When approached with an open mind and heart, art can catalyse empathy and respect between people
NOTE: This is an interview with Alasdair Foster made by Alexander Strecker. It was originally published in the online magazine LensCulture.
Alasdair Foster is a writer, curator, researcher, teacher, and traveling expert who has been involved with photography for decades. Beginning his career in the film industry, he then switched over to photography and established a successful business in the field. After ten years, he transitioned into curatorial and directorial roles—first at the helm of the beloved Scottish festival Fotofeis, and later as the director of the Australian Centre for Photography. Besides his work across Europe and Australia, Foster has made concerted efforts to connect Asia and the Pacific to the Western world, serving as an ambassador for the Asia-Pacific PhotoForum and working with festivals in China, Bangladesh, and beyond.
We are immensely proud to have Foster serving on the jury for our Street Photography Awards 2018. His wide-ranging perspective offers a much-needed global understanding of the internationally relevant genre of street photography. LensCulture’s managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out to Foster to learn more about his thoughts on the impact of geography, the power (and limitations) of the internet, and the likely source of today’s most relevant images…
Alexander: As I was researching your background, I was pleased to read that you began working in photography as a practitioner (including commercial photography) before eventually transitioning towards curating, editing, museum directing etc. This is important, to me, because it seems increasingly rare among high-level thinkers/curators. Do you feel that your background in practicing photography continues to inform your approach to the medium?
Alasdair: Totally. I think my whole approach to the medium has been influenced by my hands-on experience of the craft. I have always had a respect for the act of making and not simply the connoisseurship of end-results. Indeed, I am not much interested in connoisseurship. What interests me are the twin processes of making and reception: how the maker turns perception into an object and how the viewer interprets the object perceptually.
In the 90s, you were director of Fotofeis, an enormously popular photo-based festival in Scotland. Looking back, what made Fotofeis such a success? What has remained with you from your experience of running a festival—whether in your approach to curation, communication, engaging with the public, with photographers, etc?
Fotofeis was unusual among photography festivals because it spanned the whole country, taking in not only city centres, but suburban and rural areas. It also embraced photography at all levels, from the most celebrated international names through to amateurs and professional amateurs.
Festivals can provide a chance to try new things, and a number of the participating institutions took the opportunity to show work that sat outside of their usual programming. Yet, Fotofeis was also a single event. This allowed us to move, within a single cohesive programmatic structure, between the silos that can too rigidly define international art as the province of national and city museums, amateur and community art as the realm of suburbia, and craft the practices of rural populations. As it turned out, this disruption proved a refreshing success. In the process, we all learned a lot about the relationship between the way people read work in a given context and what they get out of the exhibition on show. Community work shown in a museum was found to be much deeper than expected; an international artist from an unfamiliar cultural background found she shared much in common with the people of a small Hebridean island.
If I was to identify one single thing among the many I learned through collaborating with artists and communities on Fotofeis, it is that, when approached with an open mind and heart, art can catalyse empathy and respect between people who, on the surface, seem immiscible, like oil and water.
You once said: “For me art is an experience, not a commodity, and the best art is transformative.” Tell me about some transformative (or formative) photography for you. Either from your early years (formative) or from key junctures along the way (transformative).
One early and one recent…
My father was a keen amateur photographer and I took photographs when I was a boy. But I rather lost interest in later adolescence and turned to writing (which I have continued) and music (which I abandoned) as means of expression. Then, I saw a portfolio of work in the British magazine Creative Camera. It was by the Latvian artist Misha Gordin: staged, surreal, fantastical images. That was the moment I realised that photography is more than just a mechanical way of capturing slices of the world as it appears. It could be shaped and used to create a more nuanced suggestion of the internal life as well as external surfaces. I began making work in the same vein.
That transformative moment was not so much a revolutionary one – overthrowing one conception of photography for another (documentary versus constructed) – but a broadening. I came to realise that all photographs are constructs; they are framed, shot and edited by the actions of individuals whose perspective on the world is formed through their individual sensory and interpretive perception of it. That proved, for me, to be a significant process of understanding. And it is why I argue that the nature of art is vested not in the object but in the experience of the object.
I had a small epiphany in Colombia last year when, at a portfolio review session, I saw the work of the photographer and filmmaker Edgar Alvarez. He had spent several years on the streets of Bogotá and Los Angeles making work about the many homeless people who live openly as urban nomads yet somehow remain invisible to the rest of the population. Although he had made many photographs of the individuals themselves, getting to know them over an extended period of time, his final images were not of them, but of clay figures he had modelled, each depicting a real individual. He then photographed these clay figures in the same streets frequented by their real-life counterparts. I found the images remarkably affecting. In many ways, they were more emotionally powerful than the photographs of actual people. The clay puppets became emblematic. They avoided the process of individualising (and perhaps judging) that can become a kind of unconscious defence against engaging with the wider social responsibilities such images might (indeed, should) evoke. Edgar called the series ‘The Invisibles’ because this was how these homeless people felt themselves to be. What was so powerful about his lateral approach was that the puppets made the plight of the homeless emotionally available in a way that a straight photograph may not.
You’ve been living and working in Australia for some two decades. Do you think you view photography differently from down there? Today, we say that the internet has erased geographic distances but as a result, I think we overlook the importance of context and the impact that our physical surroundings have in shaping our view of the world.
Well, distance is measured in many ways; Australia may well be closer culturally to the UK than, say, Spain. The questions of the impact of globalisation in general and the internet in particular are complex and in flux. The internet certainly helped to deprioritise geographic distance over other forms such as the social, cultural, or economic.
I think the biggest impact of living in Australia is, for me, being situated in the Asia-Pacific region. This is a part of the world ignored by teachers of geography and history when I was at school. Living here and traveling extensively in East Asia and more recently in Latin America, I have come to experience the immense variety of ways in which one may view such fundamental things as identity, family, home, community, fairness…
One’s physical surroundings can certainly influence how one makes photographs. For example, I remember being struck, on my first visit to Saskatchewan, by how many artists made long, thin panoramic prints, hardly ever verticals. The Canadian prairies are flat, and this appeared to frame their way of seeing.
One must carefully consider the way art is experienced and not simply assume that any given artwork contains a universal message.
But I think cultural and societal context shapes how images are made and understood, much more than simple geographic location. I remember viewing a portfolio in China. The photographer had documented miners who hew dangerous heavy metals deep below the surface. Although snow lay above ground, it was very hot deep in the mine. The photographer made images of the near-naked miners smeared with dust as they came up to the winterly landscape to cool down and breath fresh air. They were starkly dramatic shots. I asked the photographer if he’d gone underground to make images of the men at work. He had not, it was too dangerous down there. I asked him how he felt about the miners and the life they lived. He said he felt very proud that they were Chinese. He said it in the way one might say one is proud of the men and women who go to war, even though they put their lives at risk, because they do so for a higher ideal.
In the West, we tend to think of such images of industry as implying that things should change. There is an automatic assumption that such documentary evidence would evince that response in the viewer. What I have learned is that this is not the case. The implication of an image is understood differently in different contexts. Indeed, I have come to realise that reality (as it is perceived and interpreted) is a cultural construct and not a universal truth. Again, this has brought me to the conclusion that one must carefully consider the way art is experienced and not simply assume that any given artwork contains a universal message.
© Ronghui Chen, World Press Photo Award Winner 2015
Wei, who comes from rural Guizhou (1,500 kilometres away), works in a factory in Yiwu, eastern China. The factory is one of 600 in the area that cumulatively produce around 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations. The factories are staffed largely by migrant laborers, who work 12-hour days for between 270 and 400 euros a month.
To Western eyes, this might seem like a wholly critical picture. The photographer, Ronghui Chen, felt differently: “I don’t think my pictures are wholly negative—maybe this worker was unhappy before he came to this factory. Maybe he didn’t have food or a place to sleep. He is from a very poor rural area, after all. Nobody forced him to leave, he chose to come East in search of work…It’s probably better than his hometown. In some years, he could become rich. It’s not easy but working in this factory is better than being jobless, than going hungry.”
What has shifted regarding your perspective on ‘Pacific’ photography? In the West, it feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of Chinese photography; South Asian photography (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan) has much more to offer; Japanese photography appears well-connected, but even so, I think only a limited aspect of it projects onto the international scene. Can you say more based on your experience?
When I was growing up, a World History of Photography almost exclusively presented work from Europe and North America. Eventually, a few images from former colonies such as India and Pakistan made their way in, as did work from countries that became Americanised after the Second World War, Japan and, in time, South Korea. China, Vietnam, Cambodia…they tended to remain outside of that historical purview.
The Chinese are (to make a sweeping generalisation) astute about knowing what the market wants. Much of the art and photography made in China for export is shaped less by the cultural perspective of the artist and more by the artist’s ability to anticipate how that culture might be perceived by those in the West. There are other photographers, usually with more modest ambitions, who make work about their own life experiences. About fifteen years ago, I curated a show of photographs by some young Chinese photographers I met on the mainland. One of the powerful themes that underlaid a number of those works was that of narcissistic anxiety.
As one photographer put it, with the increasing westernisation of China, they belonged to the first generation judged by the way they looked rather than how they fitted into the broader community. This was leading to an obsessive interest in their own appearance, but also an increasing neurosis that arose from no longer knowing where they stood. That is just one example, of course. There are other practitioners whose imagery grows from narratives and cultural referents that remain opaque to most Westerners. These tend not to make it out into the international scene; at least, not so far.
The pernicious rhetoric of the arts as an ‘industry,’ promulgated by neoliberalism, is tending to reduce our most essential shared attribute to the production of luxury artefacts for the rich…
But, in a nutshell, I would say that any lack of awareness of art from other cultures probably has more to do with the limited horizons of the viewer than the dynamism of the work itself.
You’re particularly interested in the question of democratising the arts. Photography seems like a great place to work through this topic! Can you summarise why “democratising the arts” is important to you and how photography can play a role in that process?
Our culture is the lens through which we interpret the world around us, our place within it, and our relationship with others. The arts are a powerful way through which to imagine. The success of humankind has been its ability to adapt to changing circumstances and a fundamental factor in this has been the ability to imagine, to project ideas into the future. To ask, “What if…?”
I have always tended to consider our culture to be something we create together, all of us. The pernicious rhetoric of the arts as an ‘industry’, promulgated by neoliberalism, is tending to reduce our most essential shared attribute to the production of luxury artefacts for the rich and an instrumental means by which governments can seek to reduce spending in other areas under their responsibility.
My focus is on ways in which all citizens might come to be actively involved in the co-production of a living culture. Of course, some individuals will have more skills or spend more time on this than others, but the separation of the arts into a small cadre of active producers and a large ‘mass’ of passive consumers is, I believe, one in which we lose our ability to imagine for ourselves. Instead we accept the narratives provided to us by others. Criticality wanes and false populism waxes. Without a shared, active, ongoing creative cultural dialogue, the narratives that shape our perceptions of the world become crude and polarised.
How have you struck a balance in your own projects between broad appeal (democratisation) and a certain intellectual/aesthetic rigor? The common trope is that the more popular something is, the simpler it has to become. As a photographer (or curator), how can one make work that is both challenging and popular, deep but also accessible?
Democratisation does not mean ‘broad appeal’. The rise of mass media has created a dangerous confusion between notions of democracy and those of homogenisation. It is perhaps easiest to understand through an analogy. There are many traditional dishes that involved stewed or casseroled beans; each distinctly spiced reflecting the climate and culture of their origin. Many were taken to North America as the colonies grew. However, when baked beans were first tinned for mass consumption, the spices and flavours were dramatically reduced to ensure they were inoffensive enough to satisfy the widest market. The process of modifying a recipe for a mass market involves the removal of those things which some segments of the market may not like. The result is bland. This does not mean that any individual within the ‘mass’ prefers bland to a tastier version, but that, since the mass is in reality a population of varied tastes, bland is the inevitable common denominator.
In the world of photography, it is interesting to see how the raw but enormously diverse works found in artist-run spaces and creative co-ops compare with the safer-than-safe blockbuster shows staged in museums and at blue-chip biennales bent on securing high visitor figures. The same could be said for zines in comparison to glossy, image-heavy magazines.
The rise of mass media has created a dangerous confusion between notions of democracy and those of homogenisation.
In the artist-run spaces and zines, the more diverse and challenging work is made for audiences that are close to, or even a part of, the larger creative community from which that work emerges. The museums and glossy magazines, however, are promoting imagery as something made by specialists for the passive consumption of a public construed in terms of their sameness, not their individuality. In doing so, they could be seen as simply reinforcing the suspicion that the average person has nothing useful to bring to the arts except their statistical presence to help maintain arguments for public funding. Interestingly, I have rarely found this to be the case at photography festivals, where the audiences and the exhibitors are more likely to be members of the same larger community of makers, be they professionals, professional amateurs or amateurs.
The more we can do to empower citizens in their active involvement in the co-creation of shared cultures, the more we will have truly invested viewers seeking (indeed demanding) much greater variety and challenge in their imagery and bringing a much more acute criticality to what is presented to them.
You once wrote that the internet is ‘spicier’ than former means of mass distribution. Does that still feel true to you? What is special about the internet/networked means of production and communication that make them ‘spicier’? Meanwhile, what is special about haptic objects (photobooks, prints, galleries, etc.) that explains their enduring relevance?
That came up during an interview back in 2006 with the critic Chris Boyd. I was talking about the way that the internet was opening up the possibility of many smaller but more distinctive forms of cultural creativity, from music through storytelling to visual art and photography. It was a way to escape both the flattening effects of mass media and the elitist protectionism of ‘authorised’ art. In that sense, the internet was ‘spicier’ – involving a much wider variety of tastes.
That was a dozen years ago, and things have changed a bit since then. The internet is still a place of many voices, but the focus is increasingly on the hegemonic power accreting to a small number of online service providers and the push by governments to regulate what was initially conceived of as an ideologically neutral place of free exchange. The one seeks to monetise, the other to control.
Meanwhile, in the realm of solid objects, digital printing has made it possible to create huge, perfected images in quantity. This could mean that photographic prints become less expensive and sell in larger numbers. But the commercial art world has grown up around notions of symbolic value yoked to rarity. Photography has been bowed to this yoke, limiting editions in order to maintain perceived value, when it is the nature of photography, and especially digital photography, to be endlessly reproducible. I think there is a fundamental paradox here that is not easy to settle.
On the other hand, books, which used to require a minimum run and a significant capital outlay, can now be manufactured to order using high-quality digital printing and hand-operated machine binding. As a result, photo books have not simply endured, but are enjoying something of a renaissance.
You seem to be very open-minded with your definition of photography/photo-based media/images. How about street photography? It is simultaneously one of the most popular genres of photography and also one of the most rulebound. Do you think the ‘rules’ of street photography are important, or would we be better off opening things up?
Whenever I hear about rules in the creative arts, I ask myself: “Who benefits?” Few rules are made against the tastes, practices, or interests of those who make them. So, yes, I keep an open mind. One should always remember that genres are ways of cataloguing after the fact. Human creativity forms a continuum. Its subdivisions are essentially post hoc bureaucratic or habituated conventions.
Finally, let’s close with another quote from you: “I am a firm believer that it is in the margins of today that the history of tomorrow is written”. I love that line! How can photographers apply that idea to their own work, their own careers?
Well, it seems likely to me that the images that come to define the current age may well be made by people living far from the epicentres of power. Being further out, they have a deeper perspective. Power, like gravity in a black hole, tends to draw perceptions inward, narcissistically. Some of the most powerful centres in the world are also some of the most parochial.
And, thinking about the dominant neoliberal construct of the arts as an industry, perhaps the images that, in retrospect, prove to be the most significant will have been made by people who pursued image-making as something other than a career…
—Alasdair Foster, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
This article was first published in April 2018 by LensCulture under the title of ‘Question the Image: A View from Two Poles of the World’.