The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 has been awarded to Jordi Ruiz Cirera, 28, for a photograph of a 26-year-old woman from Bolivia - who was reluctant to sit for the camera.
The £12,000 ($19,176 US) award was presented to the London-based Spanish photographer at the National Portrait Gallery, London, Monday night. The winning portrait goes on show at the Gallery from Thursday 8 November 2012.
The winning image of a Mennonite woman, seated at a kitchen table, is part of Menonos, Ruiz Cirera’s long-term project to document the daily life of a religious community – one which forbids images. Having travelled to South America on two occasions, Ruiz Cirera gradually won the trust of the residents of several colonies located south of Santa Cruz.
The Mennonites’ uneasy relationship with the camera is reflected in the winning portrait of Margarita Teichroeb, pictured at the home she shares with her mother and sister in the Swift Current Colony in Bolivia. ‘I wanted Margarita to look at the camera, but that was a problem for her, and I guess that’s why she is partially covering her face,’ says Ruiz Cirera. ‘She seems to be afraid of the photographer, unwilling to expose herself to our gaze. Her awkward expression says a lot about the tradition, isolation and lifestyle of this community.’
Ruiz Cirera took the portrait in the large, starkly furnished but light-filled room with a digital 35mm Canon 5D mkII, using only available light. ‘Almost all of the houses have tables in front of their windows giving fantastic light to the scene, he says. ‘Sitting in front of the camera was not easy for Margarita, photography is forbidden for Mennonites and having her direct portrait taken was quite difficult so I could only take two frames of her. Even though we were enjoying the situation, Margarita posed with this sort of awkward expression.’
Since some Mennonites consider photographs to be a form of graven image, Ruiz Cirera struggled to break down their aversion to the lens. ‘It was a really difficult project,’ he recalls. ‘They were willing to host me in their homes, but they weren’t initially willing to be pictured. In some cases, it is forbidden. I stayed there for a month, living with different families, then returned a year later. That’s when most of my pictures were taken.’
More than 50,000 Mennonites live in Bolivia, descendants of Christian Anabaptists who left Germany in the sixteenth century. Famously reclusive, the pacifist sect still speaks Low German and their society prohibits the use of cars and electricity. ‘It’s a very humble existence,’ says Ruiz Cirera. ‘They live as their ancestors did, in small, conservative communities devoted to God and sustained by hard work in the fields. Mennonite society is very patriarchal and gender roles are strict.’