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Festival review: what’s hot at Format

From the series The Canary and the Hammer © Lisa Barnard

The UK's biggest photography festival is back, with an ambitious programme matched by equally ambitious installations. Tom Seymour picks out his favourites

In August of 2016, at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, one of the world’s leading scientists declared we were living at the dawn of a new geological epoch – the human-influenced age. This new era, termed Anthropocene, replaces the current epoch, the Holocene, the 12,000 years of stable climate since during which all human civilisation developed.

Format International Photography Festival in Derby, the UK’s largest photography festival, opened this weekend for its eighth edition, aiming to explore this notion of the Anthropocene by asking photographers to respond to the word “habitat”. Featuring more than 200 international artists and photographers across 30 exhibitions, the biennial is situated across independent cinema and exhibition spaces such as Quad, University of Derby and the Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

The festival’s flagship exhibition, titled Ahead Still Lies Our Future, is on show at art space Derby Quad, and features work by ten photographers, brought together by curators Hester Keijser and festival director Louise Clements. “I wanted to offer up experiences concerning the complexity of our existence on the planet,” Clements said when interviewed for the March 2017 issue of BJP.

“Climate, migration, technology: they all seem to be accelerating and the consequences are quite momentous. We are impacting the geology of Earth. It was important to me to do something vital. As a festival, we’re not just here to celebrate the achievements of the artists; we also want to have some kind of impact.”

What We Have Overlooked, 2011 © Lida Adbul

What We Have Overlooked, 2011 © Lida Adbul

The exhibition is orientated around Lida Abdul’s video installation What We Have Overlooked, a striking, immersive insight into her homeland of Afghanistan. Abdul came to international attention in 2005 when she represented Afghanistan at the 51st Venice Biennale, the only time the country has had a national pavilion. Forced to flee her home in the wake of the Soviet invasion of 1979, Abdul was unable to return until after the American invasion of 2001. The work on display here is an exploration of the society she found on her return, and her relationship to it.

Shot in a lake near Kabul, Abdul shows a man deep in the water holding a black flag. He seems to be struggling with the current, unsure of his footing, as Abdul alternates between intimate shots of his face and more distant perspectives, in which he’s orientated in the vastness of his surroundings. Finally, he vanishes under the surface. It’s a compelling, disturbing watch; an example of how much power a metaphor can have.

© Ester Vonplon

From the series Gletscherfahrt © Ester Vonplon

The exhibition also showcases the series Gletscherfahrt by Ester Vonplon, which continues the Swiss photographer’s interest in landscape and decay. The project, presented with an audio soundtrack, explores how people living near glaciers in Switzerland are covering parts of the ice with white sheets to stop it from melting.

Lisa Barnard, a senior lecturer in documentary photography at the University of South Wales who was at the festival’s opening weekend, gave a fascinating insight into her new series The Canary and The Hammer – a look at the ongoing value of gold, the so-called ‘gold standard’, and the industrial conditions surrounding the element’s extraction. The project is a response to the 2008 financial crisis “and western world’s determination to accumulate wealth,” Barnard said. “Gold provides a prism through which globalism can be understood.”

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From the series The Canary and the Hammer © Lisa Barnard

It’s an ambitious project, and Barnard pushed the boundaries in its installation too, showing the images in an interactive projection spread across three walls, put together by Alejandro Acin. It’s an attempt, Barnard says, to marry the ongoing relevance of gold and precious metals with the new globalised and technological forms of high-finance. More work may be required before the series is fully realised, but Barnard has taken the time to place her idea in its historical context, whilst also making it contemporary and relevant to a 2017 audience.

Also among the headline events was the festival’s Open Call, which includes more than 50 projects from emerging photographers, chosen by a panel of judges and shown in non-traditional gallery spaces. Entries were received from 68 countries, and the final selection includes work from image-makers such as Gijs van den Berg and Jan Dirk van der Burg, Christopher Bethell, Dominika Gesicka, Katrin Koenning, Drew Nikonowicz, Alexandra Polina and Alexey Shlyk.

As part of the festival’s very diverse talks programme, Poulomi Basu showed her latest multimedia project A Ritual of Exile, a shocking documentary of the gender-based violence against women in Nepal and India. Basu’s series is on show at Pearson’s, a 19th century former school, and one of Format’s most interesting exhibition spaces.

In it she explores a superstitious element of Hinduism, practiced in its most conservative form, which sees women deemed untouchable when they get their period, and banished from the villages and towns. They hole up in sheds or caves in forests or low mountain reaches, braving the elements for the duration, which is where Basu choose to photograph them.

Her portraiture-based documentary series also includes quotes from the women, expressing their experience. A sense of advocacy is clear, and the project is all the stronger for it; Basu’s use of Pearson’s, an outlier in the city with peeling walls and a sense of trespass, also made for a very fitting setting.

Studio portrait of a family © WW Winter Ltd

Studio portrait of a family © WW Winter Ltd

The exhibition of portraits from local photography studio W.W. Winters, gained the most buzz via word of mouth throughout the festival. Open continuously since the 1850s, the Derby studio has captured the changing demographics of this small, diverse town, from the factories and mines that created the bedrock of the local economy for so long to the Japanese communities who arrived with the local Toyota plant.

The exhibition, which takes place in the still-trading studio, displays the fruits of local artist Debbie Adele Cooper’s work with the archive, much of which is still precariously stored in the basement. With the help of local volunteers, all of whom are working for free, Cooper and her team have created a powerful tribute to Derby, and the exhibition is a great example of what photography can achieve when it reaches out and engages with people outside the photo in-crowd.

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Shot of the headline exhibition, Ahead Still Lies Our Future, during the opening weekend © Silvana Trevale

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Shot of the book market held at the opening weekend © Charlotte Jopling

The opening weekend also featured photography-related film screenings, including a screening of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a Dogwoof-released documentary, soon to be reach cinemas, exploring Jane Jacobs’ battle to protect buildings in New York from redevelopment by ‘master builder’ Robert Moses in the 1960s. In 1960, Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities sent shockwaves through the architecture and planning worlds, with its exploration of the consequences of modern planners’ and architects’ reconfiguration of cities.

The film’s director, Matt Tyrnauer, only has one other feature credit to his name. But his documentary stands out for its highly visual take on a subject that could be dry, worthy and academic. The streets of New York, the cluttered, intense joy of living in such a huge and hectic place, are brought alive here, in part with the use of a huge and diverse image bank of archive shots of New York, stretching right back to the early 20th century. It is a deeply prescient film in this age of mass urbanisation, and an excellent understanding of the habitat theme.

And finally a quick word for some of the artists who took part in the portfolio reviews throughout Saturday, in the hope of reaching a wider audience. Work that struck me included Sarah Tulloch’s collage-based reworkings of her family archive and newspaper images, Italian photography student Rossella Castello’s explorations of London, and the cameraless, darkroom-based work of Devon-based photographer Jo Bradford.

Format International Photo Festival runs until 23 April.