There is now just one month to go until the close of the Professional Competition of the 2019 Sony World Photography Awards. We interview acclaimed Portuguese photo-artist Edgar Martins, who was the 2018 winner of the Sony World Photography Awards’ Professional Still Life category with the series ‘Siloquies And Soliloquies On Death, Life And Other Interludes,’. He was also awarded 2nd Place in the Professional Architecture category with the series ‘The Poetic Impossibility of Managing the Machine,’ and shortlisted in the Professional Discovery category with different images from the series ‘Siloquies and Soliloquies on Death, Life and Otherludes’.
We spoke to him about his success at the Awards and how it has positively influenced his career development. “The media response to the Awards was overwhelming, with extensive press and TV coverage all over the world.” He said. “Apart from providing my work a huge international platform it has also brought my images to the consciousness of collectors, curators, galleries and museums. As a direct result of being part of the Sony World Photography Awards, my work was acquired by several private and public collections.”
Martins grew up in Macau (China) and moved to the United Kingdom in 1996 to study Photography and Social Sciences at the University of the Arts and the Royal College of Art, London. He has represented Macau at the 54th Venice Biennale, and his work has been exhibited widely across the world and is held in major museum collections.
Martins was studying philosophy and humanities in Macau when he published a book encompassing poetry, poetic prose and philosophical essays. His intention was to enrol in university in Portugal to continue studying literature and philosophy but his incredibly visual approach to writing made him change course and study fine arts instead.
“Because of the connection with Hong Kong, and the fact that the best fine-art courses were based in the UK at the time, I felt that it would make sense to move to England so I took the plunge,” he says. The MA brought his work to the attention of the art world and he got gallery representation in London fairly soon after that. “I was already exhibiting in public institutions before but through my MA I published my first book and got my work into the collections of prestigious museums such as the V&A. I also harnessed the fund-raising skills fairly young, which allowed me to develop complex projects, with large budgets from very early on in my practice.”
Martins spent 10 years working on themes related to technology, and his practice became increasingly rooted in collaborations with what he terms ‘hard-to-access environments’. In other words, organisations that are closed to the public and do not have a culture of dialogue with artists.
This gave rise to collaborations with institutions such as the European Airport Administration Authority, the UK Metropolitan Police, EDP Energies Portugal (that manage all the power stations in Portugal) as well as The European Space Agency and BMW.
“After that I really wanted to challenge myself as an artist and as an individual and so I made a concerted rupture with my default methodology,” he explains.
Martins became much more focused on a multidisciplinary and hybrid approach to photography and developed an award-winning project with the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences in Portugal over a period of three years.
“It is the images from this project that were awarded in the Still Life of the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards. This project was primarily a reflexion on the tensions and contradictions inherent in the depiction of violent death, but also on the fundamentally invaluable but contradictory role that Photography has played in our intelligibility of death”, he says.
That project finished in 2017 and he has been exhibiting it all over the world. Shortly after he started with a project in Birmingham with Grain Projects and HM Prison Birmingham, the largest category B prison in the Midlands. Using the social context of incarceration as a starting point, this project explores the philosophical concept of absence, and address a broader consideration of the status of the photograph when questions of visibility, ethics, aesthetics and documentation intersect.
By giving a voice to inmates’ families and addressing incarceration as a set of social relations rather than a physical space, Martins’ work proposes to rethink and counter the sort of imagery normally associated with incarceration.
It will be officially launched in March next year at the Format Festival (Derby) but there have already been smaller shows at the South Bank, Purdy Hicks Gallery London as well as Paris Photo 2018.
The work will tour to the Three Shadows Art Centre in Beijing, MNAC in Barcelona, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Lisbon, MAM (Macau Museum of Art), Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, amongst others.
“It's not easy to produce work and be involved in its dissemination at the same time. But I guess this is an integral part of being an artist. It’s about how you manage those two aspects. Normally it's a cyclical process. When you work on a long-term project there are periods when you're more focused on producing work and others when you’re fully involved in doing it. But when you’re as productive as I am, working on one project after another, inevitably there will be overlaps. By the time a new project starts one is still exhibiting the previous work and so on. However, my new work projects mark a very different way of working for me: they are much more multifaceted and interactive, they incorporates different media and in truth they have changed my relationship with photography. Photography has always been about control; whether it's the control the photographer exerts over his subject or that the apparatus exerts over any given circumstance. In my new work I have tried to relinquish some of this control. I’m experimenting a lot more and I’m not always totally certain of what I am doing. But it’s the process of resolving that’s more rewarding than any resolutions one might come to.”
Martins was quite impressed with the Sony World Photography Awards and he thinks that the non-fee paying format is the way to go. “At a time when there are so many awards out there, one can question the legitimacy and overall intentions of some of them, but the Sony World Photography Awards have a very transparent process, are incredibly well organised and generate impressive exposure,” he adds. “Moreover the team are very personable and involved”.