In the spirit of “getting out more” I accepted an invitation to visit the second annual Photoquai exhibition in Paris this week. I’m not one for spur of the moment travel but given the opportinuty to take a train to Paris and be shown around a photo exhibition of 50 photographers, I gladly accepted. I didn’t know much about Photoquai before I left but I understood that the focus was on non-western photography. What I found, after a day of hurried viewings of the exhibitions, was a vibrant and brilliant display of refreshing work by photographers from all four corners of the globe.
Atul Loke’s photographs displayed on the promenade along the Seine. “I lived in a Chawl in
Mumbai…two rooms, ten members of my family. I was born here, I grew up here. These are
images of my home, my family, my friends, neighbours and their children”
Photoquai works because of the commitment put into dispatching curators to regions across the globe in search of photographers who are successful in their own countries but, for one reason or another, have not been seen much in France. Yes, a number of works have been seen in this part of the world and some of the photographers are even based in London, New York or Paris itself. But by bringing together such a varied collection of photographers Photoquai puts on show the wealth and wonder of visual story telling practised beyond our view in such countries as Peru and Mongolia or South Africa and Afghanistan, to mention but a few.
The day of the preview was meticulously planned and made easy by our hosts. A quick visit, after our early morning arrival by train, to the Pavillon des Sessions, Museum of quai Branly, at the Louvre allowed us to see the “Portraits croisés” exhibition of ancient and mysterious artifacts in the permanent collection displayed alongside images from the museum’s photographic archives. Associations between the hallowed ancient objects and the sepia-toned prints were often tentative at best and the curators Yves Le Fur and Christine Barthes explained that the intention was to “create a game” between object and image that was not obvious and descriptive but rather suggestive and emotional at times. Thus an Aztec stone carved statue could be illuminated by the presence next to it of a photograph of a woman from Australia in 1875.
William Lindt, Australia circa 1875 and 15th century Huaxteque scupture from Mexico
I found the game to be intruging and informative, a juxtaposition of people and ideas that created connections despite being separated by the distances of medium, country and date. The documentary images of such luminaries as Henri Cartier Bresson and Pierre Verger, an invaluable anthropological document in their own right, conspired in the context here to create mini-fictions in the mind of the viewer. The space between photograph and object is massive but one can fill it with recognitions of elegance, the beat of humanity and the imagination of a shared history.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mexican Women, 1934 and ancient figurines on display in the Pavillon des Sessions, Louve.
The question was raised about the value of a western photography as a prism through which to understand non-western society and religion. Perhaps I could see too much of the noble savage in the frames of 19th century explorers and photographers not to feel that the objects themselves overwhelmed the social meaning or cultural validity of the photographs. On one hand a two pictorial depiction of some other life and on the other a piece of life itself, albeit in a glass display case, carved and fashioned by the world view if its creator.
Next stop, witnessing a motorcycle accident along the way, was the Photoquai itself. A 100 metre promenade along the Seine at quai Branly had been transformed into an open-air exhibition of photography. 50 photographers, chosen by the likes of Reza Deghati and Pablo Bartholomew were chosen to show-case a story or paticular body of work from their country. The presentation was well achieved and the impact of the large format outdoor prints was very strong indeed. There is far too much to say about each photographer’s images so i managed to interview a handful to share their thoughts with us directly.
The highlight of the day was the central outdoor exhibition. With such a wide range of geographical settings and differing social commentary depicted by photographers in their own countries, there was a sense that this exhibition spoke in many languages with personal perspectives on home and country. To fully realise their goal of assembling narratives from the far reaches of the globe, Photoquai had brought over the exhibiting photographers. So for the opening day the public, reviewers such as myself and photographers mingled on the promenade looking, discussing and sharing stories from home.
The third and final stop of our tour later that afternoon was the Iranian photography exhibition curated by Anahita Ghabaian Etehadieh inside the Branly Museum. Billed as 165 years of Iranian photography it was perhaps more ambitious that the space or selection of images would allow. I was drawn first to the early studio portrait series and then transported, via Kaveh Golestan’s photographs made during the revolution, to a contemporary Iranian view of itself.
Family portrait 1930-1950 by Chehrenegar Studio, courtesy of Cultural Research Bureau Iran
Kaveh Golestan photographs on dispay in “165 Years of Iranian Photography”
Moshen Rastani. Annual ceremonies for the Iranian Reveolution, Tehran,2009
(l) Rana Javadi, When You Die, 2008. (r) Shadi Ghadirian, Nul-Nul, 2008
That evening we went to the opening event and I was glad to see the Paris photo scene in full swing. There is a growing schedule of festivals, openings and new exhibitions to attend these days however Photoquai as a biennial gathering was well attended and well received in this second outing. Conversation switched to the recent news of Grazia Neri, an Italian photo agency, and their impending liquidation after 43 years in business. The climate for photographers making real stories and extended projects is undoubtedly harsh and no one pretends to know what the future will hold for commercial photojournalists and their craft. But if there is one thing that helps inspire and instill a sense of optimism it is the feeling that someone is listening – that the people want to experience photography and the stories it can tell. At Photoquai we saw this and I was reminded that it helps to get out more often, because as they say… there is a whole world out there.