We want the festival to be a really federal event that reaches every corner of the country where there is an interest in photography.
Photography is the medium of our age. More people are engaged in making photographs than any other visual form. Photographic images surround us every day. New festivals of photography begin every year. They help us come to understand the medium in a deeper way, while sharing the best it has to offer from around the world. But the challenge of any festival is that it is located in one place. It deals with a medium that is everywhere, but a festival, it seems, must always be somewhere.
In Argentina, one of the world’s longest continuously running photographic festivals has expanded the concept to engage not just one city but a whole country. The festival is manifest in a network of exhibitions and events in many parts of the vast nation in the southern cone of Latin America. From the high dry plateaux of Jujuy in the north to the sub-polar chill of Tierra del Fuego in the Southern Ocean, the exhibitions span more than 3,300 kilometres.
Argentina is a country with a rich culture and a turbulent past. The festival began at an historic moment for photography that was also a period of hyperinflation and economic stress in Argentina. Since its inception in 1989, the festival has been driven by two women: Elda Harrington, the festival’s Director, and Silvia Mangialardi, the Artistic Director. It is their passion and energy – combined with the capacity to think strategically and adapt the festival with the ever-changing political, cultural and economic landscape – that has ensured its continued flourishing.
Today, the event is known by two different names: the Festival de la Luz [Festival of Light] and the Encuentros Abiertos [Open Meetings]. These two descriptions capture the essence of this remarkable project. On the one hand, it is a celebration of photography understood as the art of light and a means of discovery, of enlightenment. On the other hand, it is a meeting of people, of cultures, of the many photographic expressions of the human imagination brought forth in an open and egalitarian environment.
Alasdair: When and how did the festival begin?
Elda: It began in August 1989 to mark the 150th anniversary of the presentation of the new photographic medium by Louis Daguerre to the Academy of Sciences in Paris. We wanted to celebrate this event with non-competitive activities that would gather together all people who shared a passion for photography.
Silvia: We had planned it as a one-off event, but everybody was so enthusiastic about it that from then on we never stopped. We staged the festival annually until 1998 and then we changed to a biennial cycle, because the event had grown so big.
Elda: What began as a meeting between friends in Buenos Aires in time became an event that attracts many people from all over the world and spans the whole country.
When did that nation-wide approach begin and why?
Silvia: It started in 1998, because photographers from different areas of Argentina wanted also to have the festival in their cities. They engage their local cultural authorities to make it possible and then we work together.
Elda: We want the festival to be a really federal event that reaches every corner of the country where there is an interest in photography
How do you bring a sense of coherence to a festival that is so widespread?
Silvia: Each festival is presented under a unifying theme. This year  the theme is ‘Traces of Unreality’. Previous themes have included ‘Migrations’, ‘Passion’ and many other ideas. What is exciting is that each of the many artists reveals an aspect of the theme that we had never thought of before, enhancing the understanding of art and of the world.
[Upper Left] © Mauricio Toro Goya ‘Pichinga – The Holy Family’ 2013; [Lower Left] © Roger Ballen ‘Headless’ 2006; [Right] © Cristian Kirby ‘Castro López Bernardo’ 2014
I imagine that tastes and mores are different across the country, which will affect how an artist’s work is received by the local audience.
Elda: Of course, there are certain provinces where the social context does not permit the presentation of imagery addressing issues related to sex, politics, religion, violence. We simply decide to show exhibitions dealing with those themes in more open-minded communities.
Why does the event have two names: it is called the ‘Festival de la Luz’, but also the ‘Encuentros Abiertos’?
Elda: In 1998 an international collaboration began between a number of photography festivals around the world to welcome the year 2000 with the name of Festival of Light
All the festivals decided to add ‘Festival of Light’ to their own names. Ours was Encuentros Abiertos and so became Encuentros Abiertos–Festival de la Luz for 2000. In Buenos Aires, the name Encuentros Abiertos–Festival de la Luz for our own event was very popular with a wide audience and so we decided to keep on using it.
Argentina has changed a lot and had many challenges to face over the past three decades. How has the festival adapted to changing circumstances?
Silvia: The festival has always been undertaken with passion and with the simple interest of sharing images and ideas with others. So, over the years, we have done the best we could with what was possible at the time. Sometimes circumstances meant that we had to change our plans and adapt to a new reality, but we were willing to do what it took to keep the festival going.
Elda: Some years were very difficult. The festival which came immediately after the 2001 crisis [a period of national economic collapse] was only possible because of the solidarity and understanding of the photographic and cultural communities who helped in every possible way to ensure that the festival could take place.
© Brassaï ‘Couple au Bal Musette des Quatre Saisons’ [couple at the Four Seasons dance hall] 1932; © Josef Koudelka ‘Student standing on a tank as Warsaw Pact forces invade Prague, August 1968’ [Courtesy of Magnum Photos]
How was this achieved?
Elda: During the worst crisis in Argentina, the cultural agencies of countries such as France, Spain, Germany, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and others helped us to stage exhibitions which we could otherwise not afford. With the support of the embassies and the artists themselves, we were able to present the work of some of the great European photographic artists such as Brassaï, André Kertész, Josef Koudelka, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Chema Madoz, Rafael Navarro, August Sander, Josef Sudek…
[Left] © Cayetano Arcidiacono ‘Nature’; [Centre] © Sara Facio ‘Julio Cortázar’ 1967; [Right] © Adriana Lestido ‘Salsa’ 1992
Silvia: …as well as those from throughout Latin America: Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduño, Mario Cravo Neto, Miguel Rio Branco, Miguel Ángel Rojas, Oscar Muñoz, Humberto Rivas… And we also received the support of many important Argentinian photographers. People like Sara Facio, Marcos Lopez, Adriana Lestido, Marcos Zimmermann and Cayetano Arcidiacono.
How do you imagine the festival in five years’ time?
Elda: I cannot begin to imagine what will happen five years from now! So many things can happen in just a few years, as we have found out in the past.
Silvia: We will just keep trying to respond to the changing reality and the circumstances that it brings, while always being faithful to what the photographers honestly have to say.
What kind of venues do you use to present photography and stage events?
Elda: The festival presents exhibitions in the most important national, provincial and city museums as well as in the galleries and cultural centres of small towns and local neighbourhoods. Everybody can be part of the festival if they have a real interest in photography; it is a truly public experience.
Can you explain what you mean by a ‘public experience’?
Elda: We also try to take photography out of the usual venues so that it can be appreciated by the whole community… Out of the gallery and museum onto the streets and into the squares, the schools and so on… In this way, everyone – from a museum visitor to a child playing football in the town square – will have the opportunity to learn how to read an image and to understand that photography speaks … and, just as with words, you can use it to tell a truth or a lie; that will depend on the author of the image.
Silvia: Each venue, each location we present photographs, has a different public. That variety ensures we engage with a large and diverse audience. While it takes more effort to work in this way, that is not really a big problem. That effort is more than justified by the way the festival can reach so many people who deserve to see these photographs.
How can a photographer become involved in the festival?
Silvia: In the year that falls between the biennial cycle of festivals, we make an open call to photographers all over the world through our website. For the current festival we received more than 580 proposals from almost 30 countries.
We also invite photographers when we attend portfolio reviewing sessions at festivals such as Houston Fotofest (USA), PhotoVisa (Russia), Lianzhou and Dali (China); Ballarat International Foto Biennale (Australia); Odense Foto Triennale (Denmark), SI Fest (Italy); Mois de la Photo Paris (France), Fotoseptiembre (Mexico), FotoRio (Brazil), Fotográfica Bogotá (Colombia) and many others.
Elda: And some photographers come to work with us as volunteers, which is a terrific experience because while they are helping they are able to network with a lot of people and learn much.
Is the festival open to showing the work of Chinese photographers?
Elda: Of Course!!
I was invited to Lianzhou Photo and to Dali International Photography Exhibition in Yunnan where I was able to get to know many Chinese artists.
In 2014, we presented the work of Chun Wei and Liu Xiaofang, and in 2016 we will exhibit the work of seven young Chinese photographers: Raymond Ho, Leung Yu Chung, Ng Hon Hei, Lau Chi Chung, Yeung Tak Ming, Lau Wai and Ng Kai Ho. We hope that this exchange will keep growing with each edition of the festival.
Who selects the work for inclusion in the festival?
Silvia: Both of us. And each year we invite an artist or curator to work with us on this selection. This year we selected the works together with the Mexican photographer Jan Smith and for the 2014 edition we worked with the Argentinian photographers Marcos Zimmermann and Ataulfo Perez Aznar.
Who pays what if a photographer is selected?
Elda: If the photographers live in Argentina they must bring the work ready to hang. If they are from abroad, they can either send prints or provide high-resolution files from which we make the exhibition prints here in Buenos Aires. The festival then matt and frame the prints. But it all depends on the type of work.
The festival takes care of everything else: arranging the venue, hanging the work, the opening event, press and media liaison, inclusion in the official festival catalogue, promotion in the festival brochure and on the web. All the things necessary for a successful exhibition.
Unfortunately, we cannot afford to invite every artist, but we can help with an official letter to assist them in applying for a grant or approaching their embassy for travel support.
Does the festival show emerging or established artists?
Silvia: We always bring in some well-known artists, but we are very interested in the festival being a launch pad for emerging artists and even for those who are, as yet, completely unknown. We have discovered many new photographers internationally and we are very proud of that achievement. It means the festival is useful for the artists
You have run this festival for over a quarter of a century. What changes have had most impact on your festival?
Elda: When we started the festival almost three decades ago, the internet was not a public facility and digital photography did not even exist.
Back then, it was very difficult to get to know artists from far-away countries and even more complicated to communicate with them. We had to do it by letter or by telephone. Everything was slow … When we made the open call for exhibition proposals, we received the images through the mail. Nowadays, proposals arrive via the internet from all over the world and the only limit is the quality of the work itself.
Silvia: So many things have changed – it is a different world now. Once you had to be in the lecture hall to hear a speaker, now you can listen online. Today, many of the exhibitions we present across the country are in the form of projections rather than physical prints which, in the past, would have had to travel thousands of miles before they could be seen… with all the difficulties that this implies.
Artists work differently now, they engage with different themes. Audiences have also changed; their attention span is different. The fact is the way we all communicate has changed. So we try to evolve with the changes in the medium and the needs of the artistic community.
Which festival theme have you most enjoyed over the past 27 years?
Elda: My favourite theme was ‘Migrations’ in 2010, because Argentina is a place to which many people have migrated ever since the Nineteenth Century. That is why we chose this subject to coincide with the 200th anniversary of our first independent government.
Silvia: Mine was ‘Passion’ in 2012, because I believe that passion marks us out more than our will.
And a favourite exhibition?
Silvia: My favourite show was by the Spanish photographer Manuel Ferrol, because he focused not only on the misfortunes that can befall migrants, but also on those who are left behind, and that is something we don’t usually think about.
Elda: My favourite exhibition was by Myoung Ho Lee from South Korea. I appreciated it for its simplicity and because he invites us to contemplate and to meditate upon nature.
[Left] © Manuel Ferrol ‘Father and Son’ 1957 [This father and son are watching their relatives leave to migrate]; [Right] © Myoung Ho Lee ‘Tree No. 6’ 2008
What have you learned from photography over the years?
Elda: We have seen so many works; they have shown us things that, in other circumstances, we would almost certainly never have come to know.
Silvia: Stories we did not know, alternative ways of looking at things, different realities … you get to learn about the world and about life through another’s eyes.
If you had to describe the festival in a single word, what would it be?
Elda Harrington (left) and Silvia Mangialardi [photo: © Graciela Cruz]
Elda Harrington was born and raised in Buenos Aires. She is a lawyer and former educator at the University of Buenos Aires who has been involved in the world of photography since 1984. She is a photographer, curator, art dealer, teacher and cultural manager. In 1987, she founded the Argentinean School of Photography in Buenos Aires, with branches in the Argentinean cities of Cordoba, Mendoza, Salta, Ushuaia and in Pilar County. In 1999, she initiated the Fundación Luz Austral, to promote photography by curating national and international exhibitions, publishing books and catalogues and organising portfolio reviews. In 2000, she undertook a consultancy for the Secretary of Culture in Buenos Aires and, in 2001, for the Argentinean Foreign Office Department of Culture. Elda Harrington founded the festival in 1989 and was its director for thirty years. She continues to direct the activities of the Encuentros Abiertos in its new, evolved range of activities.
Silvia Mangialardi is a curator, lecturer, writer, editor and journalist. She was the founder and director of the publishing house Ediciones Fotográficas Argentina and, from 1984 to 2012, she was the director of the Argentinean photo magazine ‘Fotomundo’. She has curated both national and international exhibitions and authored the book ‘Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar: Mar del Plata infierno o paraíso?’ (2010), which received the award for the best photobook in Latin America. She has coordinated various cultural events and has served on the jury of important national and international competitions. She has been in charge of the artistic direction of the Encuentros Abiertos since 2010.
Established in 1989, Encuentros Abiertos / Festival de la Luz was a biennial festival of photography centred on Buenos Aires with manifestations in many other parts of Argentina. In 2019, the format of the Encuentros Abiertos evolved to run a year-round program of exhibitions at home and abroad, portfolio reviews, conferences, screenings, round tables, open classes, workshops, and educational scholarships.
The program for 2020 will be significantly impacted by the restrictions arising from the coronavirus pandemic. Updates will be posted on the website as and when they are available.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the June 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.