This year the Taylor Wessing Photography Prize was awarded to Jordi Ruiz Cirera. His photograph shows a young woman at a table in the pared-down interior of what, I presume, is the kitchen of her house. I presume it is the kitchen because in the background, out of focus but distinctly present, there are two women hovering over what appears to be a stove. This is, of course, not a judgement I would usually pass, but it is apparent because these three women are Menonnites – a small Protestant subset, in which gender roles are strictly enforced and just as strictly obeyed. She is not really supposed to be in front of a camera, and you can tell as much from her expression. Cirera had two frames in which to shoot this photograph, and in this frame he captured almost perfectly the idea of modern beauty —beauty in the awkward — that Degas was trying to capture when he painted dancers toying with their pointe ribbons in their dressing rooms rather than onstage. Perhaps that is what makes this photograph award winning; we are confronted with the recognition that we, like her, know the role we are supposed to play, and we, like her, are made uncomfortable by the same quality in the camera, and its ability to capture us at our most vulnerable, in the moment we forget.
The lack of portraiture of this kind perhaps is what disappoints me most about this prize. The exhibition favours what appears to me to be more akin to photojournalism than to anything else; or, in a few cases, favours photography that resembles all too closely the album of artwork of trendy Brooklynites with synthesisers and a subscription to pitchfork. I overheard the comments of two women, veterans of the National Portrait Gallery Photographic Prize, talking about portraiture; they said, “It’s supposed to give you an impression of the person behind the camera,” which made me think that, more importantly, photographic portraiture is supposed impress on us something unknown, undiscovered or unspeakable about ourselves. And while an image of Victoria Pendleton might remind me to cycle to work on Thursday, and an image of Hilary Mantel, looking every bit like Jan Van Eyck, might remind me to finally sit down, stop procrastinating and write that novel I’ve been meaning to write, these images tell me nothing more, and they ask me nothing.