Everywhere is a gallery;observed Head On Photo Festival Director, Moshe Rosenzveig, describing this year’s event which was the most extensive and diverse to date, making Head On the largest photographic festival in the country.
Ben Lowy and his wife, Marvel Lacar; Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam; and the American photographer Tracie Williams, all of whom had exhibitions in the festival. After interviewing Lowy and Alam about their respective exhibitions, it was a matter of cramming in as many exhibitions as I could into three days before flying back to Melbourne. At last count. I saw 30 exhibitions.
And my two highlights were…
Ben Lowy Afghanistan
Lowy said. The ability to edit, post and caption all within the framework of one piece of technology is very important to me as is social media» He has a large body of work on Tumblr. Although he now feels the need to feed the beast daily», he is also exploring new ways to use social media.»
Asked about his motivation to exhibit at the Head On Photo Festival. Lowy said that festivals allow the photojournalist to present a larger body of work.
«For photographers it gives us certain closure to be able to finally put together a work that often we’ve risked our lives for. You have certain limitations when you work for a magazine, or newspaper, where some¬times only one or two pictures get shown and that doesn’t really encompass what you witnessed. So it is important to have festivals like this so we can show what we have seen in its entirety’. The conversation turns to art versus documentary photography. Ben Lowy said he doesn’t differentiate between the two.
«My art. I would say, is purely finding a different way to talk about the documentary work that I am doing. I don’t really do much beyond documentary work. I find plenty to work with in capturing the serendipity of life. I don’t do other niche sub-genres of photography so I experiment with visuals, and my art, quote unquote, is sort of my experiment with trying to create an aesthetic connection to the viewer that can lift them past the kind of rote reaction to normal work.*
He continued. «As you said, so many people see so many images on a daily basis and many of those are the same rectangular 35mm shape with the same kind of golden rectangle rule of thirds in composition. How many pictures have we seen of Afghanistan with soldiers walking down a dusty road? Or in Syria with a sniper in a building? How do you get them out of that rote? For me that’s where I experiment with the aesthetic is to try and present something new and different in order to attract the eye first and then lead them to the content. When I first started using the ‘phone, it was a relatively new thing and no one was really doing it and no one really knew what these images were or what was make them. Now it is not a new thing any more and it’s sort of lost its touch in that regard».
Shahidul Alam Crossfire
In 1996 he was stabbed eight times for exposing the government’s use of the military to round up opposition activists before a rigged election.
«The whole country was completely up in arms about this. So Drik, the agency that I run, was used as a platform for the protest therefore I — as the director of the agency — became the target. As a journalist, one has to be near the edge. One has to feel the heat and you can take one step too far back, which makes you safer, but also makes you ineffective. So it is that edge that you constantly need to find. ~he trick is in knowing where it is and not stepping too far, which is a fine balance, but that’s pan of what we are about.»
* On the e/e of the exhibition’s opening in Bangladesh in 2010, the government wielded its power and tried to shut down the show. The police closed the gallery unaware that Alam was inside conducting a live stream interview via Skype with Reporters Sans Frontiers.
«We’d prearranged the interview so, while the police surrounded the gallery, I was inside going live to the world.» he said, clearly delighted at the foresight he and his team had in taking the story to the world before the government could put a lid on it
This ground- swell empowered the court to rule in our favour. In countries like ours where the government is so strong, to go against the government is very’ difficult, but because of the actions of the people the judiciary felt empowered and were able to take a position.
On first viewing, the photographs in Crossfire are intentionally ambiguous as Alam explained. «We with¬held captions because we did not want to provide a simplistic reading of the image. We wanted the audience to work at understanding, finding why these pictures were there, because if you look at it, [he points to one particular photograph] it is just a paddy field so how do you connect it with Crossfire?
«So you have to then at a cerebral level engage with that image, rather than simply be given a message. So there is a lot more information there than there would usually be.»
He continued, «Behind each image there is a whole case history’ so. when you go to the Google Earth Map, you will find the exact location of each event, the case histories behind it and you can unravel the piece to a much greater level. As the viewer, you are not just a passive recipient, you need to engage with it.
We took this approach because we felt that this is a story that couldn’t be dealt with at a superficial level, one needed to go beneath the surface and to imagine the screaming’.
Since its launch in 2010. Crossfire has been exhibited throughout Bangladesh in villages and towns, often hung in the market squares to become the talking point of the community. It has also toured the world taking on a life of its own.
Shahidul said. The ultimate goal is for it to change what it began to address… the killings. They haven’t stopped, but they have gone down and the government now is on its back foot’.
HEAD ON- IN BRIEF
With such a comprehensive program, it is difficult to single out exhibitions, but the four below give insight into the diversity of visual storytelling that was on show as part of Head On.
Tracie Williams Beauty
Known as «meri’ (the P N G pidgin word for women), these women are often horrifically disfigured after being attacked with knives and axes. Rape is also endemic in the P N G capital of Port Moresby and Sokhin’s images capture the plight of women who are trapped by convention and lack of choice.