© Rimaldas Viksraitis
On the last night of Les Rencontres D’Arles we queue to enter the Théâtre Antique for the screening of Nan Goldin’s ground breaking “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, an epic 50 min slideshow of 700 intensely personal images taken in New York during the 70s and 80s, accompanied for the first time by eccentric London-based musicians The Tiger Lillies. The queue descends into a moshpit as we jostle to get through the tiny gate. The security guards argue in French and I am told that each thought the other was keeping count. One of the guards tells the crowd that the event has sold out; we wave our tickets and push our way inside. For a night with Nan Goldin, famous for her autobiographical photographs of sex and drugs, it all feels suitably rock and roll.
The night begins with the Rencontres D’Arles Awards Ceremony. This year the festival is celebrating its 40th year, and while many of the exhibitions on offer are retrospective in nature, the Discovery Award in contrast looks firmly ahead at the work of emerging photographers. Fifteen established names in the photographic community nominate an emerging photographer who stands to win 25,000 Euro prize money and international recognition.
Stand out work in this year’s Discovery Award exhibition includes Irish photographer Don McNeill Healy’s long term project documenting a Traveler family in Dublin. One particularly striking image shows 15 year old Rosie at her wedding reception wearing an elaborate crown and dress, feeding her new newborn baby next to the band’s drum kit, while her equally adolescent looking new husband sits behind her, deep in thought…or possibly shock.
Palestinian photographer Raed Bawayah has photographed patients in the Mental Health Hospital in Bethlehem in the West Bank, his goal “to reveal a difficult situation and give it legitimacy and credibility”. One image shows a patient completely covered by a hospital blanket, only a tuft of hair revealed; the blanket could be a death shroud or a thing of warmth and comfort. Another patient, with just an extended arm and delicately held wrist visible, seems to swim backstroke through the heaped blankets. A line from a Stevie Smith poem springs to mind – Not waving but drowning.
© Raed Bawayah
Lithuanian photographer Rimaldas Viksraitis is announced as this year’s Discovery Award winner. Photographing his local community and the fast disappearing rural way of life Viksraitis says “This is life on the farm”. This is life on the farm – I am guessing – like you have never seen it before. Copious amounts of home-brew booze is consumed, people get naked a lot, and various animals pop up everywhere, on dressers, on tables, in tight embraces or held aloft by the hind legs. Looking at his images it is obvious there is a profound tenderness and intimacy between Viksraitis and the subjects of his photographs and through this we gain access to his story. As Martin Parr says in his nominating statement Viksraitis’s images offer us a “ringside seat, with all the emotion, the drink and the ensuing madness.”
The annual Book Award gathers entries from publishers across the globe. The resulting exhibition is like being a kid in the proverbial candy store with 400 photo books published in the last year on display. To save us all from temptation they are securely fixed to the tables. At the end of the festival one of each book is donated to the National School of Photography.
This year’s winner in the Historical category for best published thematic or monographic book is In History by Susan Meiselas (Steidl Verlag). Published in conjunction with a major exhibition at the International Center of Photography, the catalogue is the first compendium of Meiselas’s work examining ideas of photographic representation, collaboration, history and memory.
In the Contemporary category for best photographers project book From Back Home by Anders Petersen and JH Engström (Max Ström, publisher) is awarded the coveted prize. Petersen and Engström are two of Sweden’s most renowned photographers who have collaborated on a book about their homeland.
© Nan Goldin
With the award ceremony concluded we settle in for the Ballad of Sexual Dependency accompanied by The Tiger Lillies, who are notorious for singing controversial songs involving bestiality, prostitution and blasphemy (that’s as much as I know). The music is perfectly suited to Goldin’s personal, snap shot atheistic images of the array of human emotion, sex, drugs, disease and death. The repeated refrain still rings in my ears, “Death to you and Death to me, for we are all just shit and pee”. The music is pure theatrical angst and coupled with the gritty, no holds barred images the result is an emotional rollercoaster.
Goldin has edited her images into somewhat perfunctory edits – women, men, love, hate, but when looked at in its entirety, not only is it a powerful personal reflection on the lives of friends and lovers it is almost an ethnographic study of a tribe and their rites and rituals. I am reminded of Goldin’s recent controversial address at the World Press Photo Awards and her insistence that we can only ever really photograph our own tribe. Whether you follow this theory or not, the work is a prime example of the strength of voice you can achieve when you do.