Kael Alford, adjunct assistant professor and 2012-13 visiting artist in photography in the Division of Art at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, has been named the winner of the 2012 Michael P. Smith Fund For Documentary Photography Award. The $5,000 award is presented annually by the New Orleans Photo Alliance to a Gulf Coast photographer whose work “combines artistic excellence and a sustained commitment to a long-term cultural documentary project.”
Alford’s award will support her current work focusing on a remote community in the disappearing wetlands of Louisiana’s coast, where her grandmother was born and which is home to the Native American communities of which Alford is a descendant. She is conducting a multi-year documentary project to record the rapidly vanishing cultural and physical landscape of the region, which has been damaged by gas and oil extraction and battered by storms and spills. Alford has just released a photo book of her project, Bottom of da Boot, published by Fall Line Press in Atlanta, Ga.; a number of the photos are currently featured in an exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, along with the works of two other contemporary photographers. Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe-aux-Chenes, Louisiana – two real-world communities featured in Alford’s work – also provided the set that inspired Beasts of the Southern Wild, a feature film directed by Benh Zeitlin that was filmed on location and won top honors at Cannes and Sundance this year. Alford’s book and exhibit reveal the circumstances that have ushered these communities to the brink of extinction.
Jurors for the award included Brett Abbott, curator of photography at the High Museum of Art; Glenn Ruga, director of the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University and of the SocialDocumentary.net website; Paul Moakley, photo editor of TIME magazine; and Ellen Fleurov, director of the Silver Center for Photography in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“Alford’s work combines some of the most compelling elements of long form documentary practice,” said Abbott. “It is both personal to her and relevant to current national events; it studies a microcosm that has macro implications; and it demonstrates a true commitment to solid research while being driven by a coherent, stylistically consistent, and compelling approach to visual storytelling.”
A documentary photographer, writer and journalist, Kael Alford takes an immersive and long-term approach to the subjects she reports. Her work has focused on political conflict, underrepresented communities, cultural identity and humans’ relationship to the natural environment. Alford began her career in 1996, covering culture and conflict in the Balkans and the Middle East for European and American newspapers and magazines. Her work from Iraq is included in the book Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.
As a visiting artist and adjunct faculty member in the Meadows Division of Art this year, Alford will teach several photography courses and partner with regional arts and community organizations to help students find ways to engage with the broader community through their art.
Alford holds an M.A. from the University of Missouri and was a 2009 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
About the MPS Fund Award
The Michael P. Smith Fund For Documentary Photography (MPS Fund) was created by the New Orleans Photo Alliance to honor the life and work of Michael P. Smith, one of New Orleans’ most legendary and beloved documentary photographers. The MPS Fund awards one $5000 grant annually to a Gulf Coast photographer whose work combines artistic excellence and a sustained commitment to a long-term cultural documentary project. Both emerging and established photographers residing in the Gulf Coast states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are eligible to apply. The subject matter for the proposed project is not limited to the Gulf Coast region.
For more information, visit neworleansphotoalliance.org.