We’re bombarded with images today as never before. Whether you’re an avid mealtime Instagrammer, snapchatting your risqué images, being photobombed by your pets, capturing appealing colour schemes for your Pinterest moodboard, or simply contributing to the 250,000 or so images added to Facebook every minute, chances are you have a camera about your person most of the time, and use it almost without thinking to document your day.
Images have great social currency online, keeping visitors on a page longer, and increasing the shareability of your content. The old adage that “a picture’s worth a thousand words” comes into its own in an environment where we’re all bombarded with more information than we can consume, where there’s a constant downward pressure on your wordcount, and where you need to be eye-catching and tell a story within 140 characters or fewer. Lives have been changed, public opinion shifted, history made by a single picture. Think of an iconic image, and odds are that many spring straight to your mind, from the powerful – Kim Phuc running from a napalm attack in Vietnam, ‘Tank Man’ facing down the military in Tiananmen Square – to the stage-managed – those construction workers lunching on a skyscraper beam above Manhattan or Doisneau’s ‘Kiss by the Hotel du Ville’ — and many more.
Consider just the last few weeks: the violent protests following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, encapsulated in a single image of heavily armed policemen training their weapons on a lone man with his hands in the air; the images pouring out of Gaza, so at odds with the formal tweets of the IDF; or American photojournalist James Foley – a man who dedicated his life to ensuring such images streamed into our front rooms, into our news feeds, into our consciousness – kneeling next to the man who was about to become his killer. Wherever time and space are at a premium, wherever narrative matters, an image gets the story across in the most direct and powerful way.
Here in Oxford, a new international photography festival seeks to look at just these questions around the power and the purpose of photography, opening up debate about the many issues which surround it in the current climate, aiming to bring world-class work to a new audience and to elevate awareness and appreciation of the form to a level long-since enjoyed by painting, sculpture, and the other visual arts. On Sunday 14 September, colleges, museums, art galleries, and even a giant safe, will welcome visitors into more than 20 free exhibitions showing the work of internationally-renowned photographers, alongside a film programme mixing documentaries and feature films which have images and their use at heart, and a series of talks and panel discussions.
The exhibitions range widely, from powerful photojournalism such as Laura El-Tantawy’s images of a post-Mubarak Egypt, Robin Hammond’s work inside Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and the Document Scotland collective’s recording of this truly decisive moment in Scottish history, to Yann Layma’s stunning macros of butterfly wings and Mark Laita’s vibrant images of brightly-coloured snakes; from Susanna Majuri’s elaborate photographic fictions, hovering somewhere between dream and reality, to the vibrant architectural images of Matthias Heiderich; and from Mariana Cook’s portrait series of those who risk their lives for justice to Paddy Summerfield’s moving documentation of the final years of his parents’ 60-year marriage. The UK debut of this year’s World Press Photo award features prominently, alongside French photographer Bernard Plossu’s first-ever British show, and a showcase of work from members of the Helsinki school, including the eminent Pentti Sammallahti and Arno Minkkinen.
The festival brings us shows documenting the NGO use of images in campaigns across the decades, or looking at photos which trick us, whether deliberately or inadvertently; a moving exhibition on photography and healing; and one exploring how different artists use photography – digitally, printed on surfaces such as ceramics or metals, or using Victorian techniques. Yet other exhibitions feature powerful portraits of the famous buildings of Oxford and their custodians, of the descendants of some of the world’s most famous historical figures, and Vermeer-inspired portraits of female domesticity from Maisie Broadhead.
Meanwhile the talks and debates include the BBC’s David Shukman on photography and climate change, celebrated landscape photographer Charlie Waite talking about the challenges and joys of landscape photography, and Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden chairing a discussion on Henry Fox Talbot. Panels cover the role of photojournalism in the Northern Ireland peace process, the role of the critic in photography, images and the business world, and the merits and challenges of shooting photographic stories in areas close to home rather than travelling to far flung exotic locations.
The festival will draw to a close on Sunday 5 October, with ‘The Tim Hetherington Debate: What Good is Photography’, looking at the importance of photography in the twenty-first century, and a screening of Sebastian Junger’s Which Way is the Front Line from Here, a documentary about the photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington, killed in 2011 by mortar fire in Misrata, Libya, where he had been covering the civil war.
As festival founder and director Robin Laurance, himself an acclaimed photojournalist, concludes: “It’s time to celebrate the city’s links with the beginnings of an art form that has become ever-present in all our lives. We intend Oxford to be the place where photography is not only celebrated, but where it is debated, examined and challenged. Our aim is to open people’s minds as well as their eyes to photography.”