Amadou Sumaila

Amadou Sumaila

Image by copyriht: Cesar Dezfuli

One of the pleasures of international photographic exhibitions is the fresh and sometimes unexpected perspectives they offer on countries and peoples.

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery is no exception.

You won't have seen Tommy Hatwell's view of Ugandan children late at night in an outdoor classroom – because he took their pictures separately and then assembled them as though in a single shot.

Similarly, Kurt Hörbst's large-scale portraits of Rajkumar and Ibrahim-Sai standing facing the camera in northern India are puzzlingly different – because they were shot from directly above as they lay flat on their backs. Neither is it immediately apparent that they have leprosy.

And where else in London will you see a wind farmer on Nevis, the Caribbean island that aims to be the world's first carbon-neutral nation (though so do Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Costa Rica)? Or Ann Boylazis' striking image of Zanzibari girls floating on their backs in the Indian Ocean, clutching empty plastic containers for buoyancy and learning to float, swim and carry out rescues.

As well as looking at the diverse images there's the pleasure of wondering how and why the judges selected the winners.

Topicality and the piercing, fearful, challenging, determined stare of the subject helped Cesar Dezfuli, a Spanish photographer of Persian descent, to the £15,000 first prize for his picture of a  Malian migrant plucked from the Mediterranean 20 nautical miles from Libya. 

Another displaced person – seen through a bus window outside a camp in northern Iraq (“her haunting expression suggests the unimaginable horrors of life under occupation”) – won Bobbie Trayler-Smith second prize.

Originality secured third prize, and a new work award, for Maija Tammi's picture of silicone-skinned Erica: “During the judging process, only the title of each portrait is revealed. It was unclear whether the girl was a human or an android, and this ambiguity made the portrait particularly compelling. Tammi's portrait offers a provocative comment on human evolution.”

Is this the point at which androids begin to mingle with humans as the subject of portraits? To be followed by androids among the prizewinners in future portrait competitions?

* Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017, £3.50-£6, National Portrait Gallery, St Martins Place, WC2, until 8 February. Info 7306 0055/ npg.org.uk

+ Taylor Wessing prize: who is the man the photograph?

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