FORMAT: Photography in an Age of Change

FORMAT festival at QUAD, Derby UK [photo: © Graham Lucas Commons]

Art can only be truly universal when it is fundamentally local

Joan Miro


As the Spanish painter Joan Miro suggests, to speak widely one must first know where one stands. This is an important point, because in our current age of mass communication on a global scale, it can be easy to forget where we are and, if one does that, there is a danger we also forget who we are. Our sense of self and sense of place are closely bound together. To have a voice, one must first know who one is.

The challenge of how one retains a sense of place while engaging the leading edge of technological possibility is at the heart of FORMAT International Photography Festival. Based in the county city of Derby in the centre of England, this festival is making some of the most innovative presentations of mass collective art and curation anywhere in the world, and yet it also retains a strong sense of the history and character of the city it calls home.

The festival embraces more than thirty of Derby’s most beautiful buildings and key landmarks to present the work of some 350 photographic artists and seventy interactive projects, live events, screenings, residencies, publications, commissions and educational programs for over 100,000 visitors. The program is divided into four main sections: an open international submission process called EXPOSURE; a program of curated and invited exhibitions called FOCUS; an educational and professional networking program called DEVELOPMENT; and a program of mass-participation and community-engagement initiatives called FLASH. It is the experimental projects and events that make up this last section that most distinctively characterise FORMAT, ensuring it stands out from the crowd of European festivals.

When he spoke at FORMAT festival in 2013, the celebrated American photographer Joel Meyerowitz noted that FORMAT intuitively understands the importance of the ordinary lives of people who live in specific places yet converse on a global scale, adding their voices to the current “literature of photography”. As he said during his presentation in Derby, the rise of festivals such as FORMAT “comes as an answer to the need to communicate across cultures and distance, and the desire to show what ordinary life offers if we open ourselves to looking at the humour, tragedy, joy, effort, grace, disaster, eloquence, harmony, and the rest of the full range of what life provides for us every day.”

To learn more about the way in which FORMAT explores the universal within the local, the innovative within the traditional, I spoke with the festival’s co-founder and director, Louise Fedotov-Clements.

Alasdair Foster

© Patrick Willocq ‘I am Walé, Respect Me’ from the series ‘Congo’ [Walé is a first-time mother]


Alasdair: How did the festival begin?

Louise: When I started working as a curator at QUAD [a centre of contemporary art and film] I began looking into the cultural history of the city. I discovered it had rich photographic past. Derby used to have a photography festival which ended in 1997, the University of Derby is well known for its photography degree and the city is home to one of the oldest family-run photo studios in the world, W. W. Winters. So, there were a lot of photographic histories to build on. Then, in 2004, I met Mike Brown from Derby City Council and a well-known writer and curator called Mark Durden, and we three worked together to create the first edition of the FORMAT festival.

Has the city’s history played a significant role in the contemporary work shown at the festival?

One highlight was Debbie Adele Cooper’s exhibition called ‘If on a Winter’s Night’. During the Second World War, a shortage of glass led the Winters studio to give away old glass-plate negatives to build greenhouses. As part of her project, the artist developed the romantic idea that somewhere in Derby there remains a greenhouse made of photographic glass negatives. This inspired a citywide search that resulted in the artist building her own photo-negative glasshouse, which was erected in the FORMAT 2015 exhibition at Saint Werburgh’s church.

© Debbie Adele Cooper ‘If on a Winter’s Night’ installed in Saint Werburgh’s Church, Derby for FORMAT 2015

What is it that festivals can do that museums and galleries are not already doing?

Festivals should be a physical interruption to the everyday. They become a collective experience of aggregated memory, creating a sense of locality for people to explore a place as well as the medium. But festivals are also places to explore new initiatives. These are often artist-led, tapping into the zeitgeist and looking to the future. FORMAT is a transdisciplinary festival.

Can you explain what you mean by ‘transdisciplinary’?

‘Interdisciplinary’ describes a relationship between two or more forms of practice working together while each remaining clearly defined in themselves. ‘Transdisciplinary’ is a way of working through which new forms of practice emerge. Through FORMAT, I am interested in facilitating practices that develop this way of working: to test the boundaries and go beyond the established definitions of the still image.

Can you give an example of these new forms of practice?

Since its inception the festival has run a program called MobFORMAT, which encourages mass participation via the internet and mobile-phone. We invite people all over the world to send us their images in response to themes drawing on the particular festival focus that year.

In 2013, we collaborated with Oliver Lang and Misho Baranovic (from Australia), and Kapil Das (who is based in India with the artists’ collective BlindBoys) to create the world’s first ‘mobile-photo printing press’. The press printed out the thousands of photos being shared each day on the EyeEm social media site. As soon as a photo was uploaded to that site, the press printed it on adhesive paper, a guillotine cut it in shape, and it was added to a huge pool of over 7,000 photos. Visitors were then invited to curate the images, placing them anywhere they wished within the extensive exhibition space.

It was the largest interactive exhibition of mobile-photography the world had ever seen. A collective expression of the power and beauty of photography that grew from the passion of the EyeEm community to be channelled through real prints into the hands of festival visitors. ‘MobFORMAT: The Press’ belonged to everyone who submitted, printed and curated the photographs.

Image: ‘The Mobile-Photo Printing Press’ installed at FORMAT 2013 [photo: Misho Baranovic]

Have you undertaken other mass participation projects?

In the 2015 festival we invited the artist Tom Stayte to present his ‘Selfie Printer’, which used specially designed software linked to the Instagram RSS feed to analyse every image uploaded with the tag ‘#selfie’. The software then scanned these images using an open-source facial-recognition program, selecting all the portraits with the familiar head-and-shoulder shot taken at arm’s length. Those images were then printed and allowed to fall to the floor to accumulate over the four weeks of the exhibition.

[Left] Tom Stayte’s ‘The Selfie Printer’ installed during FORMAT 2015 [photo: © FORMAT festival]

[Upper Right] Images build up around Tom Stayte’s ‘The Selfie Printer’ [photo: © Charlotte Jopling]

[Lower Right] Among a myriad of selfies… Tom Stayte’s ‘The Selfie Printer’ [photo: © Tom Stayte]

What message do you think one can take from an installation like this?

The process of creating and disseminating imagery has fundamentally changed in the context of digital photography, smartphones and network communication. Through physical transformation and defamiliarisation of this seemingly harmless content, the artist seeks to highlight our readiness to trust the unknown, revealing how we unwittingly participate in mass self-surveillance while apparently expressing our freedom as individuals.

Have you used these new technologies in other ways?

Last year we created a mobile-phone app that turned the whole festival into a detective game. It was great to see young people and families engaging with the festival in a new way and searching out exhibitions that they may not otherwise have seen.

Public workshop with ‘Detect’, a game app at FORMAT 2015 [photo: © Nathan Hall]

How did this app work?

Playing with the festival theme of ‘evidence’, visitors were invited to become detectives in a game that blended reality with online fiction. We worked with the gaming research department at the University of Nottingham and the Participation Team at QUAD to create a story in which a character called Mary Arty had been stealing photographs. Participants were challenged to solve the crime.

It was a cross between geocaching and a treasure hunt, involving secret codes and clues hidden within the venues, exhibition texts and the photographs on display. The game encouraged the user to interact and explore the festival in depth. People had to look at and learn about the artworks they encountered in order to uncover the plot to steal the photographs. It was great fun!

One of the underlying functions was to map the path of the festival visitor. Through data produced by the app we were able to see which venues people visited. Meanwhile, we located key clues for the game in some of the venues that were harder to reach and, in this way, encouraged people to make the effort to visit.

[Right] © Lukas Einsele from the series ‘The Many Moments of an M85 – Zenon’s Arrow Retraced’;

[Left] Lukas Einsele’s work in the ‘Beyond Evidence’ exhibition at QUAD Gallery during FORMAT 2015 [photo: © FORMAT festival]

One of the things I particular appreciate about FORMAT is the way it encourages visitors to be active creators. However, there are those that would argue that such mass involvement must inevitably reduce the quality of what is produced. How would you answer that criticism?

The field of photography is developing fast. It is more important than ever to try to understand the role of photography as an agent for social reflection and expression. The democracy of production coupled with the amount of material on the web and the increased familiarity in the reading, consumption and production of photography has enabled our societies, both as constituent individuals and collectively, to represent and express ourselves in unprecedented ways.

At FORMAT, we feel that it is important to support anyone who is interested in photography to develop their skills and to be more conscious of, or thoughtful about, how and what they photograph. Our education and engagement program is not an add-on; it is fully integrated within our curatorial approach. We care very much about raising aspirations, developing visual literacy and acknowledge that everyone has to start from somewhere. If we can provide individuals with inspirational and high quality development opportunities then we are contributing to the ecology of the field and supporting important voices that will lead the progress of photography into the future.

Interestingly, not all of your projects exploring new technologies have themselves been high-tech…

In 2013, I commissioned a collective called ‘The Human Printer’ to be our artists in residence. The artists create images using the same dot matrix format and CMYK colours as a mechanical printer; starting with a digital image and breaking down the colours, they produce the image by hand, making each dot manually.

[Upper] The Human Printer live performance and installation at FORMAT 2013 [photos: © The Human Printer]

[Lower] details from images made by The Human Printer: [Left] ‘Pigeon’ [Right] ‘Beach’

During the four-day-long opening weekend of the festival, The Human Printer presented a performance in which they collaborated with students from the University of Derby to produce a set of prints. These unique, handcrafted prints were then exhibited for the remainder of the festival.

You spoke earlier about the importance of creating a sense of locality for people to explore. Is it important to you that the festival in understood within the specific context of the city of Derby?

The sense of identity and ownership that a festival can bring to a city is exciting. It’s very easy to parachute things in and speak to a specialist art-world group. But I really like it when I go to other festivals and sense what is special about the place. Whether it’s the landscape, language, history or program focus.

We like to curate all the details and work a lot with local producers. For example Derby has, according to the ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook, the most microbreweries for beer in one city anywhere in the world. We also have a local pancake called a ‘pyclet’ which is cooked fresh every day [see right, photo: © David Edge]. It is important that visitors can enjoy the sights, tastes and histories of Derby alongside our international festival program.

How might an overseas photographer become involved in the festival?

There are several ways to participate: apply to our themed open call; contribute to one of our mass participation projects; or send a proposal for a workshop or talk or exhibition that relates to the festival theme. I review portfolios all over the world and am interested in finding new works that fit with our programs. I don’t have time to respond to lots of emails, but I do look at work sent to me. I would say that it is very important for a photographer to have a website because a lot of work we find is encountered online.

The best way to take part in FORMAT and our year-round opportunities is to sign up for the festival newsletter [follow link and scroll to foot of the page]. The next open call for proposals for exhibitions to feature in the main festival will be announced on our website.

[Left] © David Welch ‘Shopping Totem’ 2011; [Upper Right] © Matt Henry from the series ‘The King’; [Lower Right] © Paul Wenham Clarke from the series ‘Bodyworks’ 2013

Have you shown the work of Chinese photographers before?

Yes, every year we present the work of Chinese photographers and curators. For example, Muge and Zhang Xiao are two photographers who have had an ongoing relationship with the festival. They first visited FORMAT in 2009 to present their works at our international portfolio review and have since returned to present their exhibitions.

[Upper Left] © Thomas Sauvin from the series ‘Beijing Silvermine’ 2013 (Sauvin salvaged over half a million anonymous colour negatives destined for destruction in a Beijing recycling zone); [Upper Centre] © Muge from the series ‘Going Home’; [Upper Right] © Pixy Yijun Liao ‘Home-made Sushi’ from the series ‘Experimental Relationships’ 2013; [Lower] © Zhang Xiao from the series ‘Coastline’

For the 2015 edition, we invited the Chinese curator Yining He to curate a selection of the most exciting Chinese photobooks. Despite their considerable quality, contemporary Chinese photobooks have not yet been generally discussed in the West – especially not from an academic perspective. The exhibition made evident the vast potential in mainland China. Highlights included Zhang Kechun’s ‘The Yellow River’, independently published by Jiazazhi Press, which was singled out for a special mention in the 2014 selection of Photo-Eye Best Books.

Yining He’s exhibition of Chinese photo-books at FORMAT 2015 [photo: © Amy Showler Yining]

You have spoken a lot about the current ubiquity and accessibility of photography. What do you think are some of the key issues arising from this?

Despite the world being at our fingertips, it is a daunting task to know how to make a living as a photographer. To help support photographers develop sustainable careers we offer networking and professional practice meeting places such as workshops and the annual festival portfolio review – the largest in the United Kingdom – where editors, publishers, art directors and curators meet practitioners.

Something that also concerns us at FORMAT is the need to improve visual literacy, research and long-form project development. These things take time, practice and commitment over many years. Yet we are flooded with distractions: sensationalism, fleeting engagements that touch only the surface of things… We are in the midst of an age of change. And while I remain hopeful about the future, it is crucial that we remain engaged with our changing circumstances in order to offer relevant and essential platforms for real progress.

How do you balance the necessity of planning with the need to remain open to change?

I think a festival is a place to take risks; a place that can actively engage many different people in a rich exploration of ideas. The challenge for me is that, while it takes three years to prepare an edition of the festival, there must be space for the spontaneity that brings the vitality and freshness of the unexpected. This demands courage from the curator and trust in the artists, but it offers photographers an energetic environment in which to test what they’re doing to a big audience, in real time.

© Andrea Botto ‘#17, Rapallo’ 2009 from the series ‘KA-BOOM: the explosion of landscape’

Biographical Notes

Louise Fedotov-Clements has been the Artistic Director of QUAD, a centre for contemporary art, film and new technologies in Derby UK since 2001, and the Director of FORMAT International Photography Festival, which she co-founded in 2004. As an independent curator she has initiated commissions, publications, mass participation, and exhibitions of art, film, and photography. She is also a regular juror, portfolio reviewer, workshop leader, speaker, and award nominator throughout Europe, America and Asia. She has served as a curator for a number of leading international photography festivals, including BlowUp, Delhi (India); Dong Gang Photography Festival (South Korea); Dali Photography Festival (China); Noorderlicht 20/20, Groningen (The Netherlands); Photoquai Biennale, Paris (France) and Photo Beijing (China).

Established in 2004, FORMAT International Photography Festival is a biennial festival of photography held in the city of Derby, England.

COVID-19 Update

FORMAT International Photography Festival has joined forces with Ballarat International Foto Biennale in Australia and the Gallery of Photography Ireland to gather a visual record of the COVID-19 crisis on Instagram. Photographers are invited to participate by tagging their images of this extraordinary moment in history using #massisolation #massisolationAUS #massisolationFORMAT or send submissions to @massisolation @massisolationaus @mass_isolation_IRL

This article was first published in Chinese, in the April 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.

An image from FORMAT International Photography Festival featured on the cover of this issue.

Image: © David Welch ‘Shopping Totem’ 2011