It might seem an unlikely place to host a photo festival, but there was something refreshing about the Zoom Photo Festival in Chicoutimi, in the Saguenay Region of Quebec – not an outdoor bistro table in sight and weather far from the usual southern France climes.

As we drove north along highway 175, meandering through the magnificent Jacques-Cartier National Park, we kept looking out the window thinking “We’re not in Perpignan any more.” The relative remoteness of the festival – two hours from Quebec City, five from Montreal – may put some people off travelling to Chicoutimi. But in so many ways, this was a breath of fresh air.

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Now in its second year, the festival, which runs through November, hosts 17 exhibitions as well as several seminars and talks – no mean feat for a festival still very much in its infancy, which this year included luminaries of the photojournalism world: World Press Photo, National Geographic and VII (whose exhibition Aid and Abet dealt with the often uncomfortable working relationship between NGOs and photojournalists). Alongside the VII exhibition was the work of photographers Olivier Laban-Mattei and Arnuad Brunet. Entitled Zenga, Zenga, the exhibition documents the early skirmishes of the Libyan rebels as they made their first surge west towards Tripoli, only to find themselves forced back by Gaddafi loyalists. Laban-Mattei and Brunet, together with Jean-Luc Luyssen, are represented by NEUS, a unique micro-agency interested more in individual stories than individual photographers. Also featured in the same, rather splendid exhibition space was Zone Portuaire, the poetic work of Nicolas Lévesque – co-founder of the Kahem photography collective – who documented a small community in Costa Rica.

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Olivier Laban-Mattei

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Arnuad Brunet

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Heading out of town to the College of General and Vocational Education in neighbouring Jonquière, we find the 2011 Anthroprograhia Award for Human Rights. Anthroprographia is a non-profit organisation that seeks to draw attention to under-publicised human rights issues around the world. This year’s winners were Christian Vium for his project Clandestine, which addresses migration from West Africa to Europe, and Chien-Chi Chang for his multimedia project Escape from North Korea. There’s something particularly apt about holding such an exhibition in a public college, where the organisation’s founder, Matthieu Rytz, along with festival organisers, plan a number of educational seminars based around the work.

A major highlight of the festival was the discovery of both Quebec-based agency Stigmat Photo and French magazine Zmala: A Curious Eye, dedicated to photography collectives in France and abroad. A joint exhibition in the Libraire les Bouquinistes consisted of the work of Renaud Philippe, co-founder of Stigmat, and various photographers featured in Zmala magazine. Renaud travelled to Tunisia to cover the situation of refugees living on the border, resulting in truly compassionate photographs. Standout work from Zmala contributors was Stéphane Moiroux and his images of the Amazonian shamans, where he mixes photography with the work of surrealist painter Paolo del Aguilla Sajami, and also Benjamin Bechet, who dresses models as cartoons and places them in menial locations where normally they would be dismissed as citizens (Mickey Mouse as a homeless person sleeping on a bench).

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Renaud Philippe

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Stéphane Moiroux

It was in these smaller-profile shows that the festival really shone. National Geographic and World Press Photo are undoubtedly the big draws to local visitors, and the participation of VII has certainly put the festival (somewhat) on the international map, but the most striking exhibitions are those from the newer generation of photojournalists. The festival may be small but the work is stimulating, managing to successfully combine the established heavyweights of photojournalism with those just starting off. Maybe it is time to get out those winter woollies and visit the quirky town of Chicoutimi for the third Zoom Festival next year – you might even see some moose!

NicolasLevesque
Nicolas Levesque

The Zoom Photo Festival is on until 27 November.
zoomsur.ca