Thoughts and reflections from Rencontres Des Arles 2013

I went expecting an extensive set of imagery and was slightly taken aback by the scale of the event. Just under fifty exhibitions covering a diverse range of photographic genres. The quality of the work was high, if not excellent and whilst the theme of Arles in Black was to do with black and white photography there was a lot of colour work on display. There were various sub-themes; Me, Them, There as well as associated shows, however I didn’t follow any particular theme through my visit, I had only six days and wanted to cover as much as I could, so I visited exhibition by exhibition serially. It might be interesting to look again at the work, as I have described it later, as ‘grouped’ in their sub-genres. I have written a longer set of notes on the Festival here and another on portraits here.

Lartigue's story of his relationship with Bibi was situated in this church; a reverential gesture I think

Lartigue’s story of his relationship with Bibi was situated in this church; a reverential gesture I think

I found myself a number of times questioning my own perceptions about different works, most notably documentary. I was, by a curious circumstance, staying in a property owned by the author and reporter Isabelle Wesselingh, who has done a great deal of work reporting from the Balkans, but who now works from Romania. I met Isabelle both at the property and again at the Rencontres as she was showing her friend, also a journalist who is married to Jerome, a photojournalist, who has been working in Darfor but who are the process of transferring to Nairobi. I have asked them about the effect of ‘Documentary’ photography/photojournalism as a number of approaches were exhibited – Robin Hammond and Alfredo Jaar. I have had a response to say that I will receive a response and will add this to my thoughts as and when I arrive. My mind is tending to the perspective that I felt Jaar was proposing and that Sontag espoused some decades ago, that the world is now tired of these issues, suggesting that photography isn’t ever going to get anything done – like McCullin said in a recent documentary. But if nothing changes by the use of documentary, that if the life of a photojournalist is a waste, then why do some many risk so much to bring to the world images that are designed to hurt, to illuminate, to inform, to embarrass; all for nothing – Kevin Carter paid a big price for the work he did, was it worth it?

Another aspect that struck home was the use of text, more and more I am being attracted to the use/provision of text. From what seems a relatively short time ago when I thought any text, especially titles, would detract from the image; to now when I think that not only are words a very real part of the work, they can in certain circumstances subjugate the image into a secondary role. I have been thinking of how to accommodate text into my work, and when I saw Courtinant’s work which firmly put the image as a support to the text (in this viewer’s mind at any rate) I think I may have turned a corner; something I will return to later in this text!



An area I have become somewhat fascinated by recently is fiction, the nature of which was in a lot of a lot of the work in Arles ( perhaps all? – but that is another question). From Minkkenin’s use of his ‘self’ to provide allegorical narratives that seem to explore his relationship with “Land and perhaps more especially Water” to Stezaker’s very deliberate use of collage and presentation styles to develop stories in the minds of viewers. I particularly enjoyed the latter’s use of stage or film set pieces that are from the outset already fictive narratives; overlayed/cut-up and worked in order to other stories to develop. I was also particularly impressed with Paniak’s work, similar in process to Stezaker’s but with a more mythological edge to them, fairy stories, and perhaps surprisingly nothing dark – no bad witches or goblins, but light and tender. Fiction though is a catholic house and there were works where the narrative purposefully merged the fact with fiction. I knew it was purposeful because the title of the work, in one piece, carried the words ‘Possible  and Imaginary’ by two photographers;  Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh and Rozenn Quere. Through the use of found family photographs and taped interviews they generate a part fiction/part documentary drama of four women:

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

And these are some of the images that I took whilst there:

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

But it wasn’t until after my visit that I remembered that this work had been suggested by my tutor – via this link – and whilst I really enjoyed the work, the big difference was the way in which the work is received when in the gallery. In the gallery space the work is, of course, physical’ it is three dimensional, the photographs are mounted into frames and set out so that as you walk around the images overlap; seemingly moving around each-other and forming relationships that cannot happen in a wall or on the screen. And whilst I hadn’t entertained fictive narratives before using images, I think there maybe something there for me to key into.

Another lesson learned from this is that after one leaves an exhibition you cannot go back unless you pay again. I wanted to go back to this exhibit and study further but decided against it, not really because of the cost – I think another €8 – but because I thought I could get more from the web-site and further research, which I don’t think I’ll get fully.

I am minded to engage with fiction in the course. I have yet to understand how I would do so, as well as convince my tutor that it might be a good thing to do at the moment! I’ve always held the view that with fiction the most important issues of life can be engaged with – I’m not suggesting that I want to understand life, it’s meaning within the universe; rather my targets to investigate would have lower profiles, and probably, much more personal. I have largely stopped reading fiction, something that has been a life long companion. The notion of verity, of the truth being held within the frame has been another companion on my travels with photography, and I now comprehend that when I took a landscape with my monochrome film, or a portrait I constructed a fiction for myself. The work that I did in the darkroom and subsequently on the computer screen developed that lie still further. When I ‘painted light’ into the image – or applied darkness – I had somehow convinced myself that because it was only about the addition of natural light that would probably occur if I stayed around long enough, is of course a myth of my own construction, that compounded my self delusion.

Working to tell a story using photography and text was an area in the festival that seemed to occur most often, the only photographer who seemed to work against the idea of a series of images to narrate an idea was Garcin, whose work comprised a lot of single image stories – but stories nevertheless.

This post will appear in both Gesture and Meaning and Documentary blogs


11 thoughts on “Thoughts and reflections from Rencontres Des Arles 2013

  1. Pingback: Thoughts and reflections from Rencontres Des Arles 2013 | John Umney - Gesture and Meaning

  2. Really interesting post John. There is a lot in here—so I’ll have to come back and read again. But the most obvious point, that both you and Keith made is how big the exhibition is. I fear that the two days OCA have set aside is too little; and I regret not planning to stay longer!

  3. Very thoughtful John.

    A question in my mind is what purpose is the use of fiction meant to fulfil. In literature there is wide gamut, from moral tales to pulp fiction, from philosophical theses to sexual titillation and so on.

    In terms of photography my own view is that one should start by being cleat about what you want to say with your work and then to decide on how best to convey this. Fictional representation is one way of getting over one’s message. I keep thinking about Tom Hunter’s ‘Life and Death in Hackney’. In this series he borrowed quasi-fictional tales and re- present them in a modern context showing run down Hackney in a romantic light. His aim seems to me to have been to emphasise the significance of everyday life and to elevate the mundane to the level of the extraordinary.

    • Thanks for this Keith. I have the notion that I want to explore a truth through fiction, though I feel this may be too big a jump straight away. I know I could start with a simple fiction, created just to explore a narrative that has no great depth or personal meaning, but I think I want to ‘jump right in’ as it were. I do know what you mean about that work by Hunter, but I more impressed by what he did, rather than how he did it – which may sound a bit twisted! I think the notion of positioning his thoughts about Hackney, representation etc is a very valid thing to do; and the way that he went about the work, his decision to have beauty as an important aesthetic worked well – I am just a bit unsure about how he re-contextualised some of them – but that is just a personal issue I think. I am a big fan of his work, as you know.
      There are one or two things that are bubbling that I want to tackle at some stage – but I think I need to have a chat with a tutor to decide this year or next….

      • I think you should jump in at the deep end….only way to go. There are precedents on the truth by fiction idea I am sure. Martha Rosler’s “Bringing the War Home” sort of did this. Her montages place the war in Vietnam in the homes of Americans…

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