Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010

An impressive selection of images from Britain and abroad at the National Portrait Gallery.

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Tony Blair # 1 from the series Tony Blair by Kalpesh Lathigra © Kalpesh Lathigra

The above portrait of Tony Blair, from June 2010, seems to tell us more about the former Prime Minster's current state than any number of words could. He looks haggard, battle worn and manic. A man disillusioned, some might say; a fallen Mayor of Casterbridge for our very own 21st century. Where formerly there was passion, now there seems only to be a kind of maddened desperation in his eyes.

This striking image didn't, however, win the 2010 Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize and the £12,000 award that goes with it. That honour went to David Chancellor's extraordinary photograph of a young American huntress, "Huntress with Buck".

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Huntress with Buck from the series 'Hunters' by David Chancellor © David Chancellor

It shows 14 year old Josie Slaughter, taken by her parents to South Africa to hunt for big game. The high contrast between the beauty of the auburn hair of girl, buck and horse and the African light on the plain, with the underlying brutality of the image is both visually arresting and narratively compelling, almost forcing the viewer to demand to know more about the picture's context. Taken in July 2010, with vivid medium contrast Kodak 160VC 120 film, it forms part of Chancellor's series of photographs Hunters and is featured on the front cover of this month's British Journal of Photography.

There are, however, more irreverent pleasures to be found within this exhibition, such as Jonathan Root's tender portrait of David Hockney in his Yorkshire studio, "David and Ruby". Hockney stands, cigarette held aloft, in a paint flecked pinstripe suit, a daffodil resplendent in his lapel. His dog, Ruby, looks placidly on. It seems to say, "Take me or leave me; I really couldn't care less", and gives us the artist in all his smoky, well-tailored but, nevertheless, scruffy splendor. It's a stark and lively contrast to the austere, almost statuesque nature of Lathigra's Blair.

And then there is Iranian-born photographer Ramin Talaie's superb "Haitian Women", taken in February 2010 in Haiti, showing an elderly earthquake survivor, scarred but still smiling. Talaie's photograph is a powerful visual testament to the indomitable nature of the human spirit; the solitary women in Holbein red stands tall and proud, grasping a tree trunk with one hand, seemingly holding it up rather than being supported by it.

The international scope, searingly high quality of the selected photographs and constant journeys in terms of theme and subject, from the political to the personal, from the downtrodden to the great and the good, all serve to make this a fine exhibition and a timely reminder of the fecundity of the British photographic scene.

Until 20th February 2011

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.