For centuries, reporters have ventured out into their surroundings to see things first-hand and bring back stories to the rest of us who stayed at home. Even though some of the greatest names in the field—Marco Polo, Herodotus, Ibn Battuta—don’t carry the title reporter, what else did they do but convey to their compatriots what they had witnessed from their forays into the world?
As in the past, we readers, from the comfort of our cozy rooms, merely have to open a newspaper (or a magazine or book or…) to have access to a dazzling array of images (and stories) that instantly carry us off to distant lands. Recently, the mediums have changed—screens rather than paper—but our desire to know more about the world has not. Meanwhile, the reporters themselves continue to carry on much like they always have—criss-crossing the globe to put their boots on the ground and their lives on the line in order to discover the stories that captivate us.
But there has also been another key change recently: the disappearance of budgets for reporting. Especially for long-term work, very few media outlets have the capacity for speculative funding. Some magazines will happily buy a finished project—but how, then, does new work get created? Even the most passionate, ardent visual storytellers need money to buy plane tickets…and pay for translators…and food…and all the other logistics necessary to produce their stories.
Amidst this gloomy atmosphere, an intriguing model has emerged. For the past four years, the International Photoreporter Festival (located in the small town of Saint-Brieuc, Brittany) has brought together a wide-ranging group of local businesses and organizations in order to both fund new photo-documentary work and provide a showcase for it. Unlike most festivals—which exhibit already completed projects—this festival seeks applications solely for projects that are unfinished.
Since its inception, the achievement of the festival has been its continuing ability to give the material support necessary to bring new stories out into the world and then help these stories become more well-known.
On LensCulture, we previewed a handful of projects which caught our eye before the official opening of the festival—The Shetland Islands, Moldova: Silent Land, I Am South Africa and Malaiku: The Angels. But when we actually made our way to the two exhibition sites at Saint-Brieuc, something unexpected happened: three projects, which had seemed unremarkable on our screens, sprang into life when viewed in person.
Although all ten of the projects this year were very strong, these three remained in our minds most vividly because their power grew so viscerally out of the experience of having traveled to see them with our own eyes.
“It’s Nothing Personal”
In this deeply researched, profoundly eye-opening project, Bastashevski has created a multi-part installation that reveals the chilling extent of international electronic surveillance today. By gathering together corporate documentation, promotional material (and even some internal communications), we understand how these companies present themselves to the outside world—and how this contrasts with their internal machinations. Punctuating the numbing wall of raw information are photographs that Bastashevski took at specific, sensitive sites around the world—Switzerland, Israel, the UK (among 15 countries total). Although the project is largely research-based, the photographer’s physical presence at different locations is essential to grounding the abstractness of the subject into the living world. Furthermore, by standing in front of the physical exhibition, you can’t help but feel surrounded by the inner workings of Bastashevski’s own mind. An impossible experience to replicate—unless you go see it for yourself.
“I Would Like You to See Me”
Every three days, another women disappears in Italy. Or, to put it differently, between 2005 and 2013, 1036 women were killed across the country by “loving” husbands and fathers and boyfriends. But how do you photograph something which is not there—in this case, the “disappeared” women? Faced with the challenge of capturing the absent, Sanesi traveled across her home country to find out more. What she has brought back is a touching (and shocking) mixture of staged still lifes, environmental portraits and achingly empty frames. Seeing the work in person, her exhibition is set apart by the cumulative impact that the materials achieve: Banal graffiti turns out to be a hateful break-up message; an innocent-looking doll was made by a murderer in prison. Although certain strands of Sanesi’s work are familiar from other projects, the way it all comes together in this case leaves an indelible mark on the viewer’s mind.
“Afghanistan: A Land of Continuous Conflict”
Saeedi’s project almost didn’t happen. Despite having spent five years in Afghanistan, the situation on the ground in the summer of 2015 had worsened so radically that he felt incapable of carrying out his plans. Constrained by the country’s ongoing crisis, Saeedi had to adapt on the fly. Luckily for us, Saeedi responded brilliantly to the circumstances. As one of the first photographers to ever embed with the Afghan army, Saeedi shows us the nation’s burgeoning defense forces more closely than ever before. His presence brings us so fully and viscerally into the action that it feels almost cinematic—an excitement tempered by the fact that we know these are brutally real events. Like the prior two projects, a handful of pixels on the screen completely fails to convey the force of this work—do your very best to see the pictures in person.
Today, with a few clicks of a button, we can learn of the latest news developments or watch a live feed or even drop into an unknown street on the other side of the globe. Despite this power, some experiences still must be sought out in the world. That’s why reporters, even today, continue to go out into the world to find their stories. And that’s why we should do our best to meet them halfway and see, in person, this year’s excellent exhibitions in Saint-Brieuc.
Editors’ Note: The International Photoreporter Festival ran from October 3 - November 1, 2015.