Photography is everywhere!
It is a field where you have to cooperate and adapt, give impulse to dynamics, create together.Ângela Ferreira
Not all festivals have themes, but many do. The great benefit of a theme is that one exhibition can be more directly compared and contrasted with another. Idiosyncrasies of style, diverse ways of thinking, and the perspectives of personal experience all become more clearly perceived and understood when they engage within the gestalt of shared thematic focus.
The term ‘gestalt’ derives from the German word meaning shape. It describes the complexity of holism: the way that a system in its entirety can be something greater than the sum of the elements that constitute it. Handled well, a theme can bring not only conceptual form to the great array of imagery on display at an international festival, it can create its own internal conversations between one artist’s work and another, between images and the spaces in which they are displayed, between imported work and resident citizens.
In the northwest of Portugal lies the city of Braga which, annually, plays host to one of the oldest photography festivals in Europe. For over a quarter of a century the festival’s founding director, Rui Prata, led it to become celebrated not only for the richness of its cultural content, but for the warmth of its hospitality. Under its new director, Ângela Ferreira, the festival shows no sign of slowing down as she embraces the rapidly evolving nature of photography and its media siblings. For her, the strength of photography is inexhaustible. As a way of seeing and sharing it is essential to take photographs seriously and consider them deeply. After all, as she says, “if we close our eyes, we cease to be part of history”.
Since all three of us were travelling, our interview unfolded over time and distance. In a conversation that spanned Brazil, Finland, Spain and Australia, I talked with Rui Prata and Ângela Ferreira about the way in which they have orchestrated imagery and architecture, conviviality and concept, to sustain the freshness and depth that are the hallmark of this festival.
Alasdair: How did the festival begin?
Rui: As a young man, I was a passionate about photography but I did not know much about the medium as a fine art. In the summer of 1983, by chance, I visited Arles [the Rencontres d’Arles, staged in the south of France, the world’s oldest photography festival] and I connected with another reality. I brought these new ideas back to Braga to share with my friends. We decided to use the legal structure of an amateur association to start a new project.
We began by running courses in photography, including historical and aesthetic imagery and, in 1984, we established a small gallery where we showed the work of national and international photographers such as Bill Brandt, Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, August Sander, among many others. In 1986 we visited the photography biennale in Vigo [a city in the north-west of Spain] and we had the exciting idea of creating something similar in Braga.
The following year we presented the first edition of the Encontros da Imagem [encounters with images].
What kind of venues do you use?
Rui: Braga is not a city with a tradition in the visual arts, so art spaces were limited. However, given the museums didn’t have much money for programming, they were happy to collaborate with us and open their galleries to receive our festival exhibitions. Beyond this, we began to look for other, alternative spaces such as old factories, a former monastery, bars and so on.
Ângela: Over the years the festival has come to ‘reinvent’ various locations around the city and to present work in many different ways: night-time projections, video works, concerts, talks with artists, educational programs for school groups, a books fair …
Why do you use such a wide variety of venues?
Ângela: The alchemy of the recent editions is based on a kaleidoscopic program, which seeks to blend exhibitions, music, sculpture, installation and other activities, in order to produce new ways of contemplating and exploring the current world while attracting new audiences and new publics. Consequently, with each edition, the festival looks for new and alternative spaces.
Rui: I believe that it is preferable to have exhibitions presented in many different places rather than in one huge place, where you can soon become tired of seeing so many images at once. I also prefer smaller cities that allow visitors the possibility to walk from one venue to another while also discovering the city, having a drink, shopping and refreshing their gaze.
Can you describe some of these more unusual sites?
Ângela: The theme of each edition suggests its own types of location. For example, when the theme was ‘Power and Illusion’ we used buildings in the city that were associated with the period of the dictatorship [the Second Republic 1933–1974] which created a strong sense of memory or atmosphere. We used these spaces to present the work of emerging artists.
These buildings had been closed for many years and the older local people came because they were curious to see inside these ‘mysterious’ spaces. It became a way to bring young and old together.
Rui: The most emblematic building the festival has used is the Tibães Monastery. Established in the eleventh century, the current building dates from eighteenth century. It was the headquarters of Benedictine monks until the late nineteenth century when monks were temporary expelled from Portugal and their properties sold. In 1986 the state bought the monastery, which by then was in partial ruin. The first exhibition we showed there was ‘Espanha Oculta’ [hidden Spain] by Cristina Garcia Rodero, which we presented in 1988. Since then, the festival has had an ongoing and often challenging ‘dialogue’ with the monastery during its long renovation. Some of the most famous photographers we have shown there have included Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Gilles Caron, Sandy Skoglund…
From my own experience I know that the festival lays great importance on creating a convivial atmosphere.
Rui: Of course! Portuguese people are fond of good food and socializing; the festival reflects this. From the beginning it has been our aim to promote conviviality between photographers, festival directors, curators, journalists and all the people involved. These moments of gastronomic pleasure and fun are a context for serious conversation and a time to dream of new projects.
Who comes to the festival?
Ângela: Around 30,000 people attend the festival each year. They are mainly local but, during the opening week, we have visitors from all over the country and more widely across Europe, particularly students and emerging artists who come because of the portfolio reviews. The locals always leave it to the very last days… [laughs]
Rui: When we began the festival we wanted to attract people from Lisbon, Porto, the south of the country and places beyond; people who are interested in photography but wouldn’t come to Braga if it was just a single exhibition.
Ângela: A highlight of the festival in recent years is the International Photography Award, with prize money granted to the best contemporary photography portfolio presented at the Portfolio Review. The Review gives photographers the opportunity to show their work to curators, gallery owners and picture editors, which can do much to help them establish a solid foundation for the promotion of their work. And, for one photographer each year, the prize is the icing on the cake.
Is the festival themed?
Rui: The first editions (1987–1993) didn’t have any particularly theme. Our goal then was to show established classical and contemporary photographers in a country where visual literacy was not well developed. However, for the eighth edition we took the theme of ‘Homo Faber’ [a Latin phrase meaning ‘man the maker’] and showed such classical works as those by Lewis Hine and the workers’ portraits of August Sander.
What have been some of your more recent themes?
Ângela: The last three editions the festival built on the themes of ‘Love and Family’, ‘Hope and Faith’, ‘Power and Illusion’. This year artists, photographers and curators are invited to explore the theme of ‘Happiness’ in its multiple readings: memory, change and revelation. Through it we seek to explore some of the most relevant issues related to the pursuit of happiness in our troubled times.
Themes can be construed in many ways. Have any photographers surprised you with their interpretations?
Rui: I can think of a few…
I particularly liked the way in which the Swedish artist DAWID (Björn Dawidsson) interpreted the theme of ‘Man the Maker’ through a series of minimalist images of workmen’s tools. They brought a way of looking at work that was different from that of traditional photography.
In 1995, under the theme ‘Europe and the Sea’, I thought the work of Rineke Dijkstra was remarkable. The following year, when the theme was ‘Fictions and Narratives’, the Scottish artist Colin Gray showed funny fantasy portraits of his parents. Humour was also important in the work of Gilbert Garcin shown in 1998 under the theme of ‘Identities’. It was his first exhibition abroad and an important step in his career.
So the themes can help to explore new ideas and phenomena?
Ângela: Yes. The first edition in which I was involved was in 2013 when the theme was ‘Love and Family’. It proved timely in terms of the shifting sense of both ideas. On the one hand, Facebook and other social media had created a platform on which relationships were very specifically and hierarchically defined while, on the other hand, there were increasingly diverse concepts of what a family might be: same-sex, divorced, triangular…
The following year we addressed the theme of ‘Hope and Faith’. Braga is an important religious centre, but also a place where people are very conservative. Instagram projects attracted new, younger audiences, while artists such as Joan Fontcuberta made jokes about biblical miracles, suggesting that hope and faith can also involve lies and deception.
Did this cause any problem with the Church?
Ângela: Actually we won over the church! [laughs] I talked with the priest, who subsequently opened the church and we made a beautiful installation as the first moments of the opening of the festival. People got goose bumps when they saw this amazing way of opening a show. It was not simply a projection, but about mapping and about the spirit.
I imagine not everyone likes everything in such a diverse program.
Ângela: True, but I like controversy – a little bit rock and roll – it can be a useful way to focus attention. Some of our international audiences expressed ethical concerns around the work of Roger Ballen, but younger audiences engaged enthusiastically.
How can a photographer become involved in the festival?
Ângela: There is an annual open call, an international photography award and a call for photographic books. The aim is to help the work of talented young photographs become visible and we invite photographers from around the world to explore the year’s festival theme.
Is the call for work open to Chinese photographers?
Rui: It was and still is. In 1989, for example, we presented the work of Cheng Bao-Cheng and Zhang Hai-er, which I had seen the previous year at the Rencontres in Arles.
Ângela: In 2015 the Festival presented the project ‘Poems and Collections’ which provided an opportunity to introduce a new generation of Chinese photographers through the multiple visions of Ren Hang and Lin Zhipeng.
Can you tell me about their work?
Ren Hang is a young photographer, poet and provocateur, who explores the possibilities of the body through an extrovert and joyful sexuality. He produces photographs in a spontaneous and creative way, by turning human bodies into audacious and funny sculptures.
Lin Zhipeng (who is also known as ‘No. 223’), creates dazzling photographs with sharp contrast that reveal an intimate insight into an essence of the Chinese youth as a kind of idyllic drama.
The festival has been running for almost thirty years – what changes have you seen over the decades?
Rui: The changes have been big. From an economic point of view, I remember that in 1980s the majority of photographic prints were either 30 x 40cm or 40 x 50cm. This made transportation inexpensive, with the matt boards and frames prepared locally in Braga. The frames were generally aluminium and could be used many times. Over the years print formats got larger and production costs more expensive; transportation and insurance also rose. Nowadays, like many other festivals, we have the option of receiving images as digital files and printing locally, exhibiting the work unframed.
Ângela: Until quite recently, photography was something well defined, with its own frame of reference. But nowadays hybridization is mixing up media and genres. I would say that this is actually the main trend: different ways of conceiving photography. In the artistic field there is an increasing desire for a playful approach to discovering new tools for understanding and communicating our sense of reality.
What have been your particular favourite photographic projects over the years?
Rui: In 2004 I chose as the theme ‘Metamorphosis of the Real’. We had a large number of works, from Western and Eastern Europe, Asia and the United States in an exhibition that combined photography and video. For me it was an innovative and a very powerful yet consistent narrative.
Ângela: For me what gives me most pleasure is the emerging artists’ work; it is really fresh, full of discovery. Artists such as Marie Hudelot, Lonneke van der Palen and Alexandra Lethbridge (who works with meteorites she has bought on eBay). These young artists arrive with so many hopes and, in the process, they are changing each other.
What achievement made possible through the festival are you most proud of?
Rui: I am proud to have put Braga in the map; culturally speaking, the festival is considered the most important art event of the city.
Ângela: The open call for emerging artists… we make very interesting night-time projections of work by some of the artists who send pictures to the open call. A local band provides the music. This projection then goes to different cities and different festivals in the country and overseas – recently, for example, to India.
What are your future plans for the festival?
Ângela: Today, we have the chance to be part of a sea change not only in photography, but also in the creation of signs. Photography is a communication tool, used not only to express artistic ideas, but also for everyday communication. Everybody has a camera in their hands. Everybody can make pictures, and express themselves visually. Photography is everywhere! It is a field where you have to cooperate and adapt, give impulse to dynamics, create together.
Rui Prata, the founding director of Encontros da Imagem photo festival, was born in Sesimbra, Portugal, in 1955. He has a BA in history from Porto University, and a master’s degree in curatorial and contemporary museology from Porto Fine Arts University. He began his professional career as a professor of history (1980–1998) before becoming director of the Braga Image Museum (1998–2015). A lecturer on contemporary photography throughout Europe and in Brazil, he has curated a number of major exhibitions nationally and internationally, and sat on the acquisitions panel for the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. In 2013, he was awarded a Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation fellowship to undertake a curatorial residency at the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art (KIASMA). He currently lives and works between Finland and Portugal.
Ângela Ferreira, director of Encontros da Imagem (2013–2016), was born in Porto in 1975. She holds a degree in curatorial studies, a master’s degree in photography from the Utrecht School of Arts, the Netherlands, and a PhD in photography and visual communication from the Universidade do Minho, Portugal. She has lectured on contemporary photography throughout Europe and Latin America. She is Adjunct Professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Porto (School of Media Arts and Design) and, in 2018, she was a guest curator at the Beijing Photography Biennale organised by the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Beijing Museum of Art. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Escola de Belas Artes Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and a member of the New Arts Organisms group.
Established in 1987, Encontros da Imagem is an annual event held in the city of Braga, Portugal. www.encontrosdaimagem.com
The 2020 festival is currently schedule for 11 September to 31 October. However, given the restrictions arising from the coronavirus pandemic, please check their website nearer the time for confirmation.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the August 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.