Comments from OCA tutors attending photo festivals
In some ways it often seems that photographers go on a lot about the context of photography and how it is increasingly democratised and infiltrating the lives of everyone, everywhere. Still this may be true, but I continue to find myself looking at and away from a lot of photography, only occasionally arrested by something that has a true message or interesting story to tell. We have a plethora of information and images, millions go up every day. A lot of it one could easily skip over and a lot one will never see. I am no so interested in the endless story about photography in the modern context although don’t doubt that it is important. My own values often steer away from those of the contemporary world, the ‘advanced capitalist model’ is somewhat repugnant in its desire for endless economic growth at any cost…and what a cost! SO for me photography his about insights, opening up and challenging assumptions and views. I suppose that I’d like to work on the subversive edge, but not be crass or dogmatic. With this in mind I read some of the following view and opinions with an open mind, but not uncritical.
Comments by Jose: Right here, right now…second thoughts
Yes, I knew I would have second thoughts about some of the bodies of work on display at Format Photography Festival. I knew that no matter how shocked I initially was when I first saw the slideshow by Peter Dench, I would eventually say something positive about his work. “Don’t do it”, I said to myself, “you are from Barcelona”…well, I’m not really, but even though the UK is my country of adoption, I’m still, strictly speaking, a foreigner.
And that poses certain challenges when it comes to doing cross-cultural analysis, which is why I wanted to remain neutral about Denche’s work. But sitting on the fence is pretty uncomfortable, and the opportunity to stir controversy too attractive, so I’ll take sides, for the better or the worse: I actually like his work. I’m not talking about his photographs of drunks, on which I totally agree with Gareth, I mean the other set of images shown on the slideshow, those tackling the topic of multiculturalism. I find them visually unsophisticated, and that’s precisely why I like them so much. Slanted, unbalanced and off-the-cuff compositions add a layer of instability to his work which perfectly matches the subject matter. I look at his photographs and I get a sense of a precariously unstable exercise in multiculturalism. I’m not making a judgement here; but that’s what I felt when looking at Denche’s images.
There were many more controversial displays at Format Photography Festival. The idea of authorship was challenged by Michael Wolf in his ‘A series of unfortunate events’. A collection of images regurgitated by Google Street View made up his exhibition. His photographs – they’re not his, are they? – highlight nothing if not the fact that we all like looking at things. It’s called scopophilia and it is hard wired in us. And if you’re thinking that the sexual connotations of the term are not relevant within the context of Michael Woolf’s work, well, think again because by looking at his work at Derby’s QUAD you – like me – became a voyeur. BJP magazine interviewed Michael Woolf at Format; worth watching to know more about the photographer’s motivations behind his work.
Which leads me to the topic of Street Photography, the main theme of Format and a genre which I love and hate in equal measure – you can read an older post on street photography here. Photography heavy-weight Joel Meyerowitz said that:
“Street photography is pure photography because it never borrowed from the vocabulary of painting in the way still-life, portraiture, genre-studies and landscape did. Most people now carry a camera-phone, and through the agency of the internet, a new generation has the potential to show us raw genius from the ranks of the millions of people now photographing this way.
(you can listen to an interview with Joel Meyerowitz on BBC’s Front Row – fast forward to 17′)
And with all the respect that I have for someone like him, I can’t help thinking that that’s a scary prospect, if not a dystopic one. No matter how compelling some street photography can be, as demonstrated by the In-Public collective exhibition at Derby Museum, I still find some of it slightly creepy. Millions of people with easy-to-conceal cameras observing us, stalking us. Did I say observing us? Street photography, with all its potential for communication, uncomfortably resonates with the Mass Observation Project.
We don’t know any more who is observing and who is being observed. Photographers in the shadows capturing the image of passers-by who are totally oblivious to the fact that they are being watched – see Katrin Koenning’s Thirteen:Twenty Lacuna.
I, for one, became a photographer to interact with people.
Call me old-fashioned if you wish…(Navarro, 2010) 
‘If we demand photographs to make us think, photographs to show us things we would not otherwise see and for photographers to be cognisant of – and close to – communities in which they work, these are the types of images that will result’. (webber, 2010) 
I found this quote by Webber interesting and in line with my own views of photography. It will be useful for the forthcoming assignment to reflect on this. More and more I feel less interested in the clandestine images of street photography and more interested in building connections with people in the community. Although at the same time, there has to be something interesting to talk about within the community to make us think about.
Malhotra’s work which appears as a typology of people asleep in India seems to of been highly appreciated by the visitors of the exhibition. I’d like to know more about Clive’s comments as he suggested that there was a universal message in the making with the project. On the whole I like the work. I have been to India and seen the sights of people sleeping everywhere and anywhere and it is indeed a curious sight. However, my critical side says…’and yet typologies are easy conceptual models to produce, aren’t they? In a way you walk around looking for more of the same, yet similar. This is not hard to do. So I have that going on. On the whole I find the images aesthetically engaging. The concept I personally find less engaging and even not really that reflective. People are just used to sleeping wherever they are. Making a cross-cultural analysis is difficult for westerners with this topic as it seems most bizarre and out of place and we can probably only categorise the images in the realm of homelessness. I don’t want to deny abject poverty, by certainly I see that this is common sight for many in India and most Indians would not think twice about it.
- Navarro, J. Right here, right now…second thoughts (2010) [online] https://www.oca.ac.uk/weareoca/photography/right-here-right-nowsecond-thoughts/ [accessed, March 2020]
- Webber, D. Interrogations (date unknown) [online] https://prisonphotography.org/2010/11/09/interrogations-by-donald-weber/ [accessed, March 2020]