PPAC competition winners explore race and immigration in photography

A photograph from Hannah Price's Cursed By Night exhibition. (Image courtesy of PPAC)

As an African-American woman, photographer Hannah Price says she has witnessed firsthand “the frustration of my brothers and father getting pulled over by cops for no reason.”

She channeled her experience into the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center’s (PPAC) Contemporary Photography Competition, which this year focuses on visual stories of race and immigration. The competition had more than 180 applicants, and PPAC selected Price and Hrvoje Slovenc to mount dual exhibitions. The show opened December 8, and will be on display until February 25, 2017, at the PPAC Gallery.

Cursed by Night

Price, who received her MFA from the Yale School of Art, says she always preferred photographing strangers, as it gives you a chance to learn much more about your subject. It is from there that she is able to build relationships and spark new ideas. The injustices of systemic racism inspired her exhibit, Cursed by Night, with special focus on black men targeted through the criminal justice system.

In Price’s artist statement, she notes that “‘Black’ is inseparable from a dense web of figurative connotations, almost all of them negative: impurity, sin, death, evil. These associations make up the lens through which blackness is perceived by many, and ultimately they are inherited as the burden (the curse) of black men. By using this black and white mode of seeing and following its conventions, Cursed by Night aims to challenge and reveal its power.”

Reality versus reform

Hrvoje Slovenc also has an MFA from the Yale School of Art, although he started photography later in his life, at the age of 26. 

Slovenc says that historically, photography was used as a tool to present reality. Then, from the Civil War until the 1930s, photographers began to use the craft as a statement hoping to reform reality, showing what was wrong with the world and urging change.

“Today, contemporary documentary photography includes an idea of imagining reality. This is where my work fits in. I am not trying to tell the universal truth, but my own truth,” he says.

Originally from Croatia, Slovenc currently lives in the Bronx. One of his neighbors is from Saint Croix, and he says that once others hear that they are “Croatian” and “Cruzan,” any difference that existed is no longer important. This inspired his exhibition, Croatian Rhapsody: Borderlands.

“It is an attempt to tell apart Croatian and Cruzan by asking how to reclaim the specificity of the place we come from and how to articulate its affect on what we have been and what we are. What interested me was the complexity of one’s national identity,” says Slovenc.

More complex than a passport

One of Slovenc’s goals is to paint a picture of contemporary Croatia, through the eyes of a native who has seen it slowly change over the 14 years he has not lived there.

“This is a global process, not only related to the U.S. In the U.S., there are 60 million immigrants and their children whose identities are equally if not even more complex. People can no longer be labeled as one thing or another. Our national identities are much more complex than which country we hold a passport from,” Slovenc explains.

For example, Slovenc shares that he was born in a country that no longer exists and was ravaged by war, has a passport from another country, and lives in a third.

This year, the Contemporary Photography Competition is showcasing these two artists through solo exhibitions, rather than highlighting one piece per artist from a larger group of winners. This allowed both photographers to dive deeper into related topics that are relevant in our communities today, while receiving the support they needed to share these stories in a meaningful way.

“The staff allowed me to install the show exactly how I envisioned it. They didn’t even blink an eye when I asked them if I could break one of the walls and use the studs as part of my installation. It is such an honor to have one’s work presented in a way that doesn’t compromise one’s vision,” Slovenc says.

Price also feels honored to be able to show her work in the exhibition. She hopes that the audiences who see the exhibit question their own perceptions of people they don’t know, or of people of a different race. The photographers challenge viewers’ notions of racial inequality and global migration.

The Philadelphia Photo Arts Center’s Annual Contemporary Photography Competition & Exhibition, featuring Hannah Price’s Cursed by Night and Hrvoje Slovenc’s Croation Rhapsody: Borderlands, is on view through February 25, 2017 at 1400 N. American Street, Philadelphia. Exhibition hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10am-6pm.