Gem Fletcher on Les Rencontres d’Arles

Art Director Gem Fletcher visits the major annual photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles, which this year focuses on the evolving role of photography in tackling the major issues facing humanity

“What is unique about this medium is that it’s a dialogue between the artist and life. The ordinary moments of life,” says English photographer Paul Graham from a small stage in the corner of a disused gothic church in the centre of Arles. “Life doesn’t come at you in a perfect sequence; we experience things from unusual angles and points of view,” he adds. It’s fitting that these are the first words I hear at the 49th Arles photography festival.

The Whiteness of the Whale brings together three bodies of work produced by Graham in the US between 1998-2011. Linked by their common subject matter, underlying issues including race, social inequality and the texture of everyday life, he questions the nature of sight, perception and photography itself. Most resonant is American Night, where the photographer chronicles his first impression of the US.

Through the combination of nearly invisible, overexposed images of the ignored and dispossessed and full-colour photographs of middle-class homes in California, Graham is questioning how we edit out life, the things we don’t want to see. The contrast between abundance and invisibility, between full colour and an almost blank frame, is disarming. The exhibition astutely recognises how photography can mimic a state of mind in the world.

Graham’s work sits under the broader heading of ‘America Great Again!’, an examination of America through foreigners eyes which includes iconic work by Robert Frank, Raymond Depardon and the lesser known Laura Henno. Henno’s practise is concerned with the exploration of fallen humanity, a theme that continues in her latest project Redemption. Living in a caravan in the California desert for two months, she immersed herself in Slab City, an emblem of America reduced to a base camp of outsiders.

The area is decommissioned and uncontrolled, with no conventional electricity, running water, sewers, toilets or refuse service. Here the pioneer life is a dream turned nightmare. Henno met, observed and exchanged with people intending to dismantle stereotypes and capture the characters within the community. Her photographs use the warm California light to reveal a population of scarred and gentle beings, living in a cycle of quiet desperation. Both Henno and Graham are focused on the pressing needs of humanity, using their work to bring visibility to the frequently neglected and profoundly invisible.

The World As It Is, an exploration of contemporary geopolitics, was a pertinent theme of the entire festival. Away from click bait and fake news, the festival provided a framework to explore the disparity between what we consume in the media and the real impact these issues have on humanity. The exhibition A Pillar of Smoke examined the role the visual arts play in a country where freedom of expression is muzzled. Since the failed 2016 coup, censorship has taken hold of Turkey. The exhibition features work by over 16 artists, documenting a multi-faceted nation rife with contradictions.

Similarly, the Discovery Award winner Wiktoria Wojciechowski created a multidimensional portrait of a forgotten but still raging European conflict, the war in Ukraine. The title Sparks refers to the incandescent shrapnel that pierces the walls of houses. Civilians call them sparks, an emblem of death and fear. The artist went in search of combatants and victims to recount the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people. Dark, confronting portraits of troubled young soldiers sit alongside video interviews, collages and text offering a multifaceted perspective of the war.

Sinem Dişli, Sand in a Whirlwind 2015 from A Pillar of Smoke
Wiktoria Wokciechowska, The squad of nine killed and eight wounded, from the series of Golden Collages – Sparks, collage on picture from a soldier’s mobile phone

In a recent interview with Diane Smyth in the British Journal of Photography, Wojciechowski shared: “These guys are people like my friends, some of them were DJs, then suddenly they were going to the front line, and afterwards they were not the same,” she continues. “In the younger people especially it was evident on their faces that something had changed in them.” The moving video portraits reveal the challenging situations the soldiers were utterly unprepared for, confronting the fragility of their condition as human beings while staring mortal danger in the face. The work emphasises photography’s critical role in the unfolding of our lives, allowing us to see beyond our differences and aid a deeper consciousness and sense of humanity.

The festival continued to reveal, expose and unmask the truth with Gregor Sailer’s The Potemkin Village. Legend has it that when Catherine the Great visited Crimea in 1887, her minster Potemkin had luxurious cardboard façades built along the way to hide the Russian poverty. Sailer takes this theme and examines its modern variants in the northern hemisphere.

These architectural landscapes shot across seven countries and three continents capture certain truths about those ruling our societies. The purpose of these illusions is wide-ranging, from a Scandinavian city built for road safety training to 12 Middle Eastern-looking villages constructed as military training sites in the Mojave desert. In China, whole lived neighbourhoods are replicas of European cities pretending to be something they are not, as Western architecture is considered status-enhancing. While in Russia giant screen prints are hung on the streets of Suzdal in preparation for a visit from President Putin. Disturbing and genuinely fascinating, The Potemkin Village is a highlight of the festival.

Gregor Sailer, Carson City VI / Vårgårda, Sweden, 2016
Christoph Draeger & Heidrun Holzfeind, The Auroville Project

In sharp contrast to the exploration of our diverse political landscape, several artists navigated personal introspection and the extremes of spirituality. Anyone who loved the Netflix series Wild, Wild Country will enjoy The Auroville Project, an ambitious, international community founded in 1968 in south India by French philosopher Mia Alfassa (AKA The Mother). An experiment in both self-knowledge and collective living, the project aims to create a space where all nationalities would live together in peace.

Today about 2,500 people live there all abiding by the utopian ideals of the community – no private property, no money, no rules and no religion. They focus on their relationship with nature, sustainability spirituality and the political ideals of self-development and collectivism. In this immersive installation comprising of videos, photos, sculpture, archival material and artefacts, the artists Christoph Draeger and Heidrun Holzfeind create a scrapbook-like presentation of their initial findings and observations. The project captures our innate human desire to connect with each other in more meaningful ways.

Likewise, Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais take the viewer on a journey to the deep roots of African spirituality through four shores: Benin, Cuba, Brazil and Haiti. Midnight at the Crossroads transports us into the universe of Èsù. Acting as a sole messenger between gods and humans, Èsù is a dynamic force that rules all movement in life. The project charts a journey of transformation; evocative images of mysterious rituals, sites and practitioners push the imagination and enlighten the soul. “My work is a discourse, not a description. I’m interested in inciting people’s curiosities. Reflecting the issues of the world the things people want to talk about,” shared de Middel in her tour of the exhibition.

Cristina de Middel & Bruno Morais, Untitled from the Midnight at the Crossroads
Jonas Bendiksen, Moses Hlongwane, otherwise known simply as Jesus, giving a sermon during his wedding to Angel, one of his disciples. In Moses’ theology, his wedding day was the start of the End of Days. South Africa, 2016

Jonas Bendiksen’s The Last Testament is a body of work that plays to the whole gamut of human emotions, from sheer disbelief to laugh out loud funny. The project chronicles seven men who claim to be the second coming of Jesus. Some are powerful, with thousands of devoted followers, while others are true underdogs, with just a handful of disciples. All united in the faith that they are the chosen one and have come to save the world. Bendiksen photographed the ‘messiahs’ as well as their disciples’ daily life and rituals.

Through photography, scripture and found materials, he explores who these individuals are and what people yearn for them to be in the flesh. At the apex of religion and faith, the work illuminates a world in need of salvation, the desperate yearning for a new prophet. Not to be missed is the accompanying book, published by Gost, a tribute and celebration of religious iconography and design, which perfectly encapsulates this apocalyptic journalism.

From faith to the quest for love and companionship, The Bliss of Conformity by Yingguang Guo is a moving portrayal of arranged marriages in China. Based on personal experience and the observation of her contemporaries, Guo mixes documentary photography, video and installation to show a tradition still going strong, despite the pain and frustration emanating from young women.

Yingguang Guo, Untitled, from The Bliss of Conformity series

In sharp contrast, Chandon Gomes presents a dark and poignant search for romantic love in the digital age. People You May Know is an unconventional exchange between two strangers (Gomes and Tara) who found themselves online. The work reflects how people interact and influence one another in the age of social media. The installation is a bricolage of screenshots, selfies, Facebook messages, photographs, updates and references which track the evolution of their relationship. Moments of irreverence sit next to deeply personal emotional exchanges. The work tackles dated clichés about online dating and reveals a multifaceted modern romance through a mass of digital ephemera.

Together this constellation of exhibitions and ideas puts the human experience in the spotlight. The programme is a catalyst for a conversation examining the elements of contemporary life that both divide and unite us, and the paradoxes found in our ideas about power and security, comfort and intimacy. The festival’s fundamental failing is the apparent lack of women artists and curators, an inexcusable action when addressing the big questions facing society today. A poignant reminder to us all to remain alert, engaged and to speak up.

Chandan Gomes, Untitled

Les Rencontres d’Arles will be on view till September 23,, @gemfletcher


Milton Keynes