Okay, my time in Groningen was over. The Noorderlicht International Fotofestival will carry on until December 1st without me. I was booked and bound to go, so I trained to Amsterdam and holed up there for the night.
Next morning made my way to Den Haag to give a Lunch Lecture to the photography students at The Royal Academy of Art, now known as KABK.
Donald Weber took me to the auditorium and kindly set me up. Then explained that they never know how many students will attend. Could be 10, could be 150. By the time I started the place was full.
I began talking about my approach, about how I do it for the experience, and that learning and discovery are very important to me. As is allowing the subject (whatever it may be) to dictate (up to a point) how it might be photographed.
When I was showing some images from USER an audience member raised his hand and made a statement. As far as I could make out he told me that addicts have no agency, are in a constant state of delirium so can’t make proper decisions about anything, and that I had no business photographing them. He seemed to be implying they shouldn’t be photographed at all.
Okay, I responded, although that’s not my experience, I understand why you might think that way. Photographing “the other” is a tricky thing. There’s a lot to be lost and little to be gained treading down that treacherous path. But, properly approached, I continued, there can be worth in working with subjects that are currently considered politically incorrect. (Especially, I thought to myself, in these extraordinarily reactionary times, the reactions coming, of course, from both the right and the left.) And in my opinion, I concluded, the risk is not only worth taking, but also necessary, otherwise our culture will just stagnate.
But this back and forth didn’t really go anywhere. He was certain I was wrong, maybe even a bad man (and is, of course, partially correct, because nothing in this world is pure). I was certain that there are, in fact, ethical ways to broach tough subjects (ditto).
With that dealt with in, really, a less than satisfactory way, I continued to the end of my talk. Don and I then made our way to his 4th year class where we were going to look at and talk about student portfolios.
After a bit of a continuation of the Lunch Lecture kerfuffle, Don began showing (referring to, really) a couple of the student portfolios. These portfolios were actually book-like compendiums of bits of 3 or 4 of their recent projects. The ones he handed to me were both quite esoteric, and I don’t really get esoteric.
Now don’t get me wrong, I recognized worth in both those book-things. Problem was the work just wasn’t speaking to me. I was not their audience.
So I got this sinking feeling that I would have nothing to contribute if all the student’s work was aimed in the general direction of academia.
But when I began to look through the portfolios and talk with the students individually I was pleasantly surprised. Most of them were going out into the world and engaging with what they chose to look at and wonder about. They were bringing back their perspectives in a way that strove to accentuate the storytelling qualities of photography in a personal, authentic and non-elitist way.
I wish I had images of the students’ work to show you. But things were moving too fast for me to even begin to think about taking the time out to photograph the portfolios. Instead I’ll break up all these words with a few random pix I shot in Holland . . .
. . . Anyway, here’s a quote from Dawould Bey that expresses what I think in a very succinct way: “. . . the best work tends to result not from the imposition of an idea on a situation, but from being responsive to what is going on once you get there. Otherwise, what results is merely the illustration of an idea.”
And that seemed to be how most of the KABK photography students were endeavouring to use photography . . . in a responsive way. As a result I saw a lot of smart, curious work in their portfolios.
All this made good sense to me, especially after immersing myself in the work on display at the Noorderlicht Fotofestival.
Much of the photography I saw in The Netherlands (at Noorderlicht and KABK) was the product of going out into the world and reacting to it in a personal, rounded and politically informed way. Those reactions (photographs) were then organized so that they communicated complicated thoughts in a non-precious manner.
And that brings me to the other thing I wanted to write about this week: The differences (generally speaking) between the photography I saw in Europe and what I’m seeing in Canada.
But this is already too long, so that’ll have to wait until next week.
Right now I’ll just get myself back home to Ottawa, via a one day stopover in Amsterdam . . .
SOME SCENES FROM THE SPAO OPEN HOUSE
UPCOMING THIS WEEK. OF INTEREST.
Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch: Eternal Representations
Photographer Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch, artist and religious studies scholar, will have a conversation about Olivia’s exhibition, Saints and Madonnas. Carleton University Art Gallery, St. Patrick’s Building (no pun intended) Wednesday, November 6th, seven to eight-thirty.
Kat Fulwider: Voices of the Streets
Voices of the Streets will showcasKat Fulwider‘s portraits and stories of homeless and at-risk youth. The exhibition happens at Thursday, November 8th, Point Of View Gallery, 55 Byward Market Square, 2nd floor, five to eight.
Fran Ages: The Parkland Portraits
Fran Ages will be showing her suite of images showing survivors of the Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School shooting. Saturday, November 9, Cinqhole, 5b Fairmont Ave., two to five.
TAXED TO THE MAX was the title of this year’s iteration of the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival. The rather jaunty subtitle being: “ . . . at least you are not afraid to live life on the brink of chaos“.
And that, in my opinion, is the best kind of subtitle. Cryptic with multiple meanings. Make of it what you will.
I couldn’t see it all. Too many events, too much socializing, not enough time. But the breadth of subject matter, and the photographers’ approach to that matter, was breathtaking.
Below you will see a bit of what I saw. This is not a “best of” list, merely some of what I noted . . .
The idea behind the festival was pointed enough: “The 26th edition of the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival examines the social tensions that international mega corporations create with their enormous accumulation of capital and influence on national and global politics. How does this affect the lives of ordinary people?“
The festival provided some answers . . .
The traditional way of living of the Khanty, an indigenous nomadic people in Western Siberia, is severely threatened by the pollution of the oil and gas industry. Igor Tereshkov documents this and then processes his film with leaked oil from the region. You can feel it.
Installation view and 3 images from Oil and Moss. ©Igor Tereshkov
With Overflow, Martin Leuvrey addresses the visual aspects of hyper capitalism and its self destructive plethora of technology and artifacts. The images were shot in urban places of transit, special economic zones, etc.
Installation views and 2 images from Overflow. ©Martin Leuvrey
Embroidered bankers. In an effort to break the hyper constructed image of the financial world Lana Mesic interviewed London bankers and translated snapshots of them into embroidered portraits.
Installation view and 2 images from Souls, Ties and a Pile of Carrots. ©Lana Mesic
Keijiro Kai records testosterone-fuelled festivals around the world. Here we see ritual fistfights in Bolivia and a Japanese fire-starter festival.
Installation views. Kaijiro Kai.
In Agreement, by Brigitte de Langen, shows the original, signed, final versions of a selection of trade agreements that the EU closed with other parties. Looking at the covers you can see some of the text and signatures inside, but you have to imagine what is contained within. Except there’s also an audio component with parts of the agreements, read out in different languages. Nevertheless . . . the words are almost incomprehensible to the average person.
Installation views and 2 images from In Agreement. ©Brigitte da Langen
Cryptocurrency is immaterial in itself but needs powerful material infrastructure to exist. With The Flood, Ivar Veermäe investigates crypto-money and its mining and energy needs using documentary images and simulated 3D objects on video.
Installation views and video stills from The Flood. Ivar Veermäe
Then I bumped into David Klammer (who, smart guy, had brought his bike with him from Cologne). We made our way to Fotogalerie Lichtzone, a cool photographer-run cooperative space in Groningen, to see his exhibition.
There were huge images stuck to the wall, surrounded by some of the battlements and debris from the site where he shot these images, which showed aspects of the lives of the occupants of Hambach Forest, west of Cologne. Since 2012 the forest has been occupied by anarchists and forest-savers who are trying to protect it from the energy company RWE, which wants to expand their open-pit operation into the forest.
Completely tired I made my way back to the hotel for a lay-down. The next morning I would leave for Amsterdam and Den Haag.
Next week I’ll have a bit about my trip to The Royal Academy of Art and some final thoughts on the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival.
(Need more Noorderlicht info? Just scroll down and keep reading.)
In which I make my way to the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival . . .
Ottawa to Amsterdam by plane. Leave Thursday afternoon, arrive Friday morning. Six hour time difference. They’re ahead.
Amsterdam to Groningen by train.
Walk through drizzle to the Noorderlicht offices where I meet Regina Broersma, who cooly and calmly coordinates the festival. She wrangles a million little and large details, makes the whole thing smooooth.
She takes me down the road and up a flight of steep Dutch stairs to the hotel they have arranged for me. A modest place where 8 or 10 other Noorderlicht exhibitors will be staying. I smile. It’s my kind of place.
Won’t sleep. Walk around Groningen, get a feel. It’s still Friday.
Friday night, thirty six hours without sleep. I crash. Twelve hours later, eight Saturday morning, I get up and bump into David Klammer, who has work in the festival. A funny, enthusiastic guy. He’s here with his friend, Herbert Wiggerman. We go for breakfast. I’ll end up spending a lot of time with these two. Big, eccentric fun.
Back at the hotel David and I trade books. His, FORST, shows the time he has spent in a forest outside Hamburg. A mining company wants to clear those trees so they can dig more. Anarchists and forest-savers are occupying the forest. Putting up a fight. David hangs with them, photographs.
All that took a while. Lunch and then a walk to De Zwarte Doos where my work was hung.
I had sent files of the 27 images in the show. The folks at Noorderlicht would print, frame and hang the work. A scary prospect because you’re never sure how that’s all going to turn out. I enter the building with some trepidation. Please let it look good.
As soon as I saw it I relaxed. No, that’s not exactly right . . . I didn’t relax, I became excited by how great the prints looked and how wonderfully the work had been hung.
I looked at my wall of pictures and couldn’t figure out how they had done it. Each image a block in a puzzle that, somehow, meshed perfectly.
The Dutch are masters of exhibition design and that inventiveness and attention to detail was apparent at all the exhibitions at the festival.
And speaking of design, have a look at the catalogue. The folks at Noorderlicht wanted to make it affordable (in keeping with the theme of the festival this year). Foldable/pocketable newsprint for €5 (less than $7.50). Lots of photos, lots of writing. Context.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get to the opening.
On second thought, I’ll end this here. This is already too much information. You have other stuff to do, right?
Tune in next week when I’ll finally have a look at some of the work exhibited at Noorderlicht . . .
CHRISTINE FITZGERALD AT STUDIO SIXTY SIX
Christine Fitzgerald has been photographing at-risk/threatened species for a while now. Her commitment to this is hard to ignore.
Captive, her new work on display at Studio Sixty Six, shows us parrots.
Parrots are trafficked. Sometimes someone “needs” a parrot and, like a good consumer, they buy one. After a while the thrill is gone so they resell the bird or let it “escape”. As well, like any animals “owned” by humans, a certain amount of abuse and neglect occurs. The lucky (if that’s even the right word) parrots are rescued and rehabilitated. These are the birds that we see here.
The images are shot with a digital camera and then transformed through a number of complicated and labour intensive historical techniques involving glass plates and exotic chemicals and pigments. This results in very beautiful prints. But here the sentimentality, heroic scale and overwrought qualities that infused much of Fitzgerald’s earlier work has been dialed back.
What we see are images that, while romantic, also have a slightly forensic feel. As well, the modest scale of the prints lends them a feeling of intimacy which suits the subject matter. These tweaks to her approach make the images in Captive Fitzgerald’s best photographs yet.
With work like this, though, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line between the commodification of a commodity (precious prints of trafficked parrots) and the photographer’s deeper agenda.
At any rate, these images have me thinking and talking about parrots. I suggest you go have a look and draw your own conclusions.
Next week drool. will bring you a full report from the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival . . .
This week, though, it’s all about the anatomy of the exhibition at De Zwarte Doos. This was one of eight locations scattered throughout Groningen that mounted exhibitions for this iteration of the festival.
The folks who run the festival, I’m pleased to report, are a smart, caring, together, totally professional bunch. A joy to work with.
As well, the fact that they traditionally pick political themes draws me to them. I’m so tired of the decorative, lyrical approach to photography that just caters to the bread and circuses aspect of this modern life, in these unsettled times.
Anyway . . .
As I was saying . . . Noorderlicht (translation: Northern Lights) happens in various venues throughout Groningen. De Zwarte Doos (translation: The Black Box, which is what the locals call this building) is where my work is being shown, along with photographs by (in alphabetical order) Michele Borzoni (Italy), Alan Gignoux (UK), Sergey Novikov & Max Sher (Russia), and Martin Toft (Denmark)
De Zwarte Doos is a recently vacated government Social Services building, and most of the photographs hung here are enhanced by that association. (Not to mention the fact that the theme at Noorderlicht this year is Late Capitalism and the effects of neoliberalism.)
Michele Borzoni‘s photographs are shown to great effect in the tiny rooms that had been used to conduct one-on-one interviews with social assistance seekers when the building was being used for that. This placement of these images is just so fitting.
Open Competitive Examinations portrays the bureaucratic procedure aspiring police officers, nurses and teachers must undergo to have a chance at a job. Workers Buyouts shows group portraits of employees who had taken over their companies when the original owners of those companies were threatening to shut them down.
My work, on the main wall, is from After the Fact, which imagines some possible future. Here’s an excerpt from the statement I sent to Noorderlicht:
The Earth is changing, our societies are too. These changes are causing upheavals planet-wide. The rich don’t need to worry though, the constant crisis provides opportunity for them. They have the resources to construct their own realities and safe havens. The rest of the world is becoming, for them, redundant.
After the Fact imagines what life in the First World might look and feel like for those who have been deemed, in these changing times, surplus to requirements.
From the UK, Alan Gignoux traveled to the oil sands in Northern Alberta. There, mostly from a helicopter, he photographed that blight on the landscape.
Attached to many of these aerial photos are smaller images that show aspects of life on the ground . . . farmers, monster houses, churches and the like.
Sergey Novikov & Max Sher are exhibiting large panels of photographs with text. This work visualizes the ideas, techniques, tactics and narratives the ruling powers in Russia use to exercise their power.
Finally, Martin Toft, originally from Denmark but now living in the Channel Island of Jersey, uses that proximity to probe aspects of that island’s transformation into one of the world’s leading offshore International Finance Centres (read: tax haven).
The images shown here are but one aspect of a long, deep investigation Martin has been conducting that tells the story of Jersey’s contemporary prosperity.
The five projects in The Black Box consider various aspects of the times in which we live, and the show is stronger because of that. It’s so great to be involved in an endeavour that features and contextualizes photography that’s about more, really, than just what’s in front of the lens.
The festival runs until December 1st. If you find yourself within striking distance of Groningen you should go have a look.