BLOG Jake Oliver

NWR Issue 104

The Eye International Photography Festival

After braving swarms of pre-teens on a break from ballet class Saturday morning, your intrepid reviewer was able to make his way to the top floor of Aberystwyth Arts Centre for the start of the Eye International Photography Festival’s second and longest day. Beginning Friday evening with ‘an indulgent meander on sixty years [of] being a photographer’ by the renowned David Hurn, the festival stretched three days, 27-29 Jun, and encompassed workshops, wine, exhibitions, and lectures (and free WiFi!). The danger with lectures or talks in the hour-long format of such a festival is the potential for the speaker to head down a path of ‘in-my-work’ self-indulgence, but I found virtually all of the photographers (note Hurn’s self-deprecation above) to be adept at avoiding this pitfall, and the Q & A segments curated by either Colin Jacobson or Eamonn McCabe served as insightful book-ends to the talks while also allowing for audience engagement.

After being set loose following Magnum member Hurn’s lecture, the following day opened with a number of options prior to Kajal Nisha Patel’s talk: a pair of workshops (calotype and the Keith Morris Working Project), a book signing by Bartosz Nowicki in the ominous-sounding ‘Box’, and portfolio reviews in the bar by Hurn, festival director Glenn Edwards, and Sophie Batterbury. Patel’s talk centered on national identity as a first generation Indian immigrant both in an English context and Indian context and its influence on her work, particularly as she sought out groups of Indian immigrants who had formed a close-knit community in her hometown of Leicester. For Patel, this influx of populations had a largely positive impact on the city, producing the so-called Miracle Mile and an economic windfall. The vivacity of life and color in her photographs of the Indian community contrasted sharply with, as one audience member put it, the ‘monotone landscape’ of the post-industrial fringes of Leicester.

Later on in the day, American Justin Maxon’s talk showcased photography that was significantly bleaker, though not without his subjects’ grim resolution. Depicting the struggles of the residents of polluted and economically-depressed Chester, Pennsylvania, there was no such infusion of new life to the industrially sagging city; rather, the people of Chester portrayed through Maxon’s lens seem to exist in an insular space where progress has been arrested. Looking at times more like the tattered remnants of a war-zone rather than an American city situated in the Northeast Corridor, Chester as seen by Maxon is a stark look at the underbelly of media fiction.

One of the number of exhibitions on display, Olivia Arthur’s ‘Jeddah Diaries’ also concerned itself with the dispensing of fiction to take a real look at the people behind popular mainstream media portrayals, in this case the women of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Curiously, this ‘lifting of the veil’ from another insular region did not actually do so in the most literal of senses. If the women were not photographed with their burkas, their faces were often obscured through various techniques. That said, Arthur’s photographs illuminated a world very much alive, with these women navigating restrictive social boundaries with humour and an almost child-like sense of fun and mischief. While some might object to the ‘captioning’ of these photographs with quotes from her subjects, I felt Arthur’s use of the voices of these women gave even more dimensionality to their existence, bringing the viewer into their world.

Sunday concluded the festival with a series of exceptional talks including a man, Arthur Edwards, who accepted a ‘rotten job’ with the Sun photographing the Royal Family. A number of the presentations and exhibitions displayed projects spanning years if not, in some form, decades. Jargon and pretension often mars artists’ passion projects but it was plainly evident that Glenn Edwards and the other event organizers had secured men and women with the kind of real passion and ability to carry this three-day festival not only in terms of content, warm, vibrant atmosphere and incredible talent.

Photo: Angele Etoundi Essamba

Jake Oliver is a PhD student at Aberystwyth University.


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