Photographer Wins $20,000 Prize for ‘Photo’ of Scratches and Spit

A top portrait photo contest in Australia has sparked an outcry this week after awarding its $20,000 top prize to a “photo” of scratches and spit.

Artist Justine Varga was awarded the 2017 Olive Cotton Award with her “portrait” of her grandmother titled Maternal Line.

Varga created the “photo” by handing a piece of large format film to her grandmother and asking her to scribble on it with a pen and then spit on it to leave saliva trails.

Maternal Line by Justine Varga, winner of the $20,000 2017 Olive Cotton Award

Here’s Varga’s artist statement that goes with the piece:

One day, not so long ago, I came upon my maternal grandmother hunched over a table, vigorously testing a series of pens by scribbling with each of them in turn on a piece of paper. Captivated by this busy repetition of gestures, so reminiscent of her character, I asked her to continue her task, but on a piece of 4 x 5 inch negative film. Having left these traces of her hand on this light-sensitive surface, she also, at my request, rubbed some of her saliva on the film, doubling her bodily inscription there. I then processed the film and printed it at large scale. A collaboration across generations, with her born in Hungary and me in Australia, the resulting image looks abstract but couldn’t be more realist; no perspectival artifice mediates her portrayal of herself or our genetic link, with both now manifested in the form of a photograph.

The work was selected as the winner of the $20,000 prize by Dr. Shaune Lakin, the Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia.

“While Justine’s work is very contemporary, she’s also deeply interested in the history of photography,” Lakin says. “It’s a very complex photographic portrait: it made me think a lot about the act of the making a portrait – about what it means today to make a photograph of someone else, even if in the end it doesn’t reveal what they look like.”

“But photography has never just been about appearance,” he continues. “It’s also been part of the way that we experience things like memory and relationships. The image – a series of scrawls made by the artist’s grandmother directly onto a piece of film – has been printed at monumental scale. It’s a very moving portrait of the artist’s relationship with and love for her grandmother.”

Justine Varga (left) and judge Dr. Shaune Lakin (right) standing with the winning work, Maternal Line.

After the award was announced last week, photographers were incredulous at what they perceived to be a non-photograph winning a photography award.

“Personally, I can’t accept a person’s scrawls on a piece of film, as something other than a drawing, in the same way I do not accept David Hockney’s drawings on his iPad as a photograph,” former Australian Commercial and Media Photographers Association president North Sullivan tells The Sydney Morning Herald. “Can I draw, smear, scrawl or whatever on a sheet of fine art Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta paper and call it a photograph, simply on the basis it is the material my studio uses to print its photographs?”

Criticism and hate mail also began flooding into Lakin’s inbox.

“I have received lots of hate mail actually, which has been actually really kind of disturbing,” Lakin tells ABC News. “I have received really nasty feedback from photographers […] It really does diminish what, for me, was a very complicated and complex process that I took very seriously and it was about the pictures and it was about the photography.”

Image credits: Photographs by the Tweed Regional Gallery/2017 Olive Cotton Award