We are all aware of the vast amount of online initiatives that have sprung up over the last few months as a response to the Covid 19 lockdown. Most have focused on conversations with photographers, some have welcomed us into photographers homes and to their bookshelves, others have raised funds for charities through print sales. The majority have been free to attend and required no form of registration, others have required participants to register developing databases for the organisers.
What has been most interesting to me is how many established institutions, associations and collectives that are arts council funded or commercially funded that had been previously unwilling to offer anything for free, that have finally realised they have no choice. If they wanted to retain some form of communication with the community they need to speak with and sell to, they quickly released that they had to start adopting practices that the independent unfunded community have been using for years.
Time will only tell if they will see these initiatives as temporary measures, or a new foundation for a new way of connecting with the photo community they need the support of to survive.
Workshops have moved online but their fees have not been adapted appropriately – 21 days of online learning for £3,300 anyone? – with such avarice striking a discordant note in such precarious economic times. The idea of such a financial burden being placed on a young or less established photographer decries the reality that access to support, advice and information has never been more easy to achieve for free as photographers have opened up their Instagram accounts and YouTube channels to free conversation. The days of the traditional workshop may be numbered.
So where does this leave the photo festival when talks are now online, and conversation and debate is being freely held amongst photographers from the comfort of their own homes. Over the last three months I have attended more talks given by photographers than I have over the last three years. I’ve even hosted an online photo quiz and been part of discussions amongst up to 200 creatives.
Photographers have been offering free portfolio reviews instantly removing the shameful ‘pay to play’ attitude that paid for organised events have been fostering over the past years. Once again some still remain deaf to the changing climate and continue to promote paid for online reviews at $350 per hour. Paid for portfolio reviews have been seen by some festivals as a way to provide funding for their existence. Charging those who need help the most but whom can afford it least to support the decisions, hopes, and dreams of a select few curators and organisers eager to supplement their curriculum vitae through their festival involvement.
The exceptions that prove the rule are noticeable in their sympathetic and collaborative approach to creating a photography festival. Those are the ones that have always provided free advice and welcomed a broad spectrum of speakers, exhibitors and collaborators to their events. But I fear that even they may need to heed some advice.
The growth of online initiatives in 2020 has also seen a much broader spectrum of work being promoted than is often seen at festivals. Over the last few months we have been presented with a veritable pick n’mix of creative approaches, genres, practices and voices. These are available to all, globally, and break the narrow confines of the curated photo festival structure bound by one person or a board’s aesthetic tastes. The work promoted directly through self initiated events over the past months is not restricted by a theme or a geographic location requiring travel, accommodation and the expense that comes with both of these additional costs to attending the festival itself.
What about seeing work? I hear you cry.
Well, we are all aware of the downsides of viewing images in an exhibition through a virtual software package, but I had the chance to visit the Warhol exhibition at The Tate during lockdown thanks to it being filmed and broadcast and I suggest that as visual image makers the idea of a film being made of a shown body of work should not be beyond any of us. It is not the same as the physical presentation but I would argue that it can be better and benefit from the addition of context provided through recorded interviews, soundscapes and interactive functionalities.
An exhibition does not have to consist of a series of prints on a wall.
My suggestion to photo festivals is simple and straight to the point. You need to change. You need to adopt and adapt. Adopt the new practices that take work to people who cannot afford to travel or pay and which provide personal connection to the communities you say you wish to connect with. Adapt your thinking and move away from the way things were to the way things could be. We are tired of seeing the same old names presented in the same old way relying on tired formats and themes.
It is time for the festival to reinvent itself. To lose its geographic city confines, lose its reliance on predictable schedules of engagement, lose its predictable list of exhibitors and move online, not just as a website but as a reflection of where photography is in 2020. Make the photography festival democratic and open and a true reflection of our times.
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, 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 2019.