Lacoste Elysée Photo Prize Cancelled Over Censorship Controversy

by David Walker

© Larissa Sansour

The Musée de l'Elysée abruptly cancelled the 2011 Lacoste Elysée Prize for photography, protesting the decision by prize sponsor Lacoste to exclude one of the finalists. Lacoste, meanwhile, has announced that is "has decided to cancel once and for all its participation in this event and its support for the Elysée Prize."

Lacoste reportedly objected for political reasons to a project by finalist Larissa Sansour called "Nation Estate," which was inspired by the recent Palestinian bid for nationhood at the United Nations. Lacoste said in a statement today that Sansour's work did not fit the contest theme, and denies it excluded her for political reasons.

The Lausanne, Switzerland-based Musée de l'Elysée said in its statement--also issued today--that it had based its decision to cancel the competition "on [Lacoste's] wish to exclude Larissa Sansour. We reaffirm our support to Larissa Sansour for the artistic quality of her work and her dedication."

The statement continued, "For 25 years, the Musée de l'Elysée has defended the strength of artists, their work, freedom of the arts and of speech. With the decision it has taken today, the Musée de l'Elysée repeats its commitment to its fundamental values."

Lacoste's objection to Sansour's work surfaced last week. The photographer, who is based in London and Copenhagen, was one of eight photographers invited (with Lacoste's approval) more than a month ago to compete for the 25,000 euro prize. The theme of this year's competition was "La Joie de Vivre," and the prize nominees were asked to interpret that theme broadly. The prize would have been awarded at the end of January 2012.

Sansour's project depicted a future Palestinian state "rising from the ashes of the peace process" in the form of a single skyscraper, as she explains on her Web site. The high-rise building houses the entire Palestinian population, and each city "has its own floor: Jerusalem, third floor; Ramallah, fourth floor. Intercity trips previously marred by checkpoints are now made by elevator."

"The museum director called her last week and said Lacoste had decided it could not support her work and would like to remove her," says Soren Lind, Sansour's husband. "They said that although they understand [the work] is not anti-Israeli, it was far too pro-Palestinian for them to support it.

"Later [museum officials] told her again by phone that [Lacoste] wanted to remain apolitical as a brand and could therefore not support her piece," Lind says.

Museum officials did not say who at Lacoste made the decision to exclude Sansour, but indicated that it was one of the company's top executives, he adds.

Sansour announced on her Web site yesterday: "Absolutely shocked to see Lacoste revoke my official nomination for the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011. My Nation Estate project censored for being 'too pro-Palestinian.' Deeply disturbing."

According to Lind, the Musée de l'Elysée last week asked Sansour to help them "harmonize" the communication about her withdrawal from the competition. The museum asked her to agree to issue a joint statement saying that she had pulled out of the competition to pursue other opportunities, Lind says.

But Sansour refused to go along. "We said you can't expect someone who has just been censored to help you 'harmonize' your communication," Lind says.

Under questioning by journalists,  the Musée de l'Elysée and Lacoste finally said Sansour was excluded because her entry didn't satisfy the theme of the competition. "We heard that yesterday for the first time from a journalist," Lind says.

The British Journal of Photography reported earlier today that Musée de l'Elysée and Lacoste said in a joint statement: "Larissa Sansour's photographic project Nation Estate was discarded because it didn't fit within the theme of this year's edition of the Lacoste Elysée Prize, which is 'La Joie de Vivre.' We regret the political interpretation that has arisen from our decision."

Lacost stood by that explanation in the follow-up statement that it issued today. "Lacoste reputation is at stake for false and wrongful allegations," the company said in a statement published by The Washington Post. "Never, was Lacoste's intention to exclude any work on political grounds. The brand would not have otherwise agreed to the selection of Ms. Sansour in the first place...Lacoste and the Musée de l'Elysée felt that the work at hand [by Sansour] did not belong in the theme 'joie de vivre' (happiness)."

A spokesperson for Musée de l'Elysée did not immediately respond to an inquiry about its decision to acknowledge--at least tacitly--that the exclusion of of Sansour was about politics, after all.

In addition to announcing the cancellation of the Lacoste Elysée Prize, the museum also announced that it has invited Sansour to exhibit her "Nation Estate" project at the museum. But they have not proposed a date, and Sansour has not yet accepted the invitation.

"It's still to early to assess the implications of Lacoste's act and the museum's initial acceptance of the decision to censor Larissa," says Lind.

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