all of us."  "It’s always tricky to whittle down to the contenders." "We simply nominated our favourite pictures…".

What do the pictures themselves tell us? Extremes, as usual, play their part. The selection now on show at the National Portrait Gallery includes images of dementia, pain, disease, addiction, birth and impending death – and why not? This is something the camera does supremely well. Pictures like this affect us because they are real. The first two prize-winners show heightened emotion. They are both images of migrants.Abbie Trayler-Smith, Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS © Abbie Trayler-Smith The winner is César Dezfuli’s stunning portrait of Amadou Sumaila, a 16-year-old from Mali rescued in the Mediterranean, a picture which hits us with the subject’s strength and fear (main picture, with the photographer). Second place goes to Abbie Traylor-Smith for Fleeing Mosul, an image of an anonymous young woman photographed through the mud-streaked window of a bus reflecting the shock and bewilderment of life after ISIS (pictured above). In third place is something other – Maija Tammi’s image One of Them is a Human #1. It is a picture of Erica, an advanced robot able to express emotions via dozens of pneumatic actuators embedded beneath her silicone skin – she looks rather knowing, as well she might (pictured below). Important people are in the show – Barack Obama being punched on the nose by a child, Hillary Clinton showing raw emotion, David Cameron checking his appearance in the mirror and Donald Trump, instantly recognisable from the rear.

Maija Tammi, One of Them Is a Human #1 (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija TammiBut it’s not all emotion, life-changing events and international celebrity. Anna Boziazis’s picture Kijini Primary School Students Learn to Float, Swim and Perform Rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar, is a serene picture showing four young girls floating in the ocean clutching empty plastic jugs for buoyancy. It is a tribute to the liberating power of the burkini. Incidentally, we were told that the judges saw the images with their captions but without further information – this caption would certainly have caught my attention. There are also quiet images of a student receiving exam results, vulnerable skinheads and Paola Serino’s Adriano at 12, a graceful image of a young fencer at the Roman Arms Academy.

Most of the pictures are accompanied by explanations which add to our understanding of the image, but I applaud the policy of not showing these to the judges in advance. If we want pictures that stand the test of time they ought to work on their own, without explanation, as I believe the first two winners do. But I wish we knew the names of the printers. The colours of these prints are deep and luminous and the finish superb. One of the judges told me how powerfully the prints struck her after first seeing the digital image. The craftsmen and women who produce these prints deserve recognition. Maybe next year.

R. J. Kern, Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. KernProving each year the enduring interest to be found in the human (and this year not-human) face, there is no obvious formula for success – just take one of the best portraits in the world. One of my favourites is R.J Kern’s image Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota (pictured left) from the series The Unchosen Ones. It shows a losing couple in the competition for the Grand Champion Ribbon. Helen is a sheep. She makes no recorded comment, but as I was one of the 2,373 photographers who failed to get a picture in this exhibition I think I know how she feels.

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