Daniel Nelson




Image by campact

The not-for-profit organisation Corpwatch once accused Syngenta of widespread use of  'Terminator' technology to make crops that generate sterile seed, forcing farmers to return to the biotech company to buy new seed every year; of pesticides such as paraquat, banned or restricted by a number of countries; and exploiting licensing loopholes “which have allowed them to import seeds treated with chemicals unlicensed for use in the UK”. 

In a 2005 briefing, Corpwatch said that “Like many controversial transnational companies, Syngenta has been doing its best to make its name and business activities appear to be inextricably linked to the concept of ‘sustainable development’.”

The criticisms and defences of its activities were highlighted in the row over providing vitamin A -enhanced rice to farmers in developing countries. The company argued that it was part of the battle against a major cause of irreversible blindness; opponents described ”Golden Rice” as a ‘Flag of Convenience’ under which biotech companies were trying to win support for GM crops. 

The Somerset House exhibition 92 images, 43 photographers, 22 countries is a small reflection of this ambivalence: there’s both top-class photography (as well as some distinctly ordinary pictures) and an air of corporate promotion: corporate-style prizes (totalling £65,000), a mini-exhibit on seeds, and pedestals bearing global environmental statistics, such as an electronic second-by-second countdown of the years left to the end of seafood.

On the other hand, the exhibition is free and contains some striking images, like the deceptively simple wall and trees by overall award winner Yang Wang Preston, whose Forest series “explores ways in which new forests are created in Chinese cities”. Another of her pictures shows a tree growing out of a mound, a hand desperately clawing the sky. 

Or runner-up Lucas Foglia’s balletic double-take, Tommy trying to shoot coyotes, from his series Frontcountry, the rural American West.

The exhibition is split between the work of a small group of professional photographers who are invited to submit a series of images plus a proposal for a project related to the theme, and the all-comers competition open to submissions from professionals and amateurs (won by Kenneth O’Halloran, for a picture of rice production in Tonte, Togo).

The open section is patchier, and contains the usual tropes, such as photos that make use of the power of repetition, whether a herd of goats or a herd of solar panels; patterns in the earth and sea, such as The Unfinished Island Palm Deira in Dubai; sharp contrasts, like the dramatic confrontation as Hong Kong fields face up to Shenzen’s cityscape across a narrow strip of water; photos that have less meaning than their caption; images that look like paintings, like Epona nurses her son in the meat-processing shed.

The meat-processing photograph is one of the few containing a baby. Indeed, people in these shots are mostly secondary to places.

Plenty to look at, some interesting factoids (electric trains in The Netherlands run on wind energy), plus the always amusing game of seeing how your favourites chime with the judges’ choices.

And only one photo of a GM crop.

* Grow-Conserve, the Syngenta Photography Award, is at Somerset House, Strand, WC2, until 28 March. Info:  somersethouse.org.uk/ syngentaphoto.com

Opening hours: Saturday–Tuesday: 10am–6pm,  Wednesday–Friday: 11am-8pm


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