It Is, Isn’t It, Or is It? Or Why Can’t Themes for Photo Festivals, Conferences and Seminars Make Sense!

IMG_20170623_101728.jpg“Do not call yourself an “artist photographer” and make “artist painters” and “artist sculptors” laugh; call yourself a photographer and wait for artists to call you brother.” Peter Henry EmersonBorn, 1856.

I have noticed over the last few years that photographic events are increasingly being given ‘themes’ that make no logical or grammatical sense based on a desire to answer and question an answer to a question that has little or no relevance to anything. Confused? I’m not surprised, so let me explain. The people who choose these titles want you to be challenged, to question understanding and feel intellectually stimulated. However, too often these themes and titles seem to me to merely exist as convoluted, ‘word-crashes’ that mean nothing.

Let me give you some examples of recent themes/titles  ‘Human Interfaces Borderless (Dis) Connections and Disrupted Futures’, ‘Conceal/Reveal’, The Future(s) of Photography, Translaboration: Unleashing the Conceptual Potential of a New Investigative Category, Creating Interference: making art, developing methods, re-imagining histories/memories. I’m sure that you can add your own to this list.

Now, I am not criticising these events as such but I am questioning the reason for them to be so deliberately titled to not only confuse but to also deter those who may gain most from attending from doing that very thing. In a sense these word-crashes act as a semantic barrier to the very event itself. Maybe those who stage them only want those ‘in the know’ to attend. Perhaps they are not intended to spread knowledge but instead to contain that knowledge within a small and elite circle. I do not know but what I do know is that making an event accessible both mentally and physically are two essential aspects of creating an audience.

But it is not only in the creation of such events – admittedly mainly within or on the edge of an academic/theory approach to the medium – that such limiting factors are applied. The concept of a ‘theme’ being attached to a photographic festival or biennale is also on the rise. Themes more often than not created by permanent or guest curators of such events not photographers.

Again, I have no problem with themes as such but when applied to an event that aims to include differing approaches to the photographic medium and bring that work to as wide a section of audience engagement as possible they can too often become a self-defeating concept just as alienating as the event word-crash titles

Themes demand work to be submitted and shown that fit the theme and therefore the creative/social/economic/political agenda of the curator often result in a loss of quality of work as theme compliant projects are shoe horned into the theme whilst stronger non-theme connected work is dismissed as irrelevant.

This issue is further exasperated by the lack of imagination in developing and attaching these themes. Memory, archive, life and death, conflict, discover/rediscover and measures of uncertainty are constant ‘go-toos’ for many festivals hoping to present themselves as serious contenders in the contemporary art photography scene. And it is this where the issue lies.

These are themes that come from photographic theory. Not new theory but ‘cultural studies’ theory that reared its head in the 70’s and firmly established itself within arts education in the following decades. Theory now is theory based on then and that is a problem. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Titles could be engaging, serious and inclusive just as themes could be inclusive in nature and broad in reality based upon photographic practice that exists outside of the too often seen theory based projects.

The negative aspect of this over reliance on repetitive themes from a narrow view of what makes photography ‘important’ is a tsunami of work created to fit those themes with the hope of being exhibited or asked to speak at an event. The platform affects the work that is being created to appear on the platform. And yet in the broader engagement with photography, this area of work constitutes a very small percentage of both creators and viewer’s.

Of course there are festivals that exist outside the parameters I am questioning and they are to be applauded particularly those that are independently funded and staged. The rise of the gallery filled, international banking funded events I will save for another article at another time!

In the meantime, may I ask if you see a title or theme that you don’t understand or feel that it is conforming to an agenda that you want to question the do! Ask what it means, ask why a them has been adopted and ask again and again if you get ignored or if the answers you get do not answer your questions in an open and honest manner. As creatives it is our duty to question and hold different viewpoints, and seminars and festivals should encourage and welcome such thinking.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography,
a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.

You can follow the progress of his documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay at

You can follow Grant on Twitter and on Instagram @UNofPhoto.

Text © Grant Scott 2017


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