The overriding theme of this year’s international photography festival Format, currently on display at various locations in Derby and beyond, is Factory – a purposefully broad term that has vast economic, social and political implications in a globalized world. The very first location of the festival, a former chocolate factory on the outskirts of the city, thus cunningly relates to the very subject exhibited in many of the photographs. Darek Fortas’ melancholic and equally aesthetic portrait of a coal mining community in Poland captures an outdated industry in decline. These images are however smartly juxtaposed with Ian Teh’s work which depicts a booming (and potentially threatening) coal mining industry in rural China.
Many of the works appear to focus on the relationship between labour and class. Rather than representing the working class as anonymous mass however, the photographers selected for this exhibition appear keen on representing how social conditions affect the individual in a quickly shifting global economy. Janet Delaney’s project, for instance, vividly captures security personnel guarding houses of the wealthy in Delhi. The economic disparity between the rich and poor is referenced by the security guards’ little huts providing just enough space for one man. Confirming the Marxist undertone apparent throughout the festival, here, the worker has – quite literally – become alienated.
As a consequence of the division of labour, classes, too, are divided and separated. Economic segregation and even ghettoization is brutally captured in Sebastian Liste’s portrayal of a community living in a former chocolate factory in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Liste’s work, reminiscent of the aesthetics in contemporary Danish photojournalism, depicts a tense, desperately unequal and unforgiving social environment in perpetual decline. In spite of this, Liste makes surprising discoveries of beauty, desire and perhaps even hope. Inasmuch as Liste’s monochromatic prints cover the full gamut from black to white, the exhibition as a whole covers a wide variety of emotions and subsequent interpretations.
David Chancellor’s project Pelepele focuses on KwaZulu-Natal women who work in the tree farming industry in the greater Eastern Cape area of South Africa. The beauty of the lone figures in the vast landscape clearly evokes the trope of the farm worker commonly found in Dutch and Flemish landscape painting. Yet in Chancellor’s project, the focus shifts from the labourer to the product of her labour – in this case timber. The photographs allude to the dynamics of an increasingly globalized world in which the prices of commodities rise and fall in line with global demand. Similarly, in this economic exchange, the labourer too becomes an exchangeable commodity.
The commodification of the worker, or more specifically, the commodification of the body in a globalized economy is most directly explored in the digitally altered photographs of Russian ‘mail-order-brides’ by Maria Kapajeva. In these ‘found’ boudoir photographs, Kapajeva protected the identity of her subjects by digitally covering their half-naked bodies with textured elements that appear in the original image – wallpaper or curtains for instance. Yet these visually very effective alterations of the original image do not disguise the fact that the women crudely objectify themselves in the photographs. The subjects’ vicinity to the bed quite directly implies a promise of sexual gratification for those who wish to place an ‘order’.
The University of Derby (Markeaton Street Campus) is another major exhibition site for the festival. Here, the focus appears to be a more overt reference to the dynamics of globalization. Freya Najade’s project ‘Strawberries in Winter’ documents vast greenhouses that grow fruit and vegetables destined for the European market. As the lack of human presence indicates, the production of food as a commodity is almost entirely computerized and artificial. Wolfgang Müller on the other hand photographs so-called ‘mingong’, Chinese migrant workers, who provide factories with a constant flow of cheap and easily exchangeable labour. In contrast to the shiny surfaces of products destined for the West, the images vividly indicate that the social condition of the migrant worker is characterized by exploitation, alienation and claustrophobia.
Andrew Emond’s oblique images of abandoned factories and workplaces in the UK confirms the downfall of once thriving industries – a fact that is all too apparent in Derby which is located in the former industrial heartland of England. Joanne Betty Conlon’s photographs of British office workers alludes to what is left once production has shifted to the Far East: meaningless and mind-numbing jobs in the service industry. Conlon emphasizes the banality of her subjects’ condition by photographing them as reflections in the office window. The result is a visually and conceptually loaded double image of an outside and an inside world. The workers appear trapped, longing to be elsewhere, outside.
The reoccurring motif of the closed-down factory as a signifier for the economic shifts of globalization is revisited at the Quad Gallery in the city centre which is also the main location for the festival. Patricia van de Camp’s surprisingly surreal photographs show wildlife traversing abandoned factories. The series constitutes a form of poetic justice as the animal kingdom is portrayed as repossessing a land that was once theirs. Dionysis Kouris on the other hand photographs migrants who have made their temporary home in a former Columbia record studio in Athens. The vast studio complex functions as a social microcosm with its own laws and rules for about 200 migrants waiting to move on.
Eric Kessels’ collection of found photography albums has been given the most amount of space at the festival. The headline act, so to speak, is the photograph as material object. Here too, the exhibition purposefully indicates an industry that is in decline: in a digital age the family photo-album is quickly becoming a curious object from the past. Kessels’ work as a collector of photographs is akin to that of an archaeologist digging up visual artifacts from the past: a French couple totally obsessed with taking pictures of their dogs, an Indian couple proudly photographed in a studio setting or a moustache-wearing man’s frequent visits to a belly dancer bar in Istanbul candidly captured in a series of black and white photographs.
The photographs on display at the Format festival provide a challenging and intellectually stimulating representation of globalization from a multitude of perspectives and sources. Reaching across geographic boundaries and photographic methodologies, the beauty of the works can be found in the way that the nearly 100 photographic projects not only relate to the setting that they are displayed in, but also how they relate to each other. It is here that the photographs create new meanings and new ways of interpreting a constantly changing world. III Originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.
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