Do these photographs deserve top prize?

Fresh graduate Sarah Choo was prepared for the talk that would greet her win after she snagged Singapore's richest photography prize.

The 23-year-old beat seven others, including established independent photographer Darren Soh, 37, and Beijing-based former Straits Times correspondent Sim Chi Yin, 34, to win the $30,000 Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu prize last Thursday.

Choo, who graduated from Nanyang Technological University and is the award's youngest winner, says: "I was prepared for people to ask why I won instead of other prominent photographers, and for work that blurs the line between photography and other mediums." Her work, which brings together still images, painting and performance using the medium of photography, won praise from the jury for its skilful execution and novel photographic language.

While members of the photography community interviewed laud Choo's multi-disciplinary approach to photography, her win has left some wondering about the state of the medium.

Others have raised questions about the transparency of the judging process because only a portion of the works submitted by each artist is on view to the public.

Singapore-based Dutch photographer Marcel Heijnen, 49, says: "It is interesting to see someone starting out bag the prize because the judging is based on a body of work and generally, you would expect someone in his 30s or 40s to have a larger body of work. But it is encouraging that there is young talent like that in Singapore that is being recognised."

The photography award established by Martell Cordon Bleu cognac is into its fourth year and entry is by nomination only. The organiser selects a nomination panel comprising professionals from the photography and visual arts community here, who then come up with a long list of names from which they select eight nominees. The nominees have to be either Singaporeans or permanent residents and practising as artists for five years.

French photography curator Agnes de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, 68, president of the award's jury, says it was "a close competition" this year.

She says: "It resulted in a lengthy and robust discussion on which of the top three nominees would be awarded the Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu prize. In the end, the judges decided to go for a vote to determine the winner." The other two top nominees were Sim and Soh.

The five-member jury includes renowned Magnum photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov, 61; Mr Venka Purushothaman, 48, provost of the Lasalle College of the Arts; Ms Emmeline Yong, 36, co-founder of Objectifs - Centre for Photography and Filmmaking; and Ms Charmaine Leung, 40, marketing director of Pernod Ricard Singapore, which distributes the cognac brand Martell.

Mr Alan Lim, 40, founder and director of the School of Photography Singapore, says Choo's work has "the whole package".

He says: "The Greek root of the word photography is painting or drawing with light and Sarah does that with great use of lighting. But she is also creative in applying the technique, carefully placing elements in the composition so that they gel well."

He adds that what she does is "not new, but not a lot of people do it".

Artists and photographers who have influenced Choo include Canadian-born Jeff Wall, who has used digital technology to fuse separate negatives into a cohesive picture, and Spanish photographer Eugenio Recuenco, who has shot for fashion houses and glossies, and is known for his cinematic compositions that reference the style of historical paintings.

Professional photographer Bryan van der Beek, 36, is happy for Choo on her win, but says the multi-disciplinary approach of her photographic work, which is endorsed by the jury, raises questions such as "when is a photograph not a photograph, and what constitutes a photograph".

Madam de Gouvion Saint-Cyr weighs in, saying: "The arts evolves with time and so too does photography... As the result of artistic evolution, today, the image may include elements that cross artistic disciplines in the creative process of its production, but the final image, the artistic output, is one that has been produced photographically."

A series of works by Choo on teenagers suffering from eating disorders has also stirred talk about the fairness of the judging process.

The pictures, included in her portfolio, were singled out by the jury for their excellence at the award ceremony last week. Sources privy to the judging say they also played an important role in influencing the judges' vote. But they were not shown at the exhibition showcasing the nominees' works to protect the privacy of the subjects.

Echoing a common sentiment in the photography community, curator Charmaine Toh, 36, says: "As a viewer, it is a pity that I am unable to see the series of work, especially after the judges mentioned it. It would be nice to know what the judges saw that led to their decision."

Choo's portraits of five teenagers with eating disorders were compiled in a book for a documentary photography module she took in university earlier this year.

She says it is a piece of "research leading to something, although the final outcome is not ready", but she incorporated it in her portfolio because "I still see it as my artwork in the way that sketches can be seen as artworks".

She also submitted the series because the theme of eating disorder, which she has been exploring for four years, is a crucial thread in her overall practice that examines social alienation.

She has been practising photography since 2009, first as an art elective programme student at Nanyang Junior College and, later, at Nanyang Technological University's School of Art Design and Media.

Her father is a freight company director, her mother an administrative manager, and her younger brother is a polytechnic student.

Ms Leung of Pernod Ricard says the public exhibition aspect of the award has never featured the entire submission of each nominee due to physical constraints.

But the award allows nominees to submit more works than can be shown so that the jury has a "more complete view" of the portfolio and is able to pick a winner for a prize that honours the totality of an artist's body of work and practice.

Professional photographer Wesley Loh, 42, who was nominated for the prize last year, suggests working around the physical constraints by making all the submitted images available online.

He says: "Unlike most other photography awards which are about a single winning shot, Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu recognises a portfolio of works so it might be better for the award in the long run to show each nominee's portfolio to the public."

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