PhotoVisa: Sharing the Language of Photography

Delegates attending the 2014 PhotoVisa pose in front of work by Valera and Natasha Cherkashin installed on the gable end of one of the factory sheds at the Myskhako Winery, Anapa. [photo © Igor and Olga Ulko]

It is important that photography can speak its own language.


There is an ancient Chinese proverb:

Tell me and I will forget,

Show me and I may remember,

But involve me and I will understand.

It is important when discussing the art of photography to recognise that real enjoyment arises from being within the processes and discourses of art and not outside simply observing or being told what to think. The Chinese proverb captures a profound truth about the human mind and the human spirit: we are participators at heart, not simply spectators.

In Krasnodar, a city in the south-west of Russia close to the eastern shores of the Black Sea, there is a photography festival which is both driven by, and made possible through, this very philosophy. PhotoVisa was initiated by a group of local photographers who took the name Viva Photo. Working with the respected curator and art historian at the Russian Academy of Fine Art in Moscow, Irina Chmyreva, they established one of Russia’s most important photography festivals.

Irina Chmyreva is the Artistic Director of the festival and Mashа Goldman, a founding member of Viva Photo, is Director of Foreign Programs, with Tatiana Zubkova, the Executive Director, and [at the time of this interview] Evgeny Berezner as the overall head of the organisation. They are supported by a small staff with offices in both Moscow and Krasnodar. However, the festival event is really only possible because of the hard work of many volunteers who return each year to undertake many of the jobs necessary to run such an ambitious festival to an international standard.

The great achievement of PhotoVisa is to understand that a festival of photography is also about people: about how they relate to each other as much as how they relate to the images on display. For the involvement that leads to understanding is inevitably an involvement with other people, with other minds and spirits, with new ideas, fresh discourses, and things to be learned. It is this above all that marks out this festival for its openhearted warmth, aesthetic vigour, and intelligent enthusiasm for the medium.

The name PhotoVisa suggests that the event is a means by which to enter inside the world of photography; to be a part of that world and not simply a tourist or passive spectator. And the name of the founding organisation, Viva Photo, suggests the dynamic relationship between life and photography; that it is a vital medium, intimately bound up in our individual sense of ‘being in the world’.

Viva Photo! Long live photography!

Alasdair Foster

Festival delegates on the shores of the Black Sea, illuminated by their mobile phones 2015 [photo © Vladimir Vyatkin]


Alasdair: How did the festival begin?

Masha: There were several stages in the development of PhotoVisa. Back in 2003, I was lucky enough to meet two great photographers: Levan Mamulov and Tatiana Zubkova. We became friends through our shared passion for photography. In 2005 we founded a non-profit organisation called Viva Photo, with the intention of creating a platform for photography within the local community. We staged exhibitions, sought out local emerging photographers and participated in educational programs around Russia. While attending a seminar we met Irina Chmyreva. We immediately became great friends and invited her to give some lectures at Krasnodar College of Art. I’m still so grateful to Irina for accepting our invitation. For photographers in Krasnodar, Irina’s lectures were to become a sort of bridge to a wider context that combined local and global perspectives.

And so PhotoVisa came to life…

Why is it in Krasnodar and not, say, Moscow?

Irina: Although I work in Moscow, my hometown is Krasnodar. I know the city and, while it can be very conservative, it is also a place with a strong artistic history. The museum has one of the best collections of Russian avant-garde in a provincial institution. It is a strange mix, but I reckoned that if this place could produce good art, it might also be a good place to promote and exhibit good art; to take the process of discovery and renovation full circle.

How have you brought the conservative and the artistically innovative sides together?

Irina: I believe that in Krasnodar there is a kind of medieval tradition where people can only gain real knowledge face to face. Of course, all the books and films and exhibitions themselves are very important, but in the end it is interpersonal cultural relations with real people that get results.

So we began with a strong feeling that we needed a place where we would have the discussions face to face; with local people, with artists from elsewhere in Russia and with foreigners.

Masha: Krasnodar used to be a place where nothing much was going on photographically speaking. Yet there were always new talents. I see it as one of the main achievements of the festival when an artist finds their audience and begins their artistic growth.

Can you give an example?

Masha: I would mention two ‘first-time’ exhibitions: in 2013 PhotoVisa held the first solo show by Vladimir Savchuk. He was 85 years old and he showed vintage prints dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. He had begun making photographs in 1946, but it had taken 67 years to have his first solo exhibition in the city where he lives.

It is also a way to become known nationally and internationally. A young photographer from Moscow, Andrew Ivanov, had his first solo-show at PhotoVisa in 2010, since then he has solo-exhibitions at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art and in the Brandts Klædefabrik art space in Odense, Denmark.

Irina: And another example: Timur Kuznetsov, a local artist from Krasnodar, showed his project for the very first time at a PhotoVisa portfolio review and subsequently had solo-shows in Buenos Aires [Argentina] and Porto Alegre [Brazil].

© Eldar Zeitullaev ‘Sea and Sky’ 2008

So the festival is not just opening up opportunities for individuals but also educating the local audience about the medium as an art form.

Irina: Yes. One of our first ‘discoveries’, Eldar Zeitullaev, works mainly with landscapes. But in Russia today, landscape is not exhibited much and people have lost their ability to ‘read’ a landscape image deeply – as more than just the depiction of a scene. That tradition existed a century ago, especially in painting but, in the Soviet period, photography was mostly treated as a kind of ideological illustration.

Over the years we have shown a number of master landscape photographers at PhotoVisa: Clovis Dariano from Brazil; Dong Dong from China; Luca Zanier from Switzerland; Simon Harsent from Australia; and the famous young Russian artist, Alexander Gronsky. In time, people began to recognise that photography is not only the reality depicted with a camera, there are other, metaphorical and allegorical meanings that lie within the image. And, of course, such an education of the public has helped Eldar Zeitullaev in establishing his reputation in the local art scene.

That is an interesting symbiosis between the education of an audience and the increasing clarity of insight of an artist.

Irina: The way the festival connects local and international artists can be very empowering. For example, in 2012 the Canadian artist Frank Rodick gave a lecture which was attended by Anastasia Vasilyeva, a young photographer from Krasnodar. Her work was very deep, but she herself was not yet fully self-aware. Her project was about herself and her illness, but she did not feel strong enough to show that work publicly and speak about how she transformed her personal problems into pieces of art.

[Left] © Frank Rodick ‘Portrait of Frances Rodick – you must console me’ 2012; [Right] © Anastasya Vasilieva from series ‘Diabetes’ 2010

Such things have been outside the main tradition of Russian art for a long time. When talking about the body, the emphasis is on beauty and veers away from the problems in life and negative conditions. Frank Rodick’s work is unsettling, engaging with the complexities and intricacies of being physically and emotionally human. When Anastasia heard his lecture she discovered that such an artistic strategy exits in the world and is recognised to be important. I know that it was empowering for her, and she went on to exhibit her project several times. She had liberated herself.

So, you place considerable importance on your educational programs?

Masha: It is the starting point. Before the festival appeared we began implementing educational programs for artists. But it’s clear that not only artists need to learn. The audience also needs to be educated by seeing exhibitions, attending artist talks, meeting photographers… and thus gaining new insight.

Irina: It is important for local photographers simply to experience the work from outside Krasnodar. While they may be making art and believing that they are making good things, they may not know the rules of the international ‘art stage’; to understand that you have to be exposed to what is happening outside. It is not possible to simply read a book and then be sure you can fly an aeroplane! You need to be trained. You need to be part of this process, and then you can do things on your own. That is how it is with art.

This learning is also about the production and organisation of events. We have had young artists who were volunteers for the festival and later they start to make the events by themselves. Or they start to work for PhotoVisa festival as professionals with a salary. They are not just artists; they are working in public relations, in design, in framing, in engineering, in teaching … in many diverse areas of activity.

I have always been very impressed by the volunteers working at your festival.

Masha: The network of volunteers, initiated by Tatiana Zubkova, is one of the most important assets of PhotoVisa. Aside from all the technical work they do, they literally constitute the ‘human face’ of the festival. Volunteers make the first impression and the last one as well; they pick up our guests at the airport and see them off when the festival is over. When people from different parts of the world tell me that PhotoVisa’s atmosphere is so special, I thank the volunteers!

Do you train the volunteers?

Irina: When we started the festival, the country was preparing for the Sochi Olympic Games. I saw there were two models for preparing volunteers. One was official, like that in Sochi, with training and discipline; but our program is much more independent. It is more like a kind of ‘club’ built around PhotoVisa. The members of this ‘club’ have their own relationships. It is part of life and also part of the world.

Two years ago we had a volunteer who went on to volunteer at Houston Fotofest in the USA, subsequently working at various photographic festivals in Europe. This helped him establish valuable networks. He is now an important cultural producer in St Petersburg.

So, Sochi was about training; whereas PhotoVisa creates a place for mutual learning.

Irina: Yes! It is about being inside, not passing exams.

I agree, that is a very important way of learning.

Masha: As for what volunteers get out of it… People have different aspirations: some seek to develop their understanding of photography, some want to practice speaking a foreign language, some just enjoy meeting new people. What we see is that there are almost no ‘single-season’ volunteers. When people start working for the festival (and many work really hard), they come back again next year. They get an amazing experience and, thanks to them, so do we.

We have spoken about how the festival can change the lives of artists and volunteers, what about the audience? Have you seen the experience of engaging with an artist at the festival change the views of someone who was perhaps initially more conservative?

Irina: Four years ago we presented a series of exhibitions in the local museum of history and archaeology. One of these was by an important conceptual photographer from St Petersburg called Andrei Chezhin. On the day the Mayor of Krasnodar visited the exhibition, people were worried that he might not be happy because he did not understand the meaning of the work. I had more urgent questions on my mind at that moment and left it to the artist to explain. Andrei gave the Mayor a personal tour talking about the ideas behind his work, which he did in a very straightforward way without losing the depth of his concept. At the end of this tour the Mayor said “Oh, I had wondered… because I did not recognise why the push-pins were on top of the faces. But now I recognise that they are portraits of bureaucrats … maybe even my portrait is here! And I understand that it is possible to describe our way of life in this kind of artistic way.”

The exhibition ‘A Conversation of Memories’, curated by Alasdair Foster, installed in the Krasnodar Institute of Contemporary Art, 2015 [photo © Alasdair Foster]

Masha: More generally, we are certainly witnessing shifts in the audience’s attitude. Recently there have been discussions around the curator–artist relationship in the process of creating an exhibition. So it was that visitors who had seen an exhibition curated by you [Alasdair Foster] in 2013, came to see the next exhibition you curated in 2015, even though they did not know any of the artists on display.

Aside from invited curated shows, who selects the work for exhibition?

Irina: We have two programs at the festival. The main program is curated by me and Evgeny Berezner. The other part is a big exhibition on the theme of the festival. This is an international contest with an ‘open call’ and an international jury. The jurors come from different backgrounds: photographers, curators, editors, teachers… Each year, they choose twenty single images, twenty series and twenty multi-media pieces to be shown at the festival. The work is installed in the same place every year: the gallery of a large shopping mall in the centre of Krasnodar. People like this exhibition very much and it is well attended throughout the day.

What has been a personal high point from a past festival for each of you?

Irina: For three years from 2012–2014 we were able to present exhibitions in a large winery in Anapa, beside the Black Sea. It was an extraordinary experience to create photographic installations inside such an industrial landscape. Work was displayed on the outside of the huge factory sheds and inside of the buildings, right in among the winemaking machinery.

Masha: For me, one of the most unforgettable experiences was an exhibition by visually impaired photographers: people who were losing their sight, but who were nonetheless searching for ways to capture the moment. We met and discussed with them for several months before they started shooting. The results were presented in Krasnodar Museum of Fine Arts. I very much hope we can do this again another year.

Why do you think festivals like PhotoVisa are important?

Irina: When I was in Houston recently, I was having a conversation with the celebrated Chicagoan gallerist Martha Schneider. She has Russian ancestry but cannot herself speak Russian. She told me that what she ‘spoke’ was photography. For me it is important that photography can speak its own language. To learn to speak photography and to understand it deeply is a very important mission for the festival and for us as professionals.

Masha Goldman and Tatiana Zubkova receive the donation of a print by the Chinese artist Dong Dong presented by the artist to the Krasnodar Art Museum, 2015
[photo © Alyiona Klimenchenko]

Biographical Notes

Maria (Masha) Goldman was born in Leningrad in 1975. At university, she studied linguistics and psychology, and has been working in the field of photography since 2001. In 2004, together with two photographers – Levan Mamulov and Tatyana Zubkova – she founded the non-profit organisation Viva Photo; this became the platform for PhotoVisa Festival, which she also co-founded. She is a curator and regular expert portfolio reviewer at festivals and events internationally. Masha Goldman represents Viva Photo on the All-Russian Non-Governmental Organisations (AIS) and is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). She lives and works in Krasnodar.

photo © Tanya Vasilieva

Irina Chmyreva was born in Krasnodar, 1974. She studied the theory and history of art in Moscow at the Surikov Academic Art Institute, and subsequently in Berlin and Stuttgart, from which she was awarded Doctor of Philosophy. A writer and curator, she is the lead researcher at Institute of Theory and History of Fine Arts in the Russian Academy of Arts, Moscow. Co-founder and artistic director of PhotoVisa, Irina Chmyreva has curated many museum and art-gallery exhibitions in Russia and overseas and for festivals of photography such as Houston FotoFest and Pingyao International Photography Festival, China. A collection of her essays on the history of Russian photography was published in 2017. She lives between Moscow and Krasnodar.

photo © Chen Yin

Established in 2008, PhotoVisa is an annual event held in the city of Krasnodar, Russia.

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