I went to the Sony World Photography Awards exhibition at Somerset House today, which is part of the World Photography Festival hosted at the same location. The clue is in the title – this is an exhibition ‘benefiting’ heavily from Sony sponsorship.
Sony is quite natural sponsor of this sort of exhibition/competition. After all, Sony does at least make cameras (quite good ones I hear), so there is some degree of compatibility: ‘have a good camera, take a good photo’.
And there can be advantages to corporate involvement. Large corporates are meant to be full of very well paid, highly motivated staff. Sony’s employees should have stacks of experience organizing and advertising impressive events and have ready access to the latest technology with which to showcase exhibits. However, I think that the bulk of Sony’s staff must be taking full advantage possible of the UK bank holiday jamboree and have not dedicated very much time to this exhibition: it was, in my humble opinion, really quite rubbish.
Even finding the exhibition within the Somerset House complex was a massive headache (the fault for this may not be entirely Sony’s). There were three reception desks where we thought we could get tickets. However, our persistent efforts revealed that one desk was for goody bags not tickets, one was for tickets and one was a base for apparently brain-dead staff who were employed with the sole purpose of telling you that they didn’t know where you could get tickets.
Once properly ticketed and inside, it emerged that none of the works in this exhibition are shown to their full advantage. Most are not named or described at all. Very few have any substantial narrative or even the name of the photographer or the date or location of the shot. Instead of simple labeling, the Sony branding team have gone into overdrive with little tablet computers dotted about the place. These offer a slide-show of more shots and some narrative. However, the written information shows up for about twenty seconds of a three-minute cycle, which is incredibly frustrating and not at all suitable for having more than two visitors looking at the same time. Some of the computers appeared to be stuck on pause, showing an image but no information, or else were completely blank.
The photos themselves were mainly very good. There was clearly a wide range of category – some portraits, some wildlife photography, some street photography as well as landscapes. We were lucky enough to hear the open competition winner Chan Kwok Hung talking about his photograph, as we overlapped with press day (I think). Hung’s photograph of buffalo racing in Western Sumatra (did you know the ‘jockeys’ bite their buffaloes’ tails to make them run faster?!) also won the National Geographic photo exhibition recently. I am very pleased that Hung entered this shot into more than one exhibition as, if he’d settled on just winning the Sony competition I think he’d be fairly hacked off by now. The exhibition is so poorly curated that one could see it several times without necessarily having the foggiest idea of who Hung is, what he won, or what the context of his work is. Other photographers are not mentioned by name at all.
I would like to make it clear that I am not totally against corporate sponsorship of the arts. It is perhaps a necessary evil. There’s just not enough cash to pump into museums and galleries. In the UK as much as anywhere else, development of these institutions is pushed down the list in favour of handy things like schools and hospitals and this is understandable. However, corporate benefactors have aims and ideals that may not sit easily with the more philanthropic ideals of cultural institutions. Nowhere is this uneasy relationship demonstrated more clearly at the moment, than at this exhibition. Sony’s brand was plastered everywhere – flat screen TVs on the wall to show digital images, tablet computers to provide (unsuccessfully) the limited information that was available and workshops which showcased the latest Sony camera (which I must admit, looked quite cool). All apparently in place of helpful signage and information.
Corporate sponsorship should enhance exhibitions, not detract from them. Sony and Somerset House should be ashamed at the poor organizational and curatorial skills shown by this exhibition. Sony – stick to selling cameras.
Most of the photographs are available via the website – save yourself a tenner and have a look here: www.worldphoto.org
p.s. Sony – I really did like the cameras and like everyone, I have a price – all might be forgiven if you offer me a freebie…