Discussing Europe with photography

A variety of photographic gazes at the European Photography festival in Reggio Emilia: an ode to plurality, conversation, and action.
©Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa

With the rise of ever-new media and communication technology, one is set to wonder whether a medium like photography – relatively unchanged in its fundamental characteristics since its invention in 1826 – can still be current. If it is now possible to create images from scratch with A.I., is photography still a valid way to talk about the most pressing contemporary issues? The line between reality and representation has never been blurrier: is it even possible, then, to keep using photography to describe such intangible times? Is it still a relevant language, or is it becoming obsolete?

The riddle is intriguing. A clue to solving it can be found in initiatives like the “Festival di Fotografia Europea” (European Photography festival) taking place in Reggio Emilia. Walking from one room to the next and looking at the selected projects for the 2023 edition, there is no way around it: the answer, even to the most sceptical eyes, is yes – photography is still very much a current, relevant, up to date medium. The whole festival, with all the different perspectives it carries, is in fact a close-to-perfect mirror held up to contemporary European society, its complexities and even idiosyncrasies.

The public response confirms its success: after winning New York Lucie Awards in 2022, at its 18th edition, the festival, curated by Tim Clark (editor 1000 Words & curator Photo London Discover), Walter Guadagnini (photography historian and Director of CAMERA – Italian Centre for Photography) and Luce Lebart (photography historian, co-author of the seminal volume Une histoire mondiale des femmes photographes, exhibition curator and researcher) registered a 30% increase in ticket sales and visits.

As the curators explained, the aim was «to observe a world that undergoes constant and continuous change». In contemporary society, the curators note, «the very roots of our social and individual identity are constantly shaken». Here is where photography’s role and peculiarity come in: «it freezes the moment to help us understand its deeper meaning, direction and dynamics». In a fast-paced world, photography is a key medium to help us to stop, take time and think about what we are going through on a deeper level, and analyse what we carelessly walk by every day. Both on a personal and a social scale.

The title of the edition is itself telling: «Europe Matters: Visions of a Troubled Identity». The festival serves as a reflection on the idea of Europe, and the ideals that constitute it in the multicultural and globalised context. It is about giving meaning to the troubled times Europe is going through. Questions are raised and issues problematised rather than over-simplified – looking for answers in accurate, multifaceted artistic research.

Mónica de Miranda, Whistle for the wind, Portugal, 2022, 105 x 70 cm, inkjet print on cotton paper, © Mónica de Miranda, Comissioned by Autograph London

The main exhibition at Chiostri di San Pietro opened with an enquiry on categorisation. The Island by Monica de Miranda questions the standard notions of identity based on race and gender. In particular, the project is an enquiry into the recognition of African history and cultures «in their autonomy and diversity», while dismantling prejudices that have taken root in Portuguese society.

The photographs are large-format, clear, light and simple. The few elements of the composition and the look of a young girl – the main subject of the series – leave no escape, calling for the viewer’s attention, and action. Even when she is facing the background, she invites you into a world of questions, where prejudices are abolished. The setting also plays a role: «the landscape is an active process shaped by politics and economics as well as environmental factors». It is a stand, taken against the patriarchal heterosexual system.

Güle Güle by Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni, in the following room, is an ode to plurality. The title means Goodbye in Turkish, and the project is «a personal account of Istanbul and the dramatic changes taking place in the city and in Turkish society». The variety of themes is astonishing: from gentrification to discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community to the critical situation of vulnerable social classes, the influx of Syrian refugees and the Kurdish issue. The photographers chose a non-linear way of representation: life is not linear, so why should photography be? The majority of works are diptychs, images juxtaposed, images in transition, whose identity is questioned through the relationship with whatever is nearby. Turkey is at the threshold between east and west: «it seems almost natural, in a city like Istanbul, to abandon […] the single form».

Simon Roberts, Beachy Head, Seven Sisters Country Park, East Sussex, 14 March 2017, 152 x 182cm, Archival pigment print,© Simon Roberts

British photographer Simon Roberts investigates what being British means in the aftermath of Brexit. Landscape, one of Roberts’ preferred techniques, is the active backdrop against which characters act, going about their everyday life in a transformed, transforming Great Britain. Behind a curtain, the video installation The Brexit Lexicon investigates the role of language in British politics, showcasing the most common terms that defined the Brexit political discourse.

Bilateral by Samuel Gratacap tells the story of the migrant population trying to cross the Alps between Italy and France. There, volunteers mark roads, trace routes, offer food and shelter to those trying to cross. Political leaders are also shown, shaking hands and making bilateral agreements, deprived, with the use of screen-printing, of that identity they are normally so in control of. The project itself is curated to look like a trail road, leading from neglected rights to unhealthy power dynamics.

Samuel Gratacap, dalla serie Bilateral, 2018 - 2022 © Samuel Gratacap

The examples, the perspectives, are many more: You Will ever Walk Alone by The Archive of Public Protests is a collection of demonstrations, to make them more permanent and louder; Grande Padre by Camilla de Maffei reports the stories of Albania between 1945 to 1991, when it was called the biggest prison in Europe, with a black and white, brave aesthetic; Mattia Balsamini stages a call to action to save darkness; the list could go on. Yet, the result is not disorienting – it is strong and empowering.

The European Photography festival is exactly what is needed – or at least part of it – to create a new meaning, a new way of feeling, thinking and being that can shape the Europe of tomorrow. It is conversation, positivity, urge and motivation. All of which photography is a perfect means to convey.

Matilde Moro
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