2020 Documentary Essay Prizewinner: Amanda Russhell Wallace

2020 Winner, for Photography: Amanda Russhell Wallace
Honorable Mention Awarded to Farshid Tighehsaz

A photo of Amanda Wallace

The CDS Documentary Essay Prize honors the best in documentary photography and writing in alternating years: one year, photos; one year, writing. The focus is on current or recently completed work from a long-term project.

The 2020 prize competition was awarded in photography to Amanda Russhell Wallace, an American artist currently based in Connecticut, for “Mourning Breaks,” a portrait of her family in the wake of her maternal grandmother and her sister’s unexpected deaths and over time. The essay explores, as Wallace writes, “emergences and interludes that speak to the essence of being human: rhythmic dances, fast or slow, tiding between living and dying.”

“My work tends to rest in the undoing. Undoing is characteristically a stretched-out frame in the timeline of our lives. . . . Through my historical collaging, I am repeatedly running back and forth between the dead and dying. The present can serve, broadly, as an interlude between the two. Ongoing photographic documentation and research of my family’s roots in Texas, a largely liminal topographical and political space, serves as a bifocal entry into what I call mourning breaks. Central to it is approaching questions of home-making and self-making with residual, frayed threads clothed in the afterlife of slavery in the United States. Our mirrors rest in the archives. My practice increases the opacity of afterimages embedded in these mirrors via less violent reclamation as a method of breaking.

“The term mourning breaks came to me when I had to submit a title for an exhibition of photographs centered around my family. At the time, I was reading Courtney R. Baker’s book, Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death. I did not want to create an overly sad or violent exhibition. How could I practice more tenderness as the photographer? In fact, I was actually slowly trying to contextualize my family documentary practice, which has been going on (off and on) for nearly a decade. Besides creating an archive, what was the point of my work? The following are lines from the poem, In the mourning breaks, written in dedication to Black American experiences:

In the mourning breaks / I searched for blues— / forgetting tears ain’t blue / not clear as day, either along the way / I came to think / a blue smoke trails black / not dark as night, either
our blues weren’t blue / or colored
are steps, sways, claps, and taps / our spirits laughing


Amanda Russhell Wallace received a B.A. from Rice University and an M.FA. from the School of Visual Arts. A lens-based multimedia artist, her work ranges from documentary family photography to experiments with time-based media and primarily locates itself in the archive (records, cemeteries, oral histories, etc.) as a site for “family reunion.” Her frequent practice of historical collaging uses remnants of speech, texts, and imagery to present and interrogate various loci of dissociation and dis-remembering within the formation and performance of selves across time.

Wallace’s work has been shown nationally and internationally in a variety of venues—galleries, conferences and symposia—including the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, El Museu Valencià de la Il·lustració i la Modernitat (MuVIM), Newark Museum, Flux Factory, and MASS MoCA.

She recently became Assistant Professor of Art at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.

Honorable Mention

Farshid Tighehsaz of Tabriz, Iran, was awarded an Honorable Mention by the members of the Center for Documentary Studies CDS Documentary Essay Prize in Photography Selection Committee for his beautifully conceived photo essay, “From Labyrinth: Living with Anonymous Apprehensions.” “From Labyrinth: Living with Anonymous Apprehensions.”

There were 9 other finalists for the 2020 CDS Documentary Essay Prize in Photography: Sara Bennett, Scott Brennan, Vikesh Kapoor, Natalie Keyssar, Camilla Macciani, Yubin Oh, Arne Piepke, Tim Smith, Leslie Starobin, Bianca and riel Sturchio, and Federico Vespignani.

The members of the 2020 CDS Documentary Essay Prize in Photography selection committee: Whitney Baker, Brittany Barbee, Amber Delgado, Alexa Dilworth, Kelsey Favret, Wesley Hogan, Mara Guevarra, Aaron Kutnick, Xaris Martinez, Lynn McKnight, William Page, Liz Phillips, and Courtney Reid-Eaton.