Not your average landscape photography competition...

Fragile Earth

Simon Bainbridge previews the 12-strong shortlist for the Prix Pictet

© Yao Lao

The Prix Pictet, launched last year with one of the art world's most valuable prizes (approximately £55,000) and an agenda to campaign for better understanding of environmental sustainability, is back. This year's theme is 'Earth', and the shortlist of 12 has just been announced, culled from more than 300 suggestions made by a panel of 77 international nominators, which included me.

Inevitably, just as last year's water-themed shortlist was dominated by projects concerned with flood and drought, this year's contains its fair share of work focused on the oil and mining industries. Chris Anderson, for example, has been photographing the complex relationship between oil and politics in Latin America for the past five years, while Ed Kashi explores similar terrain in the Niger Delta. Edward Burtynsky, also shortlisted last year, is something of a no-brainer for a prize that is based on environmental sustainability, and this time he's presenting his most epic work, shot in vast quarries. Naoya Hatakeyama's photographs of quarry explosions and underground waterways in Tokyo are rather decontextualised here, but his inclusion points to the contest's commitment to less overtly documentary approaches. And that's even more apparent in the work of Sammy Baloji, who addresses the legacy of imperialism in the Democratic Republic of Congo, splicing together images that reference industrial plunder with old colonial photographs of the men and women who were similarly looked upon as a resource ripe for exploitation.

Others are less overtly political. Darren Almond, for example, focuses on traditional notions of the sublime landscape, capturing moon-lit images of remote geographical locations that have inspired artists of the past, such as the Yellow Mountain range of Huang Shan region in China. It's a theme echoed by another Londoner, Chris Steele-Perkins, in his photographs shot around Mount Fuji in Japan, following in the footsteps of Hokusai Katsushika and Utagawa Hiroshige, whose series of legendary woodblocks, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, were a record and commentary on the famed mountain in relation to the society of their times, the early to mid-1800s.

The Magnum photographer captures similar scenes, now threatened by development in the name of progress. Likewise, Nadav Kander's Yangtze, The Long River takes and open and intuitive approach to the landscape that doesn't expressly address the environment, but its presence is implicit nonetheless. Similarly, Edgar Martins plays on the disturbing seduction of landscapes that reveal environmental destruction, picturing Portugal's fire-devastated forests. There's nothing seductive about Abbas Kowsari's landscapes, however, more explicitly malevolent than the rest here in their depiction of the annual pilgrimage to honour the Iranian dead, killed in the war with Iraq that cost the country more than half a million lives.

One to watch

Undoubtably the biggest name on this year's shortlist is Andreas Gursky, who is showing just one large-scale image, depicting an enormous garbage dump in in Mexico City. But my money is on a relative outsider, Yao Lu, whom I nominated for the Prix Pictet.

Referencing ancient Chinese painting, he uses to photography and digital imaging to comment on the rape of the land through the exploitation of natural resources and rapid urbanisation. Created last year during the Beijing Olympics, he photographs mounds of building rubble wrapped under green netting, which is then transformed into painterly landscapes, complete with idylic waterfalls and pine trees. Although beautiful, they clearly have something to say about environmental destruction and the artifice of nature seen through modern day eyes. They are also quite different to the approach taken by the armies of Western documentary photographers commenting on the same subject in China.

On show

A selection of works from the 12 shortlisted artists will be previewed at Purdy Hicks Gallery (purdyhicks.com) in London from 05 to 11 October, before a larger exhibition goes up at Passage de Retz gallery in Paris from 23 October to 24 November. The ultimate winner will be announced by honoury president Kofi Annan the night before the show. A further award, in the form of a commission for one of the shortlisted photographers to visit a region where Pictet & Cie are currently supporting a sustainability project, will be announced at the same time. The show will then tour to further venues, including galleries in Thessaloniki, Dubai and Eindhoven.

For further information visit www.prixpictet.com.

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