A photography exhibition featuring more than 200 images from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe, explores the phenomenal complexity of modern life
Civilisation: The Way We Live Now is on at the National Gallery of Victoria from 13 September to 2 February 2020
Olaf Otto Becker issued this wake-up call on the unfolding environmental disaster in the Arctic more than a decade ago, and since then the problems have only accelerated. The land of unbroken vistas of pristine snow, prowling polar bears and basking seals are now a thing of the past. The reality today includes submarines and icebreakers looking for profitable routes for exploitation, and tourists on brief forays on to the ice from well-heated cruise ships, hunting for photographs to show off back home.
Photograph: Olaf Otto Becker
Celebrated South Korean photographer Noh Suntag took this shot of dancers in identical yellow gowns performing at the Pyongyang stadium during an official press trip to North Korea.
Photograph: Noh Suntag
True wilderness is hard to come by in an era when planetary civilisation’s colonising powers reign supreme. Perhaps people instinctively recall our species’ thousands of years of struggle with the forces of nature, when we had only our pantheistic deities to protect us, and still crave a touch of the real thing. The ‘wild rivers’ of our amusement parks are places where people negotiate turbulent currents overlooked by towering mountain crags and primeval forests.
Photograph: Reiner Riedler
This photograph is of the former Woomera detention centre in South Australia. In December 2004, Rosemary Laing obtained permission to photograph the site, which had become controversial for the treatment of detainees. The year before, as a result of intense public pressure, the Australian government had closed the centre. Laing says the image represents ‘a wedge through the landscape – a blockage, an eyesore, an echo of controversy and a closing off in terms of both a view and a sense of possibilities of Australian identity’.
Photograph: Rosemary Laing/© Courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
Philippe Chancel’s depiction of the construction of what is (perhaps only briefly) the tallest building in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, cannot help but remind us of the work of industrious ants. Certain species of ants construct towers that, relatively speaking, would be comparable in size to some of the world’s tallest buildings.
Photograph: Philippe Chancel/Courtesy of Melanie Rio Fluency
This series is dedicated to the ‘blood generation’ of young people born during the bitter and prolonged war between Papua New Guinea and the people of Bougainville (1988–98). Havini and Miller explore the repercussions of copper mining and armed conflict on the young people of the region and address the destruction of the natural environment that, for matrilineal societies of Bougainville and Buka, is foundational to their political and social organisation.
Photograph: Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller
Cyril Porchet has chosen not to title his astonishing crowd scene where brightly garbed human beings swarm like insects. The vibrant colours suggest we are witnessing a celebration, possibly a religious rite, while the swirling currents are evidence of shared excitement.
Photograph: Cyril Porchet
Irene Kung’s series title is inspired by the book of the same name by author Italo Calvino. Like Calvino, Kung tempers reality with a fertile imagination. The buildings are real but the treatment is dreamlike, as if the structures exist on a planet far, far away.
Photograph: Irene Kung
The library of the Abbey Augustiner Chorherrenstift at St Florian, Austria, dating from the year 819, may seem like a strange choice for an exhibition on 21st civilisation. But this library reminds us that our current civilisation often values, incorporates and conserves the wisdom of the past. Each of the 150,000 volumes in this library, maintained for three centuries, can be considered a building block of our evolving planetary civilisation.
Photograph: Candida Höfer/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
In the 21st century, it is possible to be picked up on one continent and put down on another in a matter of hours. Two million people are in the air at any one time, in comfort and security, an airborne city the size of Brisbane or Perth. Cassio Vasconcellos treats the subject both literally (the components of his images are all of real life) and figuratively (the one-thousand plus components are stitched together to amplify the sense of civilisational complexity). Aeroporto is for the artist ‘a surreal portrait of globalisation, mobility and the speed of our way of life’.
Photograph: Cassio Vasconcellos
Samuel Gratacap has extensively tackled the complex topic of migration, encountering those who live and those who die trying to escape from life’s most dire circumstances. Power and powerlessness are the two stark poles of this picture, framed to centre the hapless man being interrogated. Clearly the gun will be the final arbiter of the exchange.
Photograph: Samuel Gratacap/courtesy Galerie Les filles du Calvaire, Paris
Of taking of this picture, Sean Hemmerle notes: ‘To be powerless in the face of adversity is an unsettling and humbling experience.’ The photographer’s framing of the image underlines the strangeness of his experience: he finds himself alone in the still confines of a clothing shop, most of the shirts still neatly stacked on their shelves, a chair and table in perfect condition. Outside, framed by the blown-out window, we encounter a scene of chaos and ruin.
Photograph: Sean Hemmerle
The Models II series comprises 12 photographs of young models – six boys and six girls – chosen from catalogues proposed by various modelling agencies. What emerges from this series is a particular aesthetic, which brings to mind the avatars used to represent humans in virtual worlds.
Photograph: Valérie Belin
The Large Hadron Collider is the biggest machine humans have built. Yet it was built to study the tiniest of things – subatomic particles.
Photograph: Simon Norfolk
In a spectacle designed to boost morale, more than a thousand US soldiers, airmen, marines and seamen pray before a massive re-enlistment ceremony in Al-Faw Palace in Baghdad on 4 July.
Photograph: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo
A couple awaits the arrival of a new human being. The expectant parents pose in the child’s room, and the environment they have created speaks to their hopes and aspirations.
Photograph: Dona Schwartz/Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto
The Fifa executive committee meets at an underground floor at the home of Fifa in Zürich, in a bunker-like room worthy of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove.
Photograph: Luca Zanier
Migrants are escorted by Slovenian riot police to the registration camp outside Dobova in 2015.
Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times
Dubai is the ultimate playground of globalisation and capitalism, while raising questions about authenticity and sustainability. With its grand shopping malls, artificial islands and massive skyscrapers, the little emirate on the Persian Gulf may prove to be a future model city or a short-lived playground for the fortunate.
Photograph: Nick Hannes
Crowds in Warsaw in Poland watch the funeral of Pope John Paul II, broadcast live from the Vatican on large video screens. By amplifying the importance of the monitors, the photographer highlights the power of media in our lives – dominating, controlling, overpowering.
Photograph: Mark Power/Magnum Photos
Greater Mexico City is the world’s sixth-biggest megalopolis, with a population of around 22 million. How does a photographer evoke such staggering numbers in a single image? In Luz’s case, he does it from the air. As far as the eye can see, waves of humanity wash across the landscape.
Photograph: Pablo Lopez Luz