Creating Connections

Creating Connections

The festival returns for its 2018 edition, showcasing the imaginations of emerging photographers that touch upon wider social and political issues.

American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams (1902-1984) once stated: “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” With millions of images disseminated on a daily basis, perhaps a new universal language has been created – one that defies borders and  actively creates connections internationally.

In the heart of Paris’s 19th arrondissement a new, dynamic and progressive photography festival that shares this belief has been developing for the past seven years. Circulation(s)’ entire raison d’être is to provide a platform for contemporary image-makers (regardless of age) from across Europe, and to widen perceptions and experiences devoid of social strata. Following this ethos, it’s free to everyone; the organisation spends considerable time and energy on reaching out to the local community, in an attempt to make photography a medium that anyone can value, learn from and escape within. Circulation(s) also settles inside 13 stations of the metro and the RER (the Parisian suburban train), and exhibits on the metal gates of Gare de l’Est (one of the main Parisian train stations), truly building on the idea that art should, and can, be for everyone, even if only for passers-by.

Promoting the importance of visual and cultural connections, innovation is given room to develop, flourish and gain recognition. “It’s totally focused on helping emerging talent,” says the British photography curator Susan Bright, who is based in the city and was asked to act as the festival’s “Godmother”, or patron. “So, it’s incredibly fresh – and that makes it be a very different sort of proposition.”

The festival’s eighth edition truly develops the notion of inclusivity, extending to different perspectives from various corners of the world from the northernmost city on Earth to the post-war scarred Lebanon. As a socially reflective and all-encompassing event, this year’s edition addresses today’s most prevalent geopolitical issues, allowing artists to communicate across various spaces to tell their story and to offer a diversity of responses. No topic is off limits: from the intimate,  complex worlds of gender identity to the outward-looking macrocosms of urbanisation, tourism and the wider migration crisis. All facets of day-to-day life are included within this year’s showcase, seeking to illustrate and communicate the human condition through various modes of representation, form and structure, promoting wider understanding.

Beyond a diversity of subject matter, this means welcoming a diversity of media, recognising that 21st century image-making is not just about crossing conceptual boundaries and seeking out varied experiences, but it is about a commitment to young artists through a multiplicity of media. In 2017, this stretched to everything from plastic photography, documentary, archive, video and art installation to collage, self-publishing and thermodynamic images.

Speaking to Aesthetica, the festival’s Secrétaire Générale Céline Laurent says: “We think it’s a really important thing to help young talent to gain visibility at the beginning of their professional career. In this competitive artistic landscape, it is quite difficult to find representation and exhibition space. Therefore, it is essential for us to support this new wave of creation.” Bright expands: “Circulation(s) is a very progressive, utterly independent festival. It’s not part of the Parisian traditional (or perceivably traditional) art culture. It’s also wholly energetic, because the organisers are pursuing innovation.”

The festival describes itself as “the most original and ambitious project in contemporary photography.” The claim might be audacious but the numbers back it up; since its opening year, the event has exhibited more than 225 artists, all for the first time in France. In that time, it has welcomed around 250,000 visitors. This year, the work of more than 50 emerging practitioners will be on display. The festival has achieved this whilst being totally free of charge for anyone to peruse.

An all-encompassing and inclusive event, it is predicated on an open call. Emerging visionaries can send their work online, and the selection is made by an international jury – this year, including Christine Ollier (Les Filles du Calvaire gallery), François Cheval (Nicephore Niecpe Museum), Xavier Canone (Museum of Charleroi), Nathalie Herschdorfer (Le Locle museum) and Hercules Papaioannou (Director of Thessaloniki Museum of Photography). When an artist is chosen, their work is presented in a uniform way, without a single individual given preference over another. None of the images are framed – they are pasted to the walls of pop-up exhibition spaces to be seen by visitors winding their way through the cavernous rooms of Le Centquatre. Artists are invited to attend and, moreover, are welcome to take their images home with them once it is over. “Everyone has equal billing,” Bright says. “It’s strictly non-hierarchical.”

For 2018, the jury have put together a programme with some notable recurring personnel. “We noticed this year that many artists were looking back to their roots and familial relationships,” Laurent says. “We are presenting series that deal with connections between siblings from very different points of view, from issues surrounding illness to a widening gulf as a result of differing identity politics.” As an example, Laurent points to the work of Camille Lévêque, who has photographed a “false” collective of women photographers in a new project Live Wild. The story shown by Judith Helmer of twin sisters, one of whom has undergone a sex-change operation, “is one of the most touching of all we are showcasing,” Laurent notes.

Another artist considering such familiar tropes is Alma Haser (b. 1989), a British-based German photographer. Haser’s new series starts with single portraits of identical twins, which are transferred to a jigsaw, where the pieces are mixed to create a singular image. The composition showcases an ability to step out of the digital world and create tangible compositions.

On a broader scale, more seismic global events continue to inform the photographic community. “The refugee crisis, gender relations and also the tension in some countries between tradition and modernity are prevalent in the work exhibited,” Laurent says. Within this egalitarianism, many artists have enjoyed notable success. A number of practitioners who saw their work exhibited for the first time at previous iterations of the festival have since been awarded the HSBC Prix Pour La Photographie, a respected annual prize for new artists. Maia Flore is one such example, an artist that won the HSBC Prize in 2015 after Circulation(s) featured her the preceding year.

Since exhibiting, Flore has worked extensively, both on her own projects and on commissions for numerous tourist boards around France. She is now represented by Galerie Esther Woerdehoff in the Montparnasse district of Paris, which, coinciding with the return of Circulation(s), presents a high-profile exhibition of recent work, titled Au Lieu de ce monde:  “a study of the way my body, my first tool, reacts with the environment in which it is placed”, Flore observes.

This work is certainly new, originating in the autumn of 2017 as part of the artist’s studies at the Fresnoy Studio School of Contemporary Arts. It involved a “journey-performance” through France – from the country’s easternmost coast through to the western border with Spain. The images are highly aesthetic, locating and triangulating Flore’s body in both built and natural landscapes. Whilst faces are often hidden, the viewer is invited to find meaning in form and gesture, in how the body is located and contorted in various vistas.

Flore’s meteoric rise from her emergence at Circulation(s) is constructive, demonstrating the sense of public service that Lambijou and Hislen have bestowed upon the Parisian scene with the creation of the festival. After a breakthrough exhibition, winning the HSBC prize, a trend started, with other now respected names – Lucie et Simon, Guillaume Martial, Eric Pillot, Marta Zgierska – being awarded the same honour.

One can also look to artists like Bruno Fert and Malik Nejmi, who have won France’s Le Prix des Beaux-Arts since exhibiting in the19th, whilst others used the circuit to gain visibility for the curators of Rencontres d’Arles and have since been showcased at the historic Provence festival.

For those people deep in photographic culture, Circulation(s) has, this year, secured another veritable coups – most notably the recently imprisoned Turkish photographer Çağdaş Erdoğan. Laurent says: “We are very proud to present the works of the Turkish artist Çağdaş Erdoğan, who was until very recently imprisoned for his highly subversive works.”

Erdoğan’s story is remarkable. A 26-year-old Kurdish Turk, he left a sociology degree to immerse himself in photojournalism after meeting Kürşat Bayhan and hearing of the SO Collective – a new photo agency founded by Bayhan and colleagues in Istanbul and designed as an outlet for native photojournalists who had fallen foul of the authorities. Erdoğan focused on the subcultures of the Kurdish population living in the city. His work was photojournalistic, but developed further once he had met Valentina Abenavoli and Alex Bocchetto.

The pair run AkinaBooks, an international publisher of photobooks. Erdoğan began to use a saturated monochrome to capture activities like illegal dog fights and violent protests in Gazi. He gained access to parties in which people would copulate openly. The project became Control, a volume published by AkinaBooks in June 2017. The publication made a point about the repression of the Kurdish faith and liberal identity in the conservative climes of contemporary Istanbul.

Yet Erdoğan was never able to see his work exhibited. Last September, he was suddenly arrested by state policeman. During interrogation, it emerged that the state prosecutor was using the images published in Control as apparent evidence of the photographer’s terrorist sympathies. Erdoğan was held on pre-trial detention until 13 February of this year. He now faces charges which could result in a prison sentence of up to 25 years. As part of the campaign to secure his safe release, Abenavoli contacted Circulation(s) and, at short notice, they agreed to exhibit the works. The response of the Parisian public of the 19th arrondissement could be integral to the freedom of a crusading young photographer. Proving part of a wider cultural and social reflection on contemporary life, the festival is, indeed, part of a wider tapestry for representing, showcasing and defending the human condition through its overwhelming, fascinating complexity and profundity.

Tom Seymour

Until 6 May