An Interview with Michael Benson, Director of the Prix Pictet and Co-Founder of Cultural Consultancy Firm, Candlestar Ltd.

prix pictet - candlestar - michael benson

Originally posted on November 28th 2013

Michael Benson is a writer and film producer, he established cultural consultancy firm Candlestar with Fariba Fashad in 2003. Clients have included Frieze Art Fair, The Gulf Art Fair (now Art Dubai), the Sovereign European Art Prize, The Sony Photography Prize, The Tusk Conservation Awards and the Syngenta Photography Award.

Michael is also currently the Director of the Prix Pictet, one of the world’s leading prizes in photography and sustainability. Founded in 2008 by the leading Swiss private bank Pictet & Cie, the award aims to uncover outstanding photography that confronts the pressing social and environmental challenges of today.

The award ceremony and Finalists’ exhibition for the fifth cycle will take place at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in May 2014.

We caught up with Michael to hear what the biggest changes to Candlestar in ten years are, his thoughts on the photographic industry today and the fifth cycle of the Prix Pictet…

Genesisimaging: Hi Michael! Are you ready to talk about photography, (live from Switzerland!)?

PrixPictet (M. Benson): I’m here when you want to start…

Genesisimaging: So, what drew you to photography/art?

PrixPictet (M. Benson): The beautiful wordless simplicity of photography and what Henry James called ‘the madness of art’.

Genesisimaging: How has your perception of photography changed or altered in ten years of Candlestar and five cycles of the Prix Pictet?

PrixPictet (M. Benson): Vastly – through the Prix Pictet, by listening to cleverer people than I (and I thought I already knew stuff)…

Genesisimaging: What did you set out to achieve in the beginning of the Prix Pictet, Five cycles ago?

PrixPictet (M. Benson): To make it the world’s finest photography prize – still work to do there…

Genesisimaging: Tell us about this year’s Prix Pictet – how do you decide on the theme?

PrixPictet (M. Benson): Seemingly endless late night conversations, writing and rewriting ideas to find something in tune with our times.

Genesisimaging: What made you decide on ‘Consumption’ for the fifth cycle?

PrixPictet (M. Benson): It’s not actually my decision. That said, the idea was to look for an abstract/topical theme.

Genesisimaging: Each year’s theme works really well in that respect…

Genesisimaging: How do you hope that the Prix Pictet has influenced people’s perceptions about sustainability?

PrixPictet (M. Benson): Hopefully (each cycle by the way – it’s an eighteen month thing)

Genesisimaging: Let’s talk about challenges – What has been your biggest challenge with the Prix Pictet and how did you overcome it?

PrixPictet (M. Benson): Finding our distinctive voice in the crowd and the only way to do that was to seek excellence in all that we did…

PrixPictet (M. Benson): By using outstanding, beautiful imagery to counter the numbness we all feel when we simply read bad news.

Genesisimaging: And tell us (what you can) about the judging process for each cycle…

PrixPictet (M. Benson): The judges review the nominated portfolios online and each make shortlist of 15. They then meet in conference…

PrixPictet (M. Benson): …and agree the shortlist. We work with the artists to make the exhibition and the final judging takes place there.

Genesisimaging: David asks about bursaries and the Prix Pictet – have you thought about giving bursaries to young photographers specifically?

PrixPictet (M. Benson): This is something we have thought about but as yet we have no clear conclusions – a space to be watched.

Genesisimaging: Great. Let’s talk about Candlestar – what’s been the biggest change in 10 years? (Congratulations on the big 10 by the way!)

PrixPictet (M. Benson): Thank you. The biggest change has been moving from an idea to an office, to a brand, with the confidence to launch a big idea…

Genesisimaging: What has been your proudest achievement to date? (Prix Pictet, Candlestar or otherwise…)

PrixPictet (M. Benson): With Prix Pictet, definitely presenting the first shortlist at Arles and then Kofi Annan presenting the first Prix Pictet…

PrixPictet (M. Benson): …to Beniot Aquin. With Candlestar I think it may be about to arrive – another space to watch!

Genesisimaging: We’re keeping our eyes peeled… Last few Q’s…

Genesisimaging: Tell us what you think is one strength and one weakness of contemporary photography…

PrixPictet (M. Benson): Its strength lies in the enduring brilliance of contemporary image makers – its weakness is that…

PrixPictet (M. Benson): …not enough people recognise that – a situation we are about to do something about…

Genesisimaging: Interesting! Why do you think that is?

PrixPictet (M. Benson): Perhaps because it has failed until relatively recently to be taken seriously as art.

Genesisimaging: Hopefully people’s perceptions are beginning to change in that way…

PrixPictet (M. Benson): Well it’s up to us to ensure that they do…

Genesisimaging: We’re looking forward to hearing what’s next for Candlestar and this year’s Prix Pictet – interesting shortlist!

PrixPictet (M. Benson): You’ll know what’s next for Candlestar before the year’s out. Thanks re: Prix Pictet shortlist…

Genesisimaging: I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for! Thank you Michael, it’s been a pleasure.

PrixPictet (M. Benson): I enjoyed it and can I just say thanks to everyone at Candlestar. They do the work, I simply chat.

Find out more about Candlestar at candlestar.co.uk.

Find out more about The Prix Pictet and see the ‘Consumption’ shortlist at prixpictet.com.

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