A photographer for less that six years, Sian Davey has been selected as recipient of the third Prix Virginia, awarded only to women. Her delicate series on adolescence titled “Martha” was to be seen at the Hotel du Sauroy until 12th November. A beautiful discovery.
Created by Sylvia Schildge to honour creative women, like her grandmother and her mother, every two years the Prix Virginia rewards the work of an author “developing a coherent photographic style”, as the founder of this prize explained, it is unique because it is totally independent. Sian Davey, an Englishwoman, was chosen from among 292 candidates from 47 countries. Ten other photographers noticed by the jury can be seen throughout the year on the Prix Virginia website ( see the end of the article). As well as 10,000€, an exhibition with prints made by Dupon, who is a partner, and free hand from the publishers Be-pôles to produce a work about a city of her choice, Sian Davey will see her work published in M, the magazine of Le Monde,
A meeting with the English photographer about her series Martha, with a sensitive touch.
Why did you choose photography?
I can’t really say… After having seen the Louise Bourgeois retrospective at the Tate in London, I got a shock. I was so deeply moved by what I saw that I was in tears. At that moment, I said to myself that I, too, had to create. It was six or seven years ago. So I started to take photos…
You were a psychotherapist. After having followed this profession for fifteen years, you decided to devote yourself to photography five years ago. Was that a difficult decision to take?
I explained to myself that I had to make a choice. It was like making a commitment and giving some sense to my life. I followed my instinct and my convictions.
Why did you choose your family as the principal subject of your photographic work?
Primarily for personal reasons. My daughter Alice, who was a baby at that time, was suffering from Down syndrome and had to be cared for because her health was fragile. I could neither go away from the house nor take her with me to take photos. So I decided to photograph the world that surrounded me, that is to say my family. That allowed me to be present all the time… all at once I saw things in a different light. It was like a revelation…
Your photos show very intimate moments and at the same time you seem to keep your distance in relation to your subjects so well that your work surpasses the mood of the usual family photo. Did you think beforehand about the way you would photograph?
I do it instinctively, without question, without asking myself how I’m going to take it, I simply decided to live my normal daily life except that I always had my camera in my hand… For me taking photos became an act as natural as doing the cooking or the housework. At the start I didn’t have a particular goal, I didn’t take photos with a specific project in mind. So that’s how I photographed Alice, my daughter and Martha, my stepdaughter at the same time. In the end I did two separate series of them.
Why did you do two distinct series even though it could have been a single and unique series on the theme of the family?
To my eyes the series on Alice is different because there is a political dimension to the project. The subject is almost less my daughter than the fact that Alice has Down syndrome. I wanted to speak about this subject through this experience that for me is very personal. But in the end, what interests me as a photographer is the particular and specific relationship that I have with Alice on the one hand and Martha on the other, because it’s a means of knowing who I am…
You had already applied for the Prix Virginia two years ago with the subject of Alice. In the end you have been designated this year’s prize winner with that of Martha… Is it difficult to photograph an adolescent?
An exceptional relationship links me to Martha, which I first met when she was 7 years old. I remember the moment even today. As I am her stepmother I have an odd status: I am her close relative and at the same time I have an adult’s status, but she trusts me… It’s not the same connection as if I were her mother. Moreover, Martha loves being photographed. She introduced me to her friends and that allowed me to shoot some pretty intimate scenes. I managed to make them forget I was there, or to accept me as just a photographer. They trusted me because they felt that I didn’t judge them and because I wasn’t intrusive…
In the end, what view do you have of adolescents?
I tried to keep a good distance. I tried to find out who they are – in the end I found myself in the teenager’s skin and said to myself: “This is great: they are outgoing, spontaneous and completely aware of the world around them”. It is this exact time of their existence, in between , that I wanted to capture. Before they become adults.
Interview by Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist based in Paris specialising in photography and was editor –in-chief of the magazine Images for 12 years.
Sian Davey, Martha
Until 12th November
Espace Photographique de Sauroy
58 rue Charlot
The series by the ten candidates selected by the jury can be seen every two month,s from January 2017 on the Prix Virginia website: Coco Amareil (Canada), Elisabeth Blanchet (France), Helena Blomqvist (Sweden), Katrien de Blauwer (Belgium), Anna Filipova, Jona Franck (Canada), Céline Marchbank (UK), Kourtney Roy (Canada), Clémentine Schneidermann (France), Mila Teshaeiva (Ukraine).
This year the Prix Virginia has produced a book bringing together the 2012 and 2013 winners and the jury selections, 22 photographers in all, published by Filigranes, 25€.