Just over two weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to travel to Amsterdam to attend the second edition of Unseen Photo Fair. With the fair still very much in its infancy, I was attracted by its ethos: to provide a platform for emerging artists to exhibit their work and to discuss the globalisation of contemporary photography. Alongside the festival-like atmosphere, it provided me with a chance to explore the current climate of the photography world alongside some of the field’s most knowledgeable artists, curators and writers.
The first highlight of the festival was the fascinating VPRO Trendspotting documentary about the 2009 edition of Bamako Encounters, the 8th African Photography Biennale. The documentary discussed the differences in the views and work-processes of African and Western photographers working in Africa, as well as interviews and spotlights on well-known artists such as Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta. One particularly thought-provoking interview was with Zanele Muholi, the South African visual activist documenting LGBT culture in the black community. Muholi spoke at length of her struggle to exhibit her work in the majority of African nations due to current political and cultural views about homosexuality. At just under an hour long, the VPRO Trendspotting showcased the many highlights of Bamako Encounters, as well as leaving viewers with questions regarding the future of photography on the continent.
A short walk away from that was probably the most popular exhibit of the entire fair: JR’s Inside Out Project. JR, a French photographer and artist has spent the past decade travelling the globe to documenting identity and representation via street art and public participation. This chapter of his global participatory project aims to tackle worldwide issues by allowing participants to share their face, story and hopes for the future. A mobile photo-booth stood in a large warehouse with queues of people waiting in line, alongside passers-by who were quietly taking in the vast scale of the exhibition. Large-format photo-booth portraits were printed almost immediately and efficiently pasted down by staff to any space available: the walls of the building and floor being the most popular choices. In JR’s words, “INSIDE OUT gives everyone the opportunity to sound their voice and give it a face.” To date, more than 120,000 people in over 100 countries have had their portrait taken for the project, with those numbers set to increase in the coming months.
Alongside the frequent film screenings and exhibitions from participating galleries, Unseen Photo Fair also hosted talks and lectures over 3 days. The lecture I was most looking forward to was “How to Connect In A Globalising World” – a look at “emerging” photography markets in Africa, Asia and the Middle East and how curators, scholars and photography experts can develop more of an understanding of global arts. During the hour-long discussion, the selected panel discussed the dangers of stereotyping artists and their work based on their place of birth, and how important the internet is to the younger generation of photographers who appear to be more connected and “world-savvy” than their older contemporaries. The lecture left me with more questions than solid, concrete conclusions. Why should there be any sort of obligation for African artists to adapt their work for Western curators? Can work be left to merely exist or will political views and/or ingrained stereotypes and preconceptions always play a part of the analysis of any given piece? I was a little disappointed by the lack of African presence at Unseen with only one gallery, Stevenson Gallery of South Africa, having a stand at the photo fair. Caline Chagoury, executive director of Lagos Photo Festival and Echo Art, Lagos, was scheduled to take part in the Globalising the World lecture but unfortunately was not present on the day. Events such as Dak’Art, Lagos Photo Festival and Addis Foto Fest celebrate the sheer wealth of talent and diversity in African photography and it would have been great for some of the emerging ‘unseen’ artists to be given more of a platform at Unseen.
For a fair to be truly international, I believe it has to encompass talent from all over the globe and attempt to avoid the Western bias that can dominate such events. The 2011 edition of Paris Photo celebrated African photography with many stands and exhibitions devoted solely to its history and the current wave of practicing artists working today. However, I do not believe that is a long-term solution to the issue – African artists should be given equal importance to artists from other continents every year rather than one-off, almost ‘guest’ appearances. As Unseen Photo Fair develops over the next few years, its roster of galleries and artists also has the potential to grow, hopefully providing us with a more of a truly globalised look at photography.