Week 8 is all about Arles.
I had never visited the festival or town before, so I had no idea what to expect. Some good exhibitions, certainly. A pretty French town, highly likely. People like me, definitely.
What I found, stunned me. Genuinely. At the end of each day, I had to sit down and gather my thoughts because I felt quite overwhelmed. So much good photography and such amazing venues. But more than that. An intoxicating brew of high ambition, soaring imagination and excellence. I make no apology for being overwhelmed. I hope I never stop being overwhelmed by the best of anything.
So let me address the exhibitions individually.
The introduction to Carnival Strippers by Susan Meiselas stated that she “shows the hardship they faced without giving them the status of victims”. This is so true. Stripping is seen as a degrading job. But this exhibition showed tough, dignified women doing what they need to do to make a living. The pictures were extraordinarily sensitive, cutting through the layers to find real human beings.
Lena After The Show by Susan Meiselas.
I felt that the pictures that Meiselas made of the strippers could only have been made by a woman, a man would unlikely be trusted in the same way or achieve the same access.
My next selection is also a collection of pictures of women, but this time made by a man. Mothers, Daughters and Sisters by Tom Wood. These are pictures of working-class women of the 1970s and 1980 from Merseyside. There is a documentary feel to the pictures and often the subjects seem wary of the photographer. But there seems to be a real desire on Wood’s part to capture these scenes and faces and immortalise them. Which he has achieved so well. Thirty or forty years later, we are visiting these ordinary places and seeing these ordinary people in one of the greatest festivals of photography. Whilst capturing the moment is simply what photography does, this is a particularly poignant and well-executed exhibition of documentary photography.
Burroughs Gardens Girls by Tom Wood
For me, the star of the show was Datazone by Phillipe Chancel. This is an exploration of human dysfunction, of how badly humans treat each other and the planet they live on. This is done through beautifully shot pictures that project anything from a sense of unease to righteous anger. His picture of a hand dripping crude oil in a desperately polluted area of Nigeria speaks volumes. His pictures of the jingoistic parades in North Korea gently mock the rulers of this madhouse country.
The staging of Datazone is stunning. An entire empty church is given over to the show. Pictures hang in mid-air or are affixed to ancient stone walls. The sun streams into the massive, sacred space. Fellow visitors gaze in awe. It is a transcendental experience.
The lesson I took away from Arles is that the possibilities in photography are endless. We are defined as photographers by our fondness for making pictures. Then we can go on to show and display them in so many ways, in so many places. With imagination and skilful execution, we can produce and display work that takes people’s breath away.