Arts

And the AIMIA AGO Photography Prize winner is...

Your votes are in. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg has taken home the $50,000 prize for the "emotional pull" of her black-and-white work.

Your votes are in: The 'emotional pull' of Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's work earned her $50,000

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg. Opytnoe Pole. Kazakhstan. Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, 2012. (Courtesy of Ursula Schulz-Dornburg)

Your votes are in. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg is the winner of the 2016 AIMIA AGO Photography Prize, an international art award that, uniquely, lets the public pick the outcome. And after months of voting, the results were revealed Tuesday night during a private reception at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario, where you can visit an exhibition of the nominees' work to January 1. Schulz-Dornburg, who lives in Dusseldorf, Germany, will receive $50,000.

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg is the winner of the 2016 AIMIA AGO Photography Prize. (Courtesy of the artist and the AIMIA AGO Photography Prize)

"It's interesting to think about what this artist, the winner, tells us about the moment we're in," says Adelina Vlas. She's the associate curator of contemporary art at the AGO and the organizer of this year's AIMIA AGO Photography Prize exhibition.

The shortlist, which was selected by an expert jury in late July, included Vancouver's Elizabeth Zvonar, Jimmy Robert (France) and Talia Chetrit (U.S.). It's a multi-generational group — Schulz-Dornburg, for example, has been active since the '50s — and each artist approaches the art form in their own way.

On that front, Schulz-Dornburg is the most traditional. Much like 2015's winner Dave Jordano, her work is "documentary in nature," as Vlas puts it, and the exhibition showcases her black-and-white photos of modern ruins, images captured in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

There's a focus on the relationship between people, architecture and the land. In a series documenting Armenian bus stops, for example, women and children wait at Soviet-era transit shelters — modernist anomalies in the empty landscape, but too worn and decayed to actually shelter anyone from anything.

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg. Bus stops. Armenia. Erevan-Parakar, 2004. (Courtesy of Ursula Schulz-Dornburg)

"In a way I think she's trying to tell us that humanity hasn't changed much," says Vlas. "We don't learn much from the past. We keep repeating the same mistakes and I think that has consequences. I think she's focusing on the consequences and especially their impact on human life and the lived experience."

"The way that she approaches the people — it's with such humanity and warmth and compassion. You see this dignity of life in the way she likes to look at survivors — the resilience of human life in those places."

Vlas figures it's the "human dimension" to Schulz-Dornburg's work that resonated with voters. "It does have an emotional pull," she says, "especially in times like ours where every day we hear about things happening in places around the world where human life is lost or affected and there's very little we can do."

She's trying to tell us that humanity hasn't changed much. We don't learn much from the past.- Adelina Vlas , AGO associate curator of contemporary art

At the AGO exhibition, visitors were invited to vote for the artist "whose work speaks to you." Those electronic ballots, along with the votes collected through the prize's website, determined the winner of this year's award. The runners up will receive $5,000 apiece.

The AIMIA AGO Photography Prize seeks to celebrate the best in international contemporary photography. Artists on the shortlist are selected for showing "extraordinary potential over the last five years." Past winners include Lisa Oppenheim (2014), Kristan Horton (2010) and Sarah Anne Johnson (2008).

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg. Chagan. Kazakhstan. Airfield shelters of nuclear test site, 2012. (Courtesy of Ursula Schulz-Dornburg)

Aimia AGO Photography Prize 2016 exhibition. To Jan. 1, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. www.aimiaagophotographyprize.com

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