Opinion: Taylor Wessing photo competition confounds dim views

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is no stranger to controversy. Every year the chosen portraits address the ­difficulties and celebrations of ordinary people – and occasionally celebrities – around the world.

Tim Eyles
Tim Eyles

This year’s entries, submitted by some 2,000 photographers from more than 20 countries, offer insights, provoke ­questions and catalyse debate, often bringing uncomfortable issues to the ­surface. Some lawyers may question the sense in courting the sort of controversy this prize can generate, but we take a ­different view and say it is the debate it provokes that gives the prize its appeal.

Of course, as a result, our association has not always been plain sailing. ­Headlines such as ’Hard-hitting Taylor Wessing prize shortlist takes in ­prostitution, obesity and hunting’ (that particular one relating to the 2010 prize) have been par for the course. In fact, few articles about the 2010 prize did not at least touch on the explicit and ­controversial nature of the runner up, Panayiotis Lamprou’s Portrait of My British Wife. The winner, David ­Chancellor’s Huntress with Buck, was another, perhaps less obvious, source of brouhaha, prompting a deluge of emails to my inbox from animal rights activists.

Obviously there is no desire to offend and it is regrettable when offence is taken, but the very nature of art, of its ­subjectivity and of what we hope to achieve through it, is to ask questions, provoke thoughts, stir up emotions and ultimately get the viewer thinking about some aspect of life in a new way. So those activists at least confirmed to us that the prize is achieving what we hope for – it is generating debate.

This year’s prize will undoubtedly ­raise questions of its own. Interestingly, controversy so far has centred not around the content of the images, but their ­subject matter as it relates to previous years. In particular, the winning image, Jooney Woodward’s Harriet and ­Gentleman Jack, has prompted headlines in national papers such as ’Taylor ­Wessing portrait prize: another animal, another girl with red hair’. Well, that’s one view. There is never going to be agreement on the ­winning portrait and life would be very dull if there was. The judging panel is careful not to allow previous winners to affect the selection of any subsequent shortlists. Excellence and artistic merit are what matter – the exclusion of a ­portrait as a result of its similar subject matter to an historic submission would undermine severely that principle.

Taylor Wessing has always been ­supportive of the arts and culture, and art is closely connected to some of our values. It provokes reaction; it makes the viewer think differently and so is a great medium through which to encourage innovation and the development of creative talent. This chimes with our encouragement to all our partners and staff to be innovative, whatever their role.

Of course, I am not pretending that everyone at Taylor Wessing has always been in agreement on this subject.

The art we bring into our office, for ­example, has pushed the bounds of what might ­traditionally be found in such an ­environment, and as such has ­occasionally been the source of animated debate. But in a sense, whether people like it or not is irrelevant if it succeeds in opening minds and perpetuating that all-important ­creativity.

We always find this exhibition ­inspiring. It enriches our lives and those of our clients and charity partners. We hope it also provides a career springboard for winning candidates. We trust that many of you will take the time to visit the exhibition and – dare I say it – we look ­forward to hearing your views.