It’s funny what can happen when you have time to think. Early in the pandemic, during a curious period of clear, dry, cool, sunny weather in London, when citizens were allowed to take one walk in the park per day, according to government rules, the idea for the Louis Roederer Photography Prize first emerged.
During some of my walks, grounded in London and wandering around Hyde Park, waving hello at a distance to equally trapped friends—the owner of a bank by that tree, owner of a foundation feeding the ducks—I chatted with a brilliant young executive at the U.K. arm of one of our commercial partners, Champagne Louis Roederer, about a new plan.
With the thinking time afforded by the onset of the pandemic, and burnished with the input of the redoubtable Maryam Eisler, the chief contributing editor at one of the magazines I run, we began discussing the possibility of creating an art prize—but one with a difference, and that would make a difference.
The idea was to bring the themes of support for young artistic photographers, and of raising awareness of key issues in sustainability, together, while also bringing some of the world’s most prominent art collectors and thought-leaders in sustainability into action.
There are many art and photographic prizes already, many of which are highly respected and significant. The difference with our rather boutique prize would be that it would be curated, amplified and celebrated by some significant voices in the mainstream art world, including those with major art collections themselves. And we would bring people making a difference in sustainability – not usually associated with the art world – to the party, quite literally, to help promote awareness of the issues.
One of my key takeaways in my day jobs (as well as owning a media company, I work at Condé Nast where I have launched more than 30 titles over the last 20 years, and have a sustainability consultancy) is that we need to get out of our silos. A major art collector is also likely to be a major investor, and all investors are aware, or should be aware, of the issues and challenges around sustainability and related areas. That was a key motivation to create the Prize.
But, while we had the full engagement of the maker of Cristal, which has long pioneered sustainable farming techniques to produce its matchless champagnes, it proved to be a while until we could really get going, due to the length of the pandemic.
But finally, we did. With Maryam Eisler’s vital help, I assembled a roster of talent—the judges, who in turn would appoint nominators, who would choose photographic artists to take part in the competition. We included thought leaders in sustainability into our ecosystem. Champagne house execs planned the launch event to perfection.
Over the 18 months it took to get the first edition of the Prize ready, the planet sent us its reminders. Heat records broken in Europe, repeatedly. The first-ever record of a tropical cyclone being generated in the Mediterranean in summer. Temperatures of over 20C in northern Switzerland in December. The first summer that the Alps had zero recorded snow lying on them (only the fast-melting glaciers).
Fast forward to now, and we have just announced the winner of the second edition of the Prize. I am awed by the enthusiasm and commitment of our judges and nominators. The judging panel includes Maryam Eisler, former chair of the TATE Middle East and North Africa Acquisitions Committee and trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery; Maria Sukkar, co-chair of the TATE Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee; Nadja Swarovski, collector and family luminary; Sophie Neuendorf, ArtNet VP of Digital; Azu Nwabogu, Founder and Director of African Artists’Foundation and LagosPhoto Festival; Brandei Estes, Director, Head of Photography, EMEA at Sotheby’s; and Alan Lo, one of the most influential and admirable collectors in Asia and member of the Art Basel’s Global Patron Council.
Our nominators, drawn from around the world, include or have included figures like the peerless artist Shirin Neshat; investor, philanthropist and collector Nachson Mimran; philanthropist Durjoy Rahman; and Photo London founder Fariba Farshad, among many others.
As chair of the judges, once I appoint the other judges, I don’t participate in the voting process unless there is a tie (which there hasn’t been to date) so I can take a step back and revel in the quality of artistry and passion of our entrants. The winner of the first year’s competition, which was put together over nine months when lockdown restrictions were still in place in many places, was the German-Ghanaian photographer Akosua Viktoria Adu-Sanya, with her astonishing portrayals of the effects of global warming, at glacier Santa Inés in Patagonia, taken from on board an expedition ship.
This year’s prize winner, just recently announced, was a Moroccan photographer who was born in what is now Ukraine, M’hammed Kilito. He portrays with great beauty, and subtlety, another pressing environmental issue, the depletion and death of his country’s underground springs, a sustainable source of water for millennia.
The top three candidates and the winner each year have their works shown at the private White Box gallery at Nobu Hotel London Portman Square. This year we gave the six shortlisted photographers a big spread in the current issue of LUX magazine, in which William Kentridge has taken over the logo, with the additional kudos of a launch, with our partner Deutsche Bank, at Frieze New York. The winner also receives a cash prize from Louis Roederer.
Physically the climax came during a fascinating evening at the Nobu Hotel, where the awards for the second edition of the Prize were made. We made a magic blend of guests. Investors mingled with collectors. Heads of sustainability for major corporates, not usually associated with art shows, and ecology academics chatted with owners of art foundations and artists.
The delicious champagne and canapés flowed, but this was a party with a purpose. The issues facing our planet are too urgent to ignore. Awareness is the first step to education, which leads to action. We in the content industry have a duty to create the first two and help others execute the latter.
Our judges, who did so much to spread the word among the art collector community around the world, are already making plans for next year’s edition of this prize that punches above its weight.