David Lynch once said, ‘I just like going into strange worlds’, which might be a suitable comment after seeing this year Fotofestival in Łódź. With the subheading ‘Can you imagine?’, the sixteenth edition invited us to experience photo stories from intangible and elusive worlds. Today the photographer is no longer a person who is just behind the camera. The photographer is a researcher, a philosopher and a person who has a certain opinion with a message to convey. The artists featured in the festival use fiction to comment how fluent the boundaries between reality and different dimensions are. They want to encourage the audience to approach the seemingly objective medium of photography with a critical look. ‘Ask’, ‘look closely’, ‘question’ are the main objectives of the exhibitions. Despite the fact the pictures on show are mostly in a documentary style, we cannot be certain if it is a broadcast from a known place. It is like a game – is what we see actually what we see?
Every year at the Grand Prix only a handful of artists are selected to become one of the ten finalists. Their unique visions and distinctive narratives are the main conditions for winning. At this year’s edition we are taking a closer look at the winner’s project ‘This is not real life’ by Dominika Gęsicka. As the title suggests, we encounter some utopian place but after reading the work’s description it appears as a dystopian area – ‘There is a place where no one is born and no one dies. Of course you can die anywhere but you cannot be buried here as it has been discovered that bodies fail to decompose here. You cannot be born here because pregnant women are to return to the mainland to give birth. There are no cats, no trees, no traffic lights (…) This place is called Longyearbyen.’ The series of photos reflects lo-fi unconventional photographic practices. Gęsicka’s chosen aesthetics give the impression of a cold, isolated place from a dream we want to wake up from and come back to reality. While the artist was visiting Longyearbyen she has discovered that people who live there are escaping from something. They carry painful stories, an inner mystery and only this place is giving them shelter – literally and lyrically. The project has a strong private dimension too because Dominika was using photography to escape from everyday duties she felt uncomfortable about.
What also left a big impression on me at the Grand Prix was Jerome Ming ‘Oobanken’’s and Loulou D’Aki’s photo series ‘Make a Wish’. Both projects evolved from the authors’ uncertainties while living in a country where significant changes are imminent. ‘With ‘Oobanken’ I unlocked a way of engaging with a personal sense of continual displacement and the changing environment immediately beyond the walls of the secluded compound where I lived (…)’ said Ming. While ‘Make a Wish’ is a ‘photo essay looking at the hopes and dreams of youth, aiming to create a testimony of our time’. Subtle photos, as well as stopped shots of precious moments, created a map of emotions. Moreover, Jerome Ming emphasised the intimacy of presented objects by putting them in much bigger frames. They were pinned to the background like butterflies in glass cabinets, showing the ephemeral and fragile side of the project. The common denominator of these two stories is that the places where we live very often determinate our thinking and what we consider good or bad. The most common theme of many valued artistic projects is personal experience. Why? Because it’s the truth, nothing comes out of nothing.
‘Trash cans for hearts and people have no soul’ is an exhibition with hanging, lying and levitating photos. Mystification and lies are perceptible in the air. I would risk stating that this was the most psychedelic way of displaying photographs at this year’s edition. This artistic universe was curated by Augustin Rebetez who skilfully crafted the space with sixteen other artists, including David Favrod (winner of the 2014 Grand Prix Fotofestiwal), Christian Patterson, Birthe Piontek, Reiner Riedler and Yumiko Utsu. For me the most impressive value of this show was how freedom can be expressed by a mixed media approach. I achieved a real fulfilment or a vague and curious joy from what I saw – big scale rolling photos, shrill and looping animation or overlapping, transparent images. Among others I was intrigued by the works of Dimitri Procofieff – a young artist exploring photography, GIFS, video and ‘the end of his black pen that he is now turning into paint’. Sneaking in between the hanged installation we almost entered his private world with a purple-blue tint. I guess that abstract subject enables artists to step out of their comfort zone, as well as unleash the freedom to let their imaginations go wild. Edison maintained that the ‘real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowed into twenty four hours’ so this photo stories definitely showed the multi disciplinary experiment pot.
In fashion we use ‘must have’ but here we can say ‘must see’. Other memorable visits were two foreign artists’ exhibitions – Vivianne Sassen’s ‘Lexicon’ and the NOOR group – both ‘must-sees’. Sassen’s works have been shown in major galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She is a photographer who works in both the fashion and fine art world. Sassen lived in Kenya as as child and often works in Africa. She started studying fashion at Arnhem but soon turned to photography. At ‘Lexicon’ were two projects: ‘Flamboy’ (2008) and ‘Parasomnia’ (2011). We saw the most important elements of her visual language: surrealistic still lives, faceless characters and abstract compositions from human bodies. The people in Viviane’s photographs are almost mixed together as a metaphor of longing for being very close together. The exhibition was accompanied by an interview where she was referring a lot of her inspirations to Africa. ‘For the rest of my childhood, I continued to have this idea that I was disconnected from my true life, from my life in Africa. And I was always longing for it’. Whereas NOOR prepared a moving selection of 130 images on the injustices in the world and the power of photography to spread public awareness, express opposition, and strive for change. These highly accomplished storytellers focus on contemporary global issues with honesty, empathy and motivation. They document conflicts that the world is silent about, the situation of women and children, climate change and rising water levels, the phenomenon of racial discrimination in the United States and modern forms of slavery.
‘Uncanny’ – strange, mysterious, difficult or impossible to explain, but also amazing. This is the word that I would use to describe the Kassel Dummy Award, which invited almost fifty photographers from around the world to present their as-yet unpublished photobooks. An international jury at the Istanbul Photobook Festival chose three winners from all the entries. Overkill. I could not help myself to not see all the photobooks, zines… Despite having spent two hours there, that was not enough time to appreciate every concept and story. There where so many brilliant layouts, deigns and my favourite DIY pieces. Many of those books were made of unique materials like leather, tracing paper, fabric, threads, rubber… It is more of an experience, which is hard to describe because it is much more than just regular, shiny paper with photographs – every detail, texture and size matters. I have had massive difficulties in choosing a few favourites. The first is a book by Japanese documentary photographer Keiji Fujimoto. Born in Hiroshima he had been walking around several parts of the world documenting third worlds, with a particular focus on people who live in the physical and psychological shadows. His delicate collection of mini booklets connected with colourful threads shows discriminated and isolated communities. I was also bewitched by the great humour of some of Karan Vaid from India. He decided to show dog shows from his country – a funny amalgam of obsessively well groomed dogs and their oversensitive owners. Also, ‘Louvre. Art Guide for Cyborgs’ by Antonio Perez Rio was a dose of witty comments and pictures documenting waves of tourists who thoughtlessly take pictures of world class master pieces separating them with phones, cameras, tablets and rushing further just to tick Louvre visit. After flicking through this book I had a thought are we sometimes entering museums just to buy a fridge magnet?
Hopefully ‘reality leaves a lot to the imagination’, so we can classify this year as both intense and very inspiring. Plenty of entries and exits from the imaginative worlds and visual stories gave us an invaluable perspective on the reality in which we live in. It was also a rare opportunity to explore the heart of Łódź through a series of artistic encounters – culture is fundamental for the life of a city, and in fact, it cannot exist without it. The Fotofestival also has a great impact of setting an example by highlighting diverse voices, which run counter to the mainstream and to open public dialogue through workshops or discussion panels. We are absolutely hungry for a mix of ingenuity and imagination next year!
Written by Marta Klara Sadowska