Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Maybe not everything - but definitely not nothing.

Ever since I returned to Britain from the US in 1999 I have submitted pictures to the National Portrait Gallery's annual Photographic Portrait prize in the hope of making it through to the exhibition. 

The yearly ritual of delivering prints (showering in public - Aug 2010) and then, sadly retrieving them after they have not been chosen (collecting the children from detention - Sept 2010) has provided a certain amount of humour for me and is something I have enjoyed describing. 

Currently sponsored by Taylor Wessing, it is one of those prizes that often sharply divides opinion amongst my fellow photographers. Some, like me, see it as the most consistently challenging, interesting and provocative collection of portraits that the UK produces. Others regard it as slightly aloof and perhaps unrepresentative of the everyday majority.

Either way it is well supported with more than two-thousand photographers entering this year and more than five-thousand pictures submitted in total. Even with the seemingly insurmountable odds of getting into the final edit, the momentary sting of disappointment that accompanies the polite rejection message is something that never gets any easier.

Rejection or acceptance does not instantly make anyone a lesser or greater photographer. On the other hand, photography is a language, a form of communication and photographers who profess no interest in having the chance to connect with new and different audiences make me sad and slightly suspicious. 

This year I entered three prints, but one of them, a portrait of PC David Rathband, the policeman shot by Raoul Moat, had special significance for me. Meeting PC Rathband was one of those experiences that had really made me examine my life and how lucky I was. The terrible nightmares he talked of, the physical pain and mental anguish of having his sight taken from him in such a violent manner, the feeling of loneliness and isolation and the dignity with which he tried to bear it. 

His story had a profound effect on  me and it showed in the picture.

So it was especially uplifting to receive the news yesterday that this one photograph, of the three I submitted, had been selected to join the sixty or so pictures that would be included in the exhibition and book this year.

I found myself running a rather unexpected gamut of emotions. What I felt most instantly was relief. Maybe I had been wanting this particular picture to be chosen a little too much. It was replaced with a kind of elated disbelief as I read and re-read the email just to make sure I hadn't imagined it. This I understand is fairly normal behaviour for unexpected good news. 

Then finally, and most strangely, as my friends started to post messages on Facebook and text, expressing their disappointment at not being selected, I felt guilt.

The fulfilment (at the eleventh attempt!) of a modest but sincere ambition to see my picture exhibited amongst that selection of inspiring works made me feel momentarily as though I had been ushered into a nightclub when my friends had been left behind the red rope.

A day later I finally feel as I am probably supposed to in such circumstances, fortunate and happy. But this could never have happened without the people involved in the process and I would like to acknowledge the tremendous contribution they have made.

Firstly and most importantly, PC David Rathband, who was so open and honest in the way he sat for the portrait. His tragic death earlier this year was such terribly sad news.

Secondly, Sophie Batterbury, Picture Editor of the Independent on Sunday who commissioned me to shoot the photo and whose guidance in my work has been so important over the years.

Also thanks to Martin Berry at Tapestry who was endlessly patient and did a beautiful job of printing the pictures.

Obviously I could never have done anything worthwhile without the support of Jane and my friends but I haven't won a bloody Oscar so a sense of proportion might be best!

It's just a picture in an exhibition, a picture I feel strongly about in an exhibition I have always admired.

As they would say in New York, "That's not nothing!"


JR said...

It's just a picture in an exhibition, but it's a bloody good portrait! Well done mate and thanks for sharing the story behind it. Very sad that he ended it all because it all got too much for him.

Justin Sutcliffe said...

Thank you John. Very sad indeed after such bravery to stay alive. I'm really pleased that you like the picture though. Thank you for leaving a comment and being supportive. J

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled across this portrait now Justin and have to confess to being immediately tearful. It always amazes me that something so simple as an image can induce such a response.

I listened to David Rathband being interviewed on R4 last year and the depth of despair he was fighting to quell was profoundly moving. I can still remember stopping what I was doing and just sitting trying to absorb and make sense of it all.

I see that despair expressed even more in this astonishing portrait.

Justin Sutcliffe said...


Thank you so much for your comment.

Whilst I would never wish to make you to feel tearful, I'm glad that you were moved by David's story and that you felt the portrait was true to him in some sense.

It was a very moving picture to make and still leaves me slightly haunted every time I look at it.

To have mustered such strength to survive the horrors of those injuries and to them feel so isolated and despairing is impossible for most of us to grasp.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to write about your feelings on the matter. I very much appreciate it.


Justin Sutcliffe said...


Also, if you were interested, here is the original post about meeting David and photographing him for the Independent on Sunday.

It is my account of the more important issue of his tragic and untimely death rather than the picture's inclusion in the Taylor Wessing exhibition.

As such I hope you have an opportunity to read it because it better reflects the emotional weight of the picture.

Many thanks once again.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the additional info Justin.

Tears? Good thing from time to time. It's a powerful portrait, it demanded a response.

It's good to be reminded that the power of (portrait) photography comes less from what you impose upon it, and more from what you, simply, put in it.

Your description of your feelings and the impression he made on you chimes with my own from listening to his interview on R4.

Your portrait has captured that abject despair, and I can't offer any higher accolade than that.

A fine memorial to the man.