Having been a long-term, long-distance observer of the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival for many years, I finally fulfilled a long-held ambition to actually visit it in the flesh a couple of weeks ago.
Admittedly this was a good few weeks after the main week of the festival itself, but the timing was at least a partly deliberate decision; it seems as if anyone remotely involved in photography is in Arles in the first week of July. Whereas in the first week of August, at least the city is only jam-packed full of French tourists.
I was visiting with a little trepidation though – this year’s Recontres had been roundly reviewed as disjointed, far from vintage, and lacking a sense of purpose or unifying direction. Perhaps after previous years resounding successes under the guest curators such as Martin Parr, expectations were unfeasibly high. The theme of this year’s festival was a celebration of Arles’ very own École Nationale Supérieure de Photographie (ENSP) – its students past and present. The ENSP was founded 30 years ago, in 1982, so perhaps it was only natural that this Rencontres would have a more retrospective, introspective feel?
It was a pleasant surprise then to discover the breadth and range of work on show, and particularly the amount of work that sat firmly in the style of documentary practice from around the world. From Jonathan Turgovnik’s harrowing portraits and interviews with women who’d been raped in the Rwandan genocide (this year’s overall and deserved Recontres winner), to Congolese photographer Sammy Baloji’s series Kolwezi, on the ‘artisanal’ miners of Katanga in eastern DRC, there was much more here than expected that straddled the worlds of photography and development.
I’d always broadly defined the Rencontres d’Arles as exploring photography as an art form, while September’s Visa Pour L’Image festival down the road in Perpignan was where you went to see documentary photojournalism. Perhaps this was a naive assumption on my part, but surely the two festivals aren’t just local French rivalry?
Whatever the case, with photography of note from Rwanda, DRC, Egypt, South Africa, South Sudan, South Korea and Japan, my fears that this was the wrong year to finally get to Arles were clearly misplaced. In addition to Turgovnik and Baloji, other standout works for me included Bruno Serralongue’s photographs of South Sudan’s independence day celebrations and Olivier Cablat’s Egyptian Excavations, and it was a pleasure to discover Vincent Fournier’s Past Forward series on the robotics and space exploration industries – a dispassionate French take on Simon Norfolk and Taryn Simon, if you will.
The main exhibitions at Arles stil have a week or two run, so catch them if you can. At least I know for next year that it overlaps a little with Visa Pour L’image, which may save me from having to make a separate trip. Or is it wrong to have two trips to the south of France every summer. Maybe not!