O n the train ride from Amsterdam to Groningen, four days before the Noorderlicht Photofestival was due to open, I decided to stop worrying about the small details of the exhibition. I decided that the show will be what it will be and, having never seen the space, it would never be like I imagined in my head. What I began to focus on was the prospect of meeting up with the six photographers in Closing In (Lurdes Basoli, Vincent Delbrouck, Linda Forsell, Seba Kurtis, Wayne Liu and Adam Patterson), all of who were travelling to the northern town for the exhibition. I made the decision that the show wasn’t about how the frames looked but the people that were involved and those that we reach through the work. Turns out I didn’t need to make such decisions because everything just happened that way naturally.
I arrived in Groningen, not only to find the whole show expertly hung and designed – thanks to Noorderlicht’s 16 years of experience putting on the festival – but also Adam Patterson’s photo from the show plastered all over the town (see below), a pleasant surprise given that there were over 120 photographers in the entire festival. Vincent Delbrouck and Adam Patterson arrived early to complete the finishing touches by handwriting on the wall, and after a few tweaks and changes, (thanks to the invaluable help of Yousef and others), Closing In was ready to open up.
Of all the exhibitions’s at this year’s festival Stuart Franklin’s Point of No Return was the one everyone was talking about, stemming from the controversy with AP about the text for the show . His was most certainly the most shocking, with the gruesome photographs of dead bodies, mostly children, pasted onto a white block construction in the middle of the church. As all were taken by Palstinian photographers working in Gaza during the fighting that erupted in the beginning of the year, I was hoping for the focus to be more on the photographers, but the installation did indeed create a point of debate within the festival.
Marc Prust’s show, Lost, was an exploration of individual struggles with disease, sex and addiction. Two series of note were Michael Grieves’ No Love Lost on the suppression of sex and desire in the UK and Kosuke Okahara’s work on self-mutilation in Japan. Simon Njami’s Ordinary Pain was encased in an unusual but captivating wire tunnel, adding a narrative approach to the work and Multivocal Histories, curated by Bas Vroege, incorporated a wide range of photographers, including Susan Meiselas and Tim Hetherington’s Sleeping Soldiers video production, as a comment on documentation, history and “slow journalism”.
Of particular note was Wim Melis’ War Machines, featuring the beautifully printed work of Simon Norfolk’s Full Spectrum Dominance, along with the war playing cards by Robert Hirsch and the unsettling post-atomic bomb shots in Japan by Yosuke Yamahata and Shinkichi Kikuchi. The show was a well thought out comment on the absurd aspects of war when faced with such death and destruction.
The opening night saw, what seemed like hundreds of people attend with the queue to get in stretching out alongside the Der Aa-kerk, the vast, cavernous church where four of the exhibtions were housed. Speeches were made by the Dutch Council of Culture and the Times’ MaryAnne Golon and at 8pm everyone was cleared out and tables with candles were set up amongst the exhibitions for a dinner. Sitting in low lighting beneath what took months of work for me and in some cases years for the photographers was a surprisingly moving experience.
The next day at 5pm all seven of us we were scheduled to give a talk about the show, with each photographer speaking in detail about their projects. After little preparation we arrived and what transpired was a frank discussion about motivations and frustrations. Instead of being challenged with probing questions, the photographers were praised by the audience and the festival organisers for bringing something real to the table and speaking from the heart.
Closing In was my first solo curated show, so of course I wanted it to speak to my own interests and obsessions, as well as looking fantastic. I wanted the photographers to be pleased with the end result and proud to have their work exhibited. I believed unconditionally in all the work in the show but another factor crept in, which I didn’t anticipate, though perhaps it was the unconscious reason behind my six choices. The photographers, I realised, were quite similar in their approach to their work and their characters reflected the type of work that they produced. In this industry, it’s too often about learning how to deal with personalities; which photographers are difficult to work with and more precious about the minor details than their subjects. The six photographers in Closing In are just the opposite. Far from introspective or self-obsessed, they are looking out towards their subject every second, retaining an extraordinary personal attachment to the act of storytelling. This is the type of photographer and work for which I will always have time.
Closing In at the Noorderlicht Photofestival is on in Groningen, Holland, until 4 October.