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Living Memory: Finding moments of joy in 2020

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Most of us probably aren’t too keen on re-living 2020, but when told through portraits of the faces of people from all over the country during that period, the result is quite captivating and breathtaking.

For the past 13 years, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has held the annual National Photographic Portrait Prize, inviting photographers from around the country to submit a portrait showcasing what it meant to be Australian during that year. The event offers substantial cash and equipment prizes, and is open to professional, amateur and aspiring Australian photographers.

For the  National Photographic Portrait Prize 2021, photographers were asked to capture a portrait during late 2019 or throughout 2020.

“For this year, we’re calling the exhibition Living Memory, [which] we think is so poignant and potentially so impactful, because we have been through so much as a community since the end of 2019,” says Sandra Bruce, the NPG’s Director Collection and Exhibitions.

“We knew that when we put the invitation out to photographers this time around that we were going to really see how people have experienced a whole gamut of lived experiences that nobody thought that they’d be living through.”

Mullet Magic, 2020, by Leith Alexander.

There were more than 3,000 entries this year, which is on par with the highest number of entries in the prize’s history, which made for a big job for the three judges: National Gallery of Australia Director Nick Mitzevich, NPG Director Karen Quinlan AM, and renowned Australian photographer Bill Henson.

The winners were announced on Friday 30 July at the NPG and via live-stream, so finalists unable to travel to Canberra due to COVID-related travel restrictions could watch the announcement from home.

Taking top honours this year is Sydney photographer Joel B. Pratley’s photo of a lone farmer immersed in a dust storm in drought-stricken Australia (feature image). Titled Drought story, the portrait is of David Kalisch captured in the midst of an unexpected dust storm on his 1000-acre farm in Forbes, NSW.

The judges were impressed by the haunting and surreal qualities of the portrait, noting: “The vastness of the landscape turns farmer David Kalisch into an anonymous presence, leaving a space for us to consider our own place inside nature”.

Mask on inside, 2020, by Clare M. Lapworth.

Bells Beach photographer Julian Kingma was named winner of the 2021 Highly Commended prize for his portrait of young swimmer Tom cooling off in a storm-water drain during the 2020 Victorian lockdowns.

New Distinction Awards were also given to Lismore artist R.J Poole for his portrait Great conjunction and Jessica Hromas for Mark and Saskia cool off.

Childhood Oblivion, 2020, by Nadia Stone.

As a way of acknowledging the year that was, as well as further supporting artists during a difficult period, the exhibition this year features 76 finalists, which is double the amount of previous years. All of the finalists are now on display at the Living Memory: National Photographic Portrait Prize 2021 Exhibition at the NPG until November 7, and are also available to view online at

“[The finalists include] some really extraordinary personal but high impact moments of people living through pandemic, living through isolation, living through bushfires. But we also have really sweet, intimate moments of people living their lives regardless, and personal captures of family members and loved ones, and people that people meet on the streets,” says Sandra.

“It’s not just about commemorating these huge impacts. It’s also about reminding ourselves that ultimately, we’re all just getting on with our lives to a certain extent, and finding moments of joy.”

Anna, 2020, by Matthew Newton.


What: Living Memory: National Photographic Portrait Prize 2021 Exhibition
When: Open daily 10 am-5 pm until Sunday 7 November
Where: National Portrait Gallery, King Edward Terrace, Parkes. All works from the exhibition are also included on the NPG website
Web: For tickets and more information, click here

Feature image: Drought story 2020 by Joel Pratley (winner)

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