Festivals Don’t Need Themes, They Need Audiences

Why do festivals have themes? Is it to ensure the very best work is shown? Is it to expand the potential audience for photography? Is it to promote understanding of the medium? Or is it to fulfill an agenda or the personal desires of a curator?

That’s a lot of questions to start any article with, but I think that the answers to those questions may be quite simple. I have previously written about the criteria that needs to be met to receive funding from arts based institutions, and the need for specific boxes to be ticked. Those boxes are often created with the best intent, however the impact they can have on the physical reality of a photographic or arts festival can be disproportionate to the nature of the funding.

Festivals are not cheap to stage and they are not easy too curate. The genesis of a festival is also worth considering: rarely are they the dream of just one person (although those that I know of that are seem to me to be the most successful), most often they come from a collection of like-minded and well-intentioned individuals willing to give up much of their spare time to make something happen. Such a collective proposition can provide a challenging process (a situation I have personal experience of, as personal agendas come to the fore and feelings of inequality of input raise temperatures and personality traits), and one filled with compromise.

The solution often considered to resolve issues over what work, and which photographers will be involved in a festival when general consensus cannot be reached is the appointment of a curator.

The idea sounds like a good one in theory. Bringing in an expert in the medium to add their profile and connections would be seen by many trustees and festival boards as a positive, but the reality can be fractious, negative and find the festival’s identity being hijacked. The way in which this happens is most often through the adoption of a festival theme set by a curator based upon their own agenda and personal ambition. Any theme set by a curator or any board by its very nature immediately excludes work and creates a festival that is exclusive rather than inclusive.

Some themes are so broad that they cast a wide net, but others are so narrowly defined that very little work actually conforms to its parameters.

Either way work will be rejected for inclusion based on a set of rules created to lead the work and the viewer into a pre-conceived perspective. The theme will not only define the work shown, but also the audience for that work. It will aim to broaden that audiences understanding of the theme, and educate that audience on different aspects related to that theme. These are honourable aims and if achieved they validate the work shown. However, when the work shown is dependent on the theme to be included and not the strength of work in itself, the curation of such a presentation becomes more about the theme and the people or person who chose that theme, rather than a true representation of the quality of work being created.

Self-funded, agenda based exhibitions and festivals make sense in a free democratic society, but when personal agendas look to arts funding to be supported a sense of a totalitarian photographic state can take hold. One in which only certain photographers and certain work get exhibited because they understand the importance of working within the most popular themes of the time.

I am not saying those themes are not important, they are, but they can also become too dominant in an environment such as photography, where practice is so diverse. Such diversity in my opinion should and must be promoted to broaden the understanding of photography outside of the already engaged audience.

I have previously written about the need for photography festivals and exhibitions to be more fun, and spoken about the need for them to be more inter-active online. Covid has seen many online initiatives adopted by festivals forced to find an online audience but they have too often been limited to formulaic talks and presentations. To encourage people to travel in the new world to a physical festival may well require the festival organisers to be more imaginative in their presentations, more inclusive in the work shown and more innovative in taking that work and the festival experience online. None of which need a theme to restrict its possibilities.

The idea that festivals should be solely funded through paid for portfolio reviews, arts council funding, pay to enter competitions or the photographers taking part betrays the reality that the formulaic approach to photography and art festivals this century is now tired and ripe for change. Photography has never been more relevant or dominant in our lives, so now is the time to embrace that reality and to rethink the methods in which we connect with those who are currently not attending talks, festivals and exhibitions. We do not need more themes we need more imagination. It is time for the gatekeepers to open the doors to a new audience, new ways of interaction and new understanding of what the role of photography is in the 21st Century.

Dr. 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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

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