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Deutsche Börse Photography Prize: Second sight

From single mothers to decaying British towns, the pictures nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize provide an intimate perspective on modern life

It's worth more than the Turner Prize, and it certainly says more about the state of the world. The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, established in 1996, gives £30,000 to the winner. This year's shortlist highlights the work of Britain's John Davies, the Danish photographer Jacob Holdt, Esko Mannikko from Finland and the American Fazal Sheikh, who were chosen from 90 nominees put forward by experts worldwide. These are the photographers deemed to have made the biggest contribution to the medium in Europe in the last year. "Two of the photographers, Holdt and Mannikko, are self-taught," says the curator, Stefanie Braun, "but what unites all of them this year is a long, sustained engagement with the photographic image."

Holdt's colourful images expose social and racial injustice in Nixon's America. Now 60, the photographer spent five years hitchhiking across the States in the early Seventies taking pictures of people he met with a cheap camera given by his parents.

He has been nominated for Jacob Holdt: United States 1970-1975, published last year by Steidl GwinZegal. Palm Beach, his image of a wealthy woman eating lobster, is in stark contrast to Welfare Mother in New Jersey, of a woman standing in a derelict room with her head in her hands. Another image, Fear and Guns, shows a white Michigan family on a sofa, bearing rifles as a "protection" from the black community.

John Davies has been working on The British Landscape series since about 1979. Images include the panoramic view of Stockport Viaduct, England, 1986, while Agecroft Power Station, Salford, 1983 shows people playing football in front of an industrial wasteland. Victoria Promenade, Widnes, 1986 shows a church set against steam from distant power stations.

Braun explains: "He has been documenting the changing industrial and post-industrial British landscape in great detail, starting in the North and Scotland. He has continued to map the land ever since, because he is fascinated with the clash between the man-made environment and the natural habitat."

Mannikko's intense colour images are taken from last year's retrospective, Cocktails 1990-2007, shown in Stockholm. The former hunter, born in 1959, documents a mixture of subjects, including eccentric Finnish bachelors, as well as still life and landscapes of the Finnish countryside, all displayed in over-the-top frames. Simon, Batesville (1996) is an intimate portrait of a man in a cowboy hat, taken on the border of Mexico and the US. Another, Organized Freedom 98 (1995-2005), shows a weathered, blue shack.

The youngest finalist is Sheikh, who has been nominated for Ladli, published last year by Steidl. It is a series of black-and-white portraits of babies, young girls and women who have been maltreated because of their gender. Braun explains how he includes the individual testimonies of each subject. "In the late Eighties, he went to Kenya, his father's birthplace, and was overwhelmed by the sight of the refugees. He went on to document Afghan refugees living in northern Pakistan. These portraits show those who have been abandoned as toddlers because of their sex, while others show child labourers who must care for themselves. Women are beaten, abducted or raped because they are unable to bear a male heir, or are born into a household without a male heir."

The body of work they have been nominated for will be showcased at The Photographers' Gallery, before the winner is announced on 5 March.

Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, The Photographers' Gallery, London (020-7831 1772), 8 February to 6 April