Striking images of the human experience

A young girl in a headscarf stands holding an upended skateboard by her side. Her expression is serious and in her eyes there is a shadow of sadness but there is also a discernible sense of pride in her stance that conveys to the viewer a spark of hope for the future.

Skate Girl by Jessica Fulford-Dobson
Skate Girl by Jessica Fulford-Dobson

This image – Skate Girl by Jessica Fulford-Dobson from the series Skate Girls of Kabul – is one of 59 eloquent and thought-provoking photographic portraits that go on display at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield tomorrow.

On tour from the National Portrait Gallery – with Sheffield as the only regional venue – the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize Exhibition showcases diverse images by photographers from all over the world selected for the 2014 prize from over 4,000 entries. It features work by established professionals, emerging talents, photography students and gifted amateurs.

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“It is an annual exhibition and prize, and The National Portrait Gallery are involved in the judging process,” explains curator Alison Morton. “They offered us the opportunity to show the exhibition and we are really pleased to have it. The images are stunning. There is a real breadth of subject matter from different countries and cultures and different styles of photography. What’s interesting is that some of the professional photographers will often submit an image that wasn’t taken as part of their working life”.

This year’s winning picture, in fact – Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow (2014) by David Titlow – is a perfect example of that, a warm domestic image showing the photographer’s baby son being introduced to a dog.

Photographic portraits seem to be a particularly compelling art-form, partly because reading people’s faces is such a fundamental part of human communication and connection. “They give an insight into a person,” says Morton. “And in these images you can either see something you recognise in yourself or your own life and can relate to or something you don’t know about and want to learn more about. Both are fascinating.”

Each image is accompanied by a label putting it into context and giving more information about the story behind it. There is no formal theme for the exhibition, although Morton says that while she was looking through the images a couple of “accidental” themes began to emerge. “Family and children is quite a theme running throughout the exhibition and the relationship between parent and child. There are some quite personal photographs – Dad is a picture of an elderly gentleman taken by his photographer son. The sitter was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and his son is trying to capture his father, knowing that he is not likely to be around for much longer. That is very touching.”

Another theme that comes through is war or conflict – evident in the Skate Girl image as well as in the picture of a group of boys playing war games in Ukraine and the portrait of a young Syrian rebel fighter covered in scars and facial injuries. “There is a lot going on in the world at the moment and there are some very moving pictures with amazing stories behind them,” says Morton. Some of the particularly striking pictures hang by themselves while others Morton has put together in groups of five or six images that complement each other either in atmosphere or composition.

“Curating this show has reminded me how powerful the face can be,” she says. “And how it can be a good way of telling a bigger story.”