National Photographic Portrait prize: image of social housing resident wins $50,000
Prize judge said he was struck by humanness of the two award-winning portraits, both done by women
• The finalists – in pictures
My Olivia by Filomena Rizzo (left) was highly commended in the National Photographic Portrait prize, while Charlie by Lee Grant won the top award.
Canberra photographer Lee Grant has won the $50,000 National Photographic Portrait prize for her striking image of a resident in a social housing complex.
Titled Charlie, the photograph chosen from 43 finalists and 3,224 entries, features one of the younger residents at the mostly male Ainslie Village.
Grant met Charlie while working on an art therapy project there. She said it was imperative to represent the Australia outside the white, privileged mainstream.
“I’m interested in themes of belonging, community and connection – what does it mean to be human, and what does it mean to be Australian in this day and age? Photography is a fantastic medium where we can explore some of these issues,” she told Guardian Australia.
“I think we’re at a point in our history where we need to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror. I think there’s been some decisions made on our behalf that I personally find appalling and un-Australian.”
Charlie by Lee Grant. Photograph: Lee Grant/National Portrait Prize
Grant said she was “overwhelmed and chuffed” to scoop the prestigious $30,000 cash prize, as well as lighting equipment worth $15,000 and $5,000 worth of paper supplies.
Victorian photographer Filomena Rizzo was highly commended for her portrait My Olivia, an image taken in the Redwood forest of her 11-year-old daughter who previously struggled with obsessive compulsive urges.
She said the image “shows vulnerability and sadness, but mostly I see strength and a bond only we two share. My girls are by far my greatest teachers.”
National Photographic Portrait prize finalists – in pictures
The photography competition is run by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. The gallery’s senior curator and co-judge of the prize, Christopher Chapman, said he was struck by the humanness of the two award-winning portraits.
“I was looking closely at how the portraits spoke to me, how they conveyed their story uniquely,” he said.
Co-judge and the curator at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Robert Cook, said both portraits depict “brave” young people forging a path for themselves.
“It’s like both subjects are facing futures that are uncertain. And they’re doing so bravely. It’s the bravery that you have when you’re afraid, when you yourself might crumble and you figure there’s only a 50-50 shot at making it through.
“What the artists have done here is present this dilemma, one we all get on some level, with compassion, without artifice and without false heroics.”
My Olivia by Filomena Rizzo
Grant is a multi-award-winning Korean-Australian photographer whose work often explores migrant identity in suburban Australia.
She described the win as a “major validation” of her work. “[It] will encourage me to keep going and to keep sharing stories that are important to me and that I believe deserve to be in the national conversation.”
Grant applauded the National Portrait Gallery for having “a good track record” on gender equality, but said despite having a “genderless” name herself, she found it “tough” being a woman in the photographic industry.
“You have to have a super-thick skin. You’re constantly challenged on a daily basis, [things happen and you think] ‘This would never happen to a guy.’
“I still see a lot of photography done by the fly-in fly-out privileged white male. The industry has been improving, but there’s aways room for more inclusivity.”
Grant’s win comes two week after the launch of Agender, a new collective and exhibition featuring top Australian female photographers.
The founder and curator of the alliance, Cybele Malinowski, said the idea for Agender came about after she attended a photography event in Sydney and “there were only three female photographers and about 50 male photographers”.
“There’s a boys club thing going on there,” she said.
The work of all 43 National Photographic Portrait prize finalists will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra from 24 March until 17 June, before touring the country.
Voting opens online or at the gallery on 23 March for the people’s choice award.