© Claire Martin
© Claire Martin, from Slab City: “Slab City has been created by a small but committed squatter’s community.  It lies in the Colorado Desert in South Eastern California and takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II base.  It is a truly horrific and romantic landscape that commands residents to possess the same balance of beauty and beast.” – Claire Martin

In 1996 when Bob Hewitt, Max Pam, Gary Dufour and Victor France first conceived of FotoFreo, Fremantle’s festival of photography, they took the festival at Arles as a model. Les Rencontres d’Arles was then – and continues to be – one of the key nodes of the photography world. But the world has changed since 1996: nodes have multiplied and the global community of photographers is if anything a closer and larger community than it has ever been, connected by online social networks, new platforms for presenting and promoting work, and an explosion of new photography festivals.

In a world that no longer has a clear centre, festivals like Western Australia’s FotoFreo play an increasingly important role in meshing regional sensibilities with those of the broader world. FotoFreo provides an opportunity for regional photographers to meet and show their work to an international audience. “We want to spread the word about the quality of our photographers,” says Hewitt, who now programmes the festival with June Moorhouse. “They don’t have the networks to get exposure into a more international arena, and one of my ambitions is to try and network in such a way that not only do we bring work to Australia, but our photographers go to various parts of the world.”

© Sohrab Hura
© Sohrab Hura from  “Life is Elsewhere”: “My Life is Elsewhere is a journal of my life, my family, my love, my friends, my travels, my sheer need to experience all that is about to disappear and so in a way I’m attempting to connect my own life with the world that I see with a hope to find my reality in it.”

This cross-pollination is evidenced in the Lithuanian photography festival Kaunas. Photographer and curator Mindaugas Kavaliauskas, who organises the Baltic festival, had exhibited at FotoFreo in 2008. He returned to Lithuania with direct contacts to the Australian photo community and rapidly turned around an exhibition spotlighting Australian photography. (His collaboration with Australian photographers resulted in Customs Ignored: Lithuanian and Australian Photography (2009); the book includes work by nine Lithuanian and nine Australian photographers.)

The FotoFreo 2010 exhibition line-up includes a mix of Australian, regional and international participation. Participants include well-known names such as Eugene Richards, Jean Chung, Tamara Voninski, Annet van der Voort and Narelle Autio, emerging talents such as Viviane Dalles and Sohrab Hura and photographers who have cemented their reputations in the region including David Dare Parker, Monica Napper and Brad Rimmer. Highlights include two curated group shows: “Growing Pains: Timor Leste Ten Years On” exploring a decade of independence in East Timor, and a survey of Contemporary Chinese photographers curated by Zhang Guo Tian and Magda Zanova.

©Narelle Autio 2009 "The Summer of Us"
© Narelle Autio 2009 from “The Summer of Us”: “[The Summer of Us] introduces us to a lovely continuum existing between manufactured and natural, between ocean and land. Lost gloves slowly grow to resemble five fingered sea creatures and in turn lost sea creatures become curious objects when washed up on the shore. Autio’s appreciation for the power and the poetic transformations of the ocean is elegantly portrayed in these works.” (via Stills Gallery)

Both exhibition and a speakers’ programme indicate a willingness to examine longstanding themes surrounding photography alongside photography’s shifting cultural and geographic contexts. The speakers’ programme explores the relationship of the photographer’s personal engagement and path through the world with the paths of their work, putting photo editor John Morris in conversation with Philip Blenkinsop, and Eugene Richards with Trent Parke. Panels will explore the possibilities and challenges faced by online photography; the role of photography and documentation in DIY youth culture including skateboarding, graffiti and parcours; the future of book publishing; and photographers’ journals.

FotoFreo was Australia’s first photography festival; March 2010 will see its fifth edition. Since its inception it has been joined by the Queensland Festival of Photography, the Daylesford Biennale and the Vivid National Photography Festival. It has grown rapidly since the first FotoFreo in 2002: where that cost around A$35,000, FotoFreo 2008 cost A$700,000 and drew 70,000 visitors, far exceeding the 20,000 anticipated. Moorhouse credits much of its success to the participation of volunteers who until now have produced and staffed the festival, although the size of the last festival caused organisers to recognise the need for a paid staff.

© David Dare Parker, East Timor, September 1999
© David Dare Parker from WAR by the ‘°SOUTH’ collective, East Timorese return to the burnt out remains of their homes. Dili, East Timor, September 1999: “The dedication of ‘°SOUTH’ is to record ‘evidence’ in a fair, truthful and informative way…  [These] photographers have created images of power and compassion that can influence public opinion, have historical significance and even reawaken a sense of responsibility in Humanity to deal with them.

Forward-thinking programming and grassroots support aside, part of FotoFreo’s success must surely be attributed to its geography. The festival can draw on talent from throughout East and Southeast Asia and the Oceanic region. The ongoing and project stories told by both foreign and East Timorese photographers about the challenges faced post-independence present a perspective not always available to the rest of the world. Photographers in China participate in a shared history of practice that has only begun to reveal the depth of its contours internationally.

© Brad Rimmer
© Brad Rimmer from SILENCE- the western Australian wheatbelt: “Through contemplative and introspective images Brad Rimmer searches for the familiar; the recognisable elements which shape the region and it’s people.”

Perhaps just as importantly, Fremantle, a small harbour city just outside of Perth, is itself an attractive destination, a walkable town with historic buildings, a strong arts community, picturesque boat harbour and nearby beaches. This at-first-glance similarity to Arles is not insignificant; festivals in small places allow for a concentration of interest that can easily be diffused in a large city. It may matter less now than it did 10 years ago that Fremantle is across the globe from New York, but it continues to matter that organisations like FotoFreo create a focus around which photographers can come together and not only celebrate photography, but redraw its maps.

FotoFreo runs from 20 March to 18 April 2010 in Fremantle, Western Australia

This article was originally published in 8 magazine.