A pregnant pause wins 2019 National Photographic Portrait Prize

Alana Holmberg never intended for her portrait of her heavily pregnant sister Greta to become public. It was the first child in the next generation of their family and Holmberg just wanted to document the transition, hoping one day to make a book for her nephew.

Now, Greta in her kitchen, 36 weeks has won the National Photographic Portrait Prize, capturing an intimate moment of a first-time mother, and an intimate moment between sisters who lives were about to change.

Winner of the National Photographic Portrait Prize, Alana Holmberg and her image Greta in her kitchen, 36 weeks.  Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Winner of the National Photographic Portrait Prize, Alana Holmberg and her image Greta in her kitchen, 36 weeks. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

“Greta and I are extremely close,” says Holmberg.

“I don't even know if we had a conversation about documenting her pregnancy, but it felt right.

“We were all just feeling that momentous change, sisters becomes aunties, parents become grandparents.

“This particular day, it was quite close to her due date, we knew we needed to get some heavily pregnant shots.

“It was late afternoon, it was really hot, and we did most of the images on her bed, she got thirsty so we moved to the kitchen and that’s when I saw this incredible light coming through … I only took four frames and this was one of them.”

The Melbourne-based documentary photographer said she had reached a phase of her professional career where she had begun to question the power dynamic between photographer and subject.

Sumbawa pride – life on a boat with eleven kids, 2018, Alex Vaughan. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Sumbawa pride – life on a boat with eleven kids, 2018, Alex Vaughan. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

“I come from a documentary background and over the past few years I've started to feel a little uneasy about some of the work I've made in terms of I'm in a foreign place, there's a power dynamic there, do I have a right to tell this story, is it my story to tell, to the point where I was getting a little bit frozen sometimes with my own work.

“When Greta got pregnant, it was all about the same time, and I thought what better time to come back to the personal. I hadn't photographed my family for a long time, and that presents a lot more challenges than you think, you think it’s going to be easier, but the power dynamic is totally equal."

Her nephew Sol is almost one now.

“When I think of the photograph in terms of him being able to look back when he's older and see the strength of his mum, it's a wonderful gift to my family.”

If Holmberg’s portrait captures a peaceful moment, Alex Vaughn’s Sumbawa Pride - life on a boat with eleven kids, captures a moment of chaos. Beccie and Steve packed up their kids and now live on a 13-metre boat, the Sumbawa. Children swing from ropes, hair blowing in the wind, but at the centre Beccie is nursing Squeak, the first child born on the boat.

One of the three National Photographic Portrait Prize judges Dr Christopher Chapman, senior curator of the National Portrait Gallery, said Vaughn’s entry was a “magical moment of barely contained chaos”.

“The judges felt strongly that both portraits allude to the ways in which family connections grow, and the photographs speak to the variety of experiences of motherhood.”

The gallery awarded the Art Handler’s Award earlier in the week to Elizabeth Looker for her portrait A Calm So Deep.

People’s Choice voting opens on Saturday, February 23.

The National Photographic Portrait Prize 2019 opens to the public on Saturday, February 23 and runs until April 7, at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.