Photo London is an in-depth exploration of the medium of photography. The annual event draws together the best in emerging and renowned talent. Now in its eighth iteration, produced by Candlestar, London’s Somerset House boasts over 110 exhibitors from 55 cities worldwide. The fair includes long-standing participants from China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States, alongside first-time gallerists from several countries, which include the Dominican Republic, Finland, Iran and Mexico.
The programme is similarly widespread, with dedicated sections for historic artworks and new creatives. This year, Writing Her Own Script. Women Photographers from the Hyman Collection champions pioneering female photographers at work in Britain across the last century. The exhibition combines the legacy of previous generations with the genre-defying work of contemporary artists, from Dorothy Bohm’s (1924-2023) instrumental early street photography to the self-portraits of Heather Agyepong (b. 1990) and Juno Calypso (b. 1989).
The 2023 edition’s Master of Photography, Martin Parr (b. 1952), unveils a new project taken across the UK in a project five decades in the making. It is featured alongside the likes of Carolle Bénitah (b. 1965), Maisie Cousins (b. 1992) and Prince Gyasi (b. 1995). Elsewhere, the Discovery section spotlights up-and-coming galleries and the best new talent. For exhibitor Federica Belli (b. 1998), Photo London 2023 is a catalyst for inspirational conversation and explosive creativity. The Italian-born, Paris-based photographer’s observations consider themes of vulnerability and transition, speculating on what it means to exist in the world. Across the photographer’s oeuvre, the medium becomes a visual language to analyse, question and understand the fundamental principles of human experiences. Belli’s minimalist, idyllic images reflect shared principles and collective fears, threaded together with an sense of possibility for the future.
A: Photo London’s 2023 exhibition introduces “works that push the boundaries of photography.” Do you see your images this way? How do you define your practice?
FB: We see so many images from the moment we wake up. Around 1.3 billion are shared on Instagram daily, so the photographs I appreciate are those that push the language of the medium. By going beyond the boundaries of the visuals, photographers try to integrate a complex concept into a single shot. It is the same as literature or music: mastering a language follows having something to say in the first place. I don’t think it pertains to me to say whether I’m pushing these borders, but I fall in love with artists who do so and progress over time. We are human. We evolve, and our experiences continue to change. Artists are there to transform the system.
A: You are interested in expressing how strangers might relate to one another and how individuals understand themselves. How is this explored in your most recent projects? How do you examine the idea of perception?
FB: The series, whose working title is How Far Is Too Close To The Heart, was my most difficult to date. In January 2022, I moved to Paris, and I didn’t know anyone. I hadn’t yet mastered the French language, so I turned to one most suitable to me: photography. Since I was 13, it has been a means to get closer to people. I started out by photographing girls my age from my village to spend time with them and ask the ques- tions I wasn’t brave enough to voice when other teenagers were around. We talked about growing up and changing. I did the same in Paris, using the medium to establish an intimacy with strangers and skipping to the part where we could be open and vulnerable. We are both naked and standing close together, but these visual means are a way to bring people beyond the line of what is “normal.” Forced into an unknown situation, people have no expectations about how to behave, so it becomes easier to approach them. Unnatural becomes natural and vice versa, so it leads to an incredible intimacy.
A: All the Light We Cannot See depicts figures and objects becoming one with the environment. How important is the positive relationship between humanity and nature?
FB: This series started in lockdown. I flew home, back to the nature I grew up amongst. Our contact with wilderness is declining, with 75% of Europeans now living in urban areas, according to Statista. But I grew up in a village where, if you’re lonely, the closest comfort is a plant. During lockdown, eve- ryone I admired was becoming dull and faded. I was too. Enthusiasm was disappearing. But it is in these difficult phases we can fully analyse our choices. I asked myself what I could contribute to help reconnect the people I loved with their best version. The series is a reminder to remain open-minded and enlightened; despite the uncertainties and the difficulties, there would be a future for us. I wanted to convey that feeling of hope. It is also about the daily decision to choose who we want to be. We have this raw material, and then we transform it
A: Mirrors become portals to unexpected landscapes and light beams radiate a fantastical energy. How do these elements contribute to explorations of time and space?
FB: Nature is always around us, and we can receive strength from the outdoors. The mirrors reflect the sun, merging the outside energy that comes from inside us. It is a symbol that sums up a whole group of ideas. At its best, photography, like other languages, can help us process and digest life. My work, and that of other artists, stems from intriguing thoughts or experiences. Whenever I have a question that becomes central to my life, it’s impossible not to work on that idea. Then, I find the right symbols to translate these thoughts visually.
A: You were mentored by renowned Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, whose work includes campaigns for United Colors of Benetton, enabling more inclusive fashion campaigns. How did his tutorage influence you?
FB: He impacted not only my approach to photography but to life. He is extremely determined and has succeeded in keeping an open mind as well as a sense of critique. I was taught to focus on what I want, to take a stand and to convey it through photography. Learning from him allowed me to understand the importance of having a position and creating discussion. You can see this in his works like Blanket (1990) and Hearts (1996), which highlight the importance of generating dialogue from one’s practice. Also, any situation can lead to both a great and a terrible photograph. It’s in the hands of the observer. That lesson changed my approach because it moved the locus of control from the outside to the inside. Oliviero taught me that life is something you can and should decipher, as a human being and a photographer.
A: You also attribute the “visual cleanliness” of your compositions to Toscani. What does this gaze signify?
FB: I already gravitated towards this style somehow. He is a master of the visual language. These days beauty can be viewed negatively: for a long time it has been used palliatively, to cover up important discussions. But I do believe in its power. We are driven and inspired by it, so when it is applied in the right way to important contemporary topics, it draws attention to these issues and facilitates interpretation. Photography is a choice of what to include and exclude in the frame. It is important that every detail is meant to be there. It needs to add value. If it isn’t contributing anything, then why?
A: Vulnerability and considerations of identity are important to your work. Why did you choose to focus on self- portraiture as a means of communicating these themes?
FB: It doesn’t matter who I photograph because I want to get to the heart of what it means to be human. Everyone has their own experiences and approach to issues – like Zanele Muholi (b. 1972), who uses their images to document identity – but there are some central archetypes to our existence. We share certain traits and thoughts. Self-portraiture is not different from portraiture: it comes from the idea that each individual is a manifestation of a shared idea of life. The human figure is a symbol, a mechanism to capture and distil these experiences.
A: You acknowledge that an image’s meaning is unique to an individual. How would you describe your relation- ship with the onlooker? What is their role in storytelling?
FB: I rarely consider viewers when I’m working on a project or condensing ideas into a photograph. It has to work for me first. Afterwards, I think about how it might be perceived – at an exhibition or in a book. There is an Italian slang definition, addetto ai lavori, indicating someone from the industry who has a certain visual literacy and will read the symbols in an image in a certain way. However, once the photograph is out there, it’s in the hands of them and general observers. I don’t use captions to explain my works, but I admire artists who master the fusion of the two languages. Think of Barbara Kruger’s You Are Not Yourself (1981) or Jenny Holzer’s In The Garden (2015). Kruger critiques media that seeks to influence viewers, highlighting the importance of autonomy. Apart from that, unless text is part of the artwork, it risks altering the photograph, which should evoke a sensation on its own.
A: Photo London incorporates historic pieces, renowned artists and new talent. How does it feel to be exhibited alongside this broad range of creative practitioners?
FB: It is an amazing opportunity to meet people, exchange ideas and be inspired. There are hugely influential pieces from the likes of Jürgen Schadeberg and Rankin, alongside new artists, such as Joe Webb and Sam Wright. Showing your work is somehow different from experiencing fairs as a visitor: you become part of a mechanism, you exchange thoughts with other artists and test how observers perceive your work.
A: You have recently debuted at Paris Photo and The Phair. What are you working on? What is next for you?
FB: My next project stems from a question that has been central to me in this period. In the long-term, I want to create work that is understandable to people in the industry and to everyone else. I want to focus on the central themes of existence.
Words: Megan Jones
Photo London 2023 Somerset House, London
11-14 May | photolondon.org
1. Federica Belli, The Courage (to Bend and Rise Again), (2020). From All the Light We Cannot See.
2. Federica Belli, The Windows (We Forget to See), (2020). From All the Light We Cannot See.
3. Federica Belli, The Connection, (2020). From All the Light We Cannot See.
4. Federica Belli, The Scar, (2022). From All the Light We Cannot See.
5. Federica Belli, The Visionary, (2021). From All the Light We Cannot See.