“Traces and Omens” was the elected theme and subsequent catalogue title of this year’s Noorderlicht event in Groningen. Therefore, not imposing terribly strict limits on the type of work on show, around 70 photographers were chosen to illustrate this broad theme and versatility of the definition of documentary photography all together.
The main issues and questions put forth in the brief by the event curator Wim Meils deal with the visualisation of time and the complexities this entails. As a result, the work ranges from Christien Meindertsma’s collage of colourful, if harmless, items confiscated at Schiphol airport, over the period of one week, to Adrienne van Eekelen’s intimate diary of a girl from childhood through to puberty to Paul Fusco’s recent return to Chernobyl. Even with the less remarkable pieces of work – Mike Mike’s digital creation of universal faces come to mind – the theme continues to resonate.
The catalogue (although it feels and reads more like a book) contains a brief glimpse of each of the photographers’ work that was exhibited throughout the northern Dutch city. Unlike countless other photography festivals of this scale, a genuine attempt has been made to publish an attractive and valuable corresponding catalogue. In addition to the photographs, we find three essays theorising on the role of memory and history in the medium of photography thereby creating a solid context in which to place these images, one which was largely absent from the actual exhibition.
What makes this piece all the more attractive are the unknown photographers featured. We are not bombarded with the usual suspects, apart from a couple of veterans, yet are presented with an even-handed selection of photographers from around the globe. Perhaps, then, the main intention driving Traces and Omens can be best summed up by Bas Heijne’s definition of photography in his essay The Ecstasy of Reality – ‘an inspired search by the eye to see the world anew’.