Pick up a phone and listen to voicemail threats from an American anti-abortionist. Delve into state archives and look at crime scenes and suicide shots. See ruined shacks at dusk, bomb-test craters in the US desert and flattened Kurdish towns in Iraq. All this and much more is in the 2019 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation prizeexhibition.
This year’s prize is less about the best photographs, whatever that might mean, so much as research and documentation. Mark Ruwedel’s work continues an American landscape tradition. Landscapes scoured by time, weather and atomic weapons tests, dynamited canyons where the railroads once pushed west, houses in the middle of nowhere and an abandoned A-bomb casing forgotten on a desert floor all have their place in these white-skied black-and-white images, shot with a large-format camera.
I imagine Ruwedel standing muffled under a black cloth in the desert heat. No one heaves into view in these terrifyingly empty landscapes, though signs of our passing are everywhere. Eerie rows of bleachers, where military personnel could watch the flash as the bomb went off, sit in the sun. These non-site places and spaces echo Robert Smithson and land art, Cormac McCarthy’s wastes, 19th-century landscape painting and early photography of the west. Ruwedel’s work treads a familiar path through an unpeopled though not unexplored terrain. I’ve been here before.
Susan Meiselas, now 70, winner of multiple prestigious photographic awards and a Magnum photographer since the 1970s, is a US documentary photographer whose work has taken her to conflict zones around the world, from Central America to Kurdistan. For her project in this exhibition, Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, she was involved in photographing and rescuing images and histories from Iraqi Kurdistan. There are pictures of mass graves with stone and concrete markers; villagers gathered to watch exhumations at a former Iraqi military headquarters; close-ups of sorry items of clothing unearthed from anonymous graves; a defaced, obliterated mural of Saddam Hussein on a wall. These images are shown alongside masses of material from missionaries, British colonial officers and administrators, letters, old colonial memos, detailing traces of the Kurdish encounter with the west.
Her largely collaborative approach is an attempt to create a “collective memory” of Iraqi Kurdistan, but a sense of place – as well as a sense of the political present – is somehow missing. Meiselas’s room, with its vitrines, projections, a wall-sized map with publications and texts suspended from strings, has a feel of the classroom. It rarely comes alive. Meiselas’s publications, group workshops, websites and exhibitions, under the rubric Kurdistan/akaKurdistan, attempt to articulate individual, family and communal stories, unearthing lost narratives and histories. But the stories feel stalled, and the viewer is lost among the disparate collections of images that hint at an ungraspable past. Nothing is said about present Kurdish struggles in western Kurdistan or Rojava.
Laia Abril’s On Abortion presents a history of abortion and birth control, as part of her larger project, A History of Misogyny. Photographs of fish-bladder condoms, vaginal douches, desiccated lumps of crocodile dung (inserted in the uterine entrance as a contraceptive in ancient Egypt), and even a small drone, used to fly abortion pills over the German border into Poland (where abortion remains illegal), sit alongside images detailing the desperate and dangerous DIY methods women use to abort – a metal coat hanger, plastic rods, a steaming bath. Photographic portraits appended with personal testimonies and histories (very much in the manner of the earlier work of Taryn Simon) detail the often tragic stories of women and families faced with the difficult, dangerous and often illegal process of procuring abortions in Chile, Ireland, Poland and elsewhere. The stories make for grim reading.
In the centre of the room, you can sit in an armchair and watch male Spanish politicians and smooth-talking American men rail against abortion on an old-fashioned TV. Abril’s project circumnavigates a record of misogyny and the place of women under different versions of the same old patriarchy, all executed with a clarity Meiselas could do with.
Compiled from German police and state archives, Arwed Messmer’s RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis presents a history of the far-left militant group Red Army Faction, from its beginnings in 1960s student protest to bomb factories in hideaway apartments, arrests and the deaths, in Stammheim prison, of various RAF members in 1977. Anyone familiar with Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 cycle of paintings – perhaps the only great history paintings of our time – which drew on the same source material, will be familiar with some of the images here.
Messmer’s compilation and presentation of images is compendious, jarring, shocking and surprising, and ranges from police mug shots to pictures of demonstrations, forensic evidence photos of kitchen tables, the blood-spattered wreck of a minister’s Volkswagen Beetle, the interiors of cells, with their bookcases and record player, the LPs stacked on the floor (behind Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, what else was the prisoner listening to?), hanging blankets, the dead hanged or shot by their own hands. Signs of ordinariness are everywhere among the bomb-making paraphernalia, the gun and bullets in the hold-all, on these formica-topped tables and in hideously wallpapered hideaway rooms.
What do we not see, what did the cameras not describe in these crime scene and forensic police photographs? There is no conscious artfulness in these polaroids and analogue shots, both in colour and monochrome. That was not their purpose, though many have now become indelible. There is menace everywhere, in the photographers’ gaze as well as their subject’s traces. Everything is evidence, but of what? On 2 June 1967, following demonstrations over a Berlin visit by the Shah of Persia, unarmed student Benno Ohnesorg lies bleeding on the ground, shot by West German police inspector Karl-Heinz Kurras, who it was later revealed was also an agent of the East German Stasi.
Other full-length colour photographs show individual student protesters (including RAF founder Andreas Baader) arrested later that same summer, wearing sometimes absurd costumes, or cross-dressing or in parodic versions of “normal” clothing at a demonstration that was more like a happening. Messmer has arranged his material meticulously, and dramatically. What is not on the wall or in vitrines is compiled in a number of large-scale volumes we can leaf through. The famous October 1980 edition of Stern magazine, which introduced some of the best known police images from Stammheim prison to the public gaze, is also here.
What a wealth of material Messmer has compiled. His work – as researcher rather than photographer – shows us what the West German state saw and how it recorded its own actions: the brutal policing and suppression of protest, the examination of evidence, recordings of suicide and circumstance, glimpses of the private lives of the RAF, before their capture and later in prison. It also reminds us of a world before total digital surveillance. Abril and Messmer’s projects deserve to win this year’s £30,000 award. For my money, Messmer’s is the strongest, in terms of its thoroughness and historical importance, and its display.
• The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation prize 2019 is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 2 June. The winner will be announced on 16 May.