Since it was founded in 1996, the Deutsche Bӧrse Prize has recognized a body of work that significantly contributed to the medium. Over 20 years, it has become one of contemporary photography’s most respected awards. This year’s shortlist reflects a plethora of photographic practices and innovative approaches in documentary, landscape and portrait work. The artists shortlisted include two Dutch photographers, Dana Lixenberg and Awoiska van der Molen; the highly conceptual French artist Sophie Calle; and the Swiss duo Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs.

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation nominated photographer and filmmaker Dana Lixenberg for her publication Imperial Courts, which followed her initial commission after the Rodney King riots in 1992. Taken over 22 years, the publication is an evocative record of the passage of time in an underserved community.

Toussaint, 1993. © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Lixenberg’s portraits are gently perceptive, presenting the faces of a marginalized and neglected Los Angeles community. Underneath their terse, hardened and often stereotyped exteriors, Lixenberg illuminates the humanity, resilience, compassion and dignity of her subjects. The work also acutely observes the community’s living environment: its dirty surroundings, ugly, grey exteriors and industrial fencing reveal the inhospitable, prison-like habitat of the Courts.

Wilteysha, 1993. © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Aided by the close relationships she established over the lengthy course of her project, Lixenberg’s intimate shots of the community—especially her portraits of young mothers and their babies—serve as a poignant reminder that even as the community continues to be neglected, another generation is born into the same negative dynamic.

The second Dutch woman highlighted in the shortlist offers a distinctly different interpretation of place. In Awoiska van der Molen’s work “Blanco” [featured already in LensCulture], we encounter the landscape genre in fine form. The Dutch artist presents dark, beautifully printed abstract landscapes that capture her personal, emotional response to her surroundings.

#364-18, 2013. © Awoiska van der Molen. Courtesy of the artist, Purdy Hicks Gallery and Kristof De Clercq gallery

Thanks to her childhood in the flat Netherlands, van der Molen is drawn to the safety and inclusion of mountainous, forested landscapes, a connotation that is echoed in the rich, inky comfort of her work. Her landscapes are unnamed and unidentifiable in their abstraction, and this allows her emotional connection to carry over to the viewer, while leaving space for the viewer’s personal interpretation.

#412-9, 2015. © Awoiska van der Molen. Courtesy of the artist, Purdy Hicks Gallery and Kristof De Clercq gallery

Meanwhile, the Swiss pair Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs have been shortlisted for their colossal “EURASIA” project, which takes on a very different interpretation of place. Traveling from Switzerland to Russia and eventually Mongolia by ground, the work explores cultures in transition, the formation of a post-Communist identity, and a landscape as diverse as its peoples.

Well, 2013. © Taiyo Onorato/Nico Krebs. Courtesy of the artists

This presentation includes analogue film reels and projections that plunge the viewer into the Eurasian world, with images flowing, back and forth, from black-and-white to warm color. The images show the traces of a difficult past; the unfamiliar next to the peculiar; diverse buildings that range from ancient to resolutely Communist-era to distinctly modern; and all manner of observations in between. Onorato and Krebs are clear: the work is not documentary but rather pure invention, a fluid interpretation of place and time that will continue to evolve in the years to come.

Zaha, 2013. © Taiyo Onorato/Nico Krebs. Courtesy of the artists

Finally, Sophie Calle has been nominated for her postcard series “My All,” which sees the renowned conceptual artist encapsulate her entire oeuvre into an immediate and intensely personal work: my mother, my cat, my father (in that order).

My mother, my cat, my father, in that order, 2012. © Sophie Calle. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin

Here, Calle presents a record of the precious last memories with her loved ones. Her diary entries and poems are displayed alongside images of poignant and lost objects in an arrangement that captures the loneliness, desperation and disintegration of meaning that accompanies grief. Absence, a distinctive vein throughout Calle’s work, is stronger than ever, making her an interesting complement to the work of the other shortlisted photographers.

My mother, my cat, my father, in that order, 2012. © Sophie Calle. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin

As a group, the five photographers speak to the medium’s creative and documentary range as well as its capacity for emotional, personal, and even diaristic storytelling. In a time full of varied, inspiring photographic work from all over the world, this year’s Deutsche Bӧrse Prize does well to recognize this group of distinguished image-makers.

—Ben Dickenson-Bampton

Editors’ Note: The Deutsche Börse Foundation Prize 2017 will be showing at The Photographers’ Gallery from March 3 to June 11, 2017. The final winner will be announced in London during the course of the exhibition.

If you’re interested in seeing past nominees and winners, you can check out our assessment of the 2015 Winners and Finalists and our article on the winning series from 2014, a documentation of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo shot on expired military infrared film.