Juno Calypso was boarding a RyanAir flight to Belfast when her phone buzzed, and buzzed, and buzzed again. En route to open her headline exhibition The Honeymoon Suite at the biennial Belfast Photo Festival, she was being contacted via Twitter and Instagram by teenagers from the other end of Ireland. They were also boarding a plane for Belfast – to meet the woman they call ‘The Queen’.
They were also sending selfies to Calypso telling her they’d be at the opening and ready for fun. One of them, Calypso recounted later, visibly shook with excitement when they met.
This anecdote captures something of Juno Calypso’s unique and fast-growing appeal. Michael Weir, the founder of Belfast Photo Festival, says her work has a “courageous vulnerability” coupled with a razor-sharp, performative wit, that extends to her public persona as well as her images.
The photography on show in Belfast isn’t new – Calypso’s original series formed part of her university degree graduation project, which she first exhibited back in 2014. The second part of the series, won BJP‘s International Photography Award in 2016 and was exhibited at Unseen Photo Festival in Amsterdam last September.
Yet the images on the wall are only part of her appeal. Calypso styled out the opening weekend of Belfast Photo with insouciant attitude. It went down a storm. Still in her 20s, Calypso is becoming a contemporary photo celebrity, and long may it last.
But Calypso’s exhibition was just one of the many highlights of this tightly-curated, well-organised and passion-driven photography festival. Put together on little budget, and without subsidies from the Northern Irish government, Belfast Photo Festival gives heft to the claim that Belfast is a hotbed of contemporary photography.
Many of the exhibitions on show are themed around sexuality and gender, but there are also more open-ended group shows – many of which were curated through an international open submission process, moderated by a panel of experts from MoMA, MACK, FOAM, Magnum Photos, The New York Times, Invisible Asia and yours truly from BJP.
In a speech, Dazed Media creative director Ronojoy Dam drew attention to the magazine founder Rankin’s images from the 1990s, showing androgynous characters such as Scottish actress Tilda Swinton and Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft. Another image by Terry Richardson, showing Milla Jovovitch with armpit hair on display, also pushes the conventional gender boundaries. Each shot is still subversive in its portrayal of sexuality, 20 years after the pictures were first published. What does that say about our culture?
Hello Mr., meanwhile, was launched in April 2013 by a young gay man called Ryan Fitzgibbon, who spent a fair amount of his youth coming to terms with his sexuality, before carving out his own identity in the face of the many conflicting cultural expectations. For him, making a magazine was integral to this process, creating a space where ‘men who date men’ could have meaningful conversations about their sexuality and masculinity.
In direct defiance of the many glossy mags showing men with washboard six packs and designer suits, Hello Mr. proudly shows men as vulnerable, searching, insecure creatures. As a heterosexual man, I found it a compelling view. The exhibition is on show at Belfast’s Naughton Gallery.
Gabriel Carpes and Alexey Shlyk were the standout photographers in the Making Do outdoor exhibition in St Anne’s Square, part of an exhibition carefully chosen from an open call. Shlyk, who was featured in BJP in March and recently nominated for the Prix Levallois, is a fast-emerging name, and his highly-coloured images of wonky self-sufficiency are hard to resist.
The series, titled The Appleseed Necklace, is based on the “natural DIY culture” of his early childhood behind the Iron Curtain and is celebratory in feel – a tribute to the “creativity, craftsmanship and diligence” he saw amongst his elders, who were “living in conditions of constant shortages, and either had to find a way to snatch what was needed, or to make it from the things around them”. Shlyk photographs dresses made from curtains, free weights from bricks, or a flower pot from a car tyre, aestheticising something that was once done out of necessity. It’s extremely effective.
Carpes, a Brazilian photographer from Porto Alegre with a background in engineering and urban development, is exhibiting images of political protests in his country, which he says he started photographing from an activists’ perspective – before deciding that every politician in Brazil is corrupt. His show, 1000 Years From Now, captures his sense of ennui and the disillusionment he felt, in a country that he’d previously considered the most exciting place in the world.
“I was just another protester screaming my lungs out alongside people who agreed with me,” Carpes told me. “We wanted to punish the people we thought were to blame for everything. But, as the year went on, my determination turned into indifference. I just felt worn out. I just kept asking ‘What’s the point?’”.
One image kept coming back to him, he added – after the protesters had gone home, the only evidence they’d ever been there was the rubbish they’d left behind. “This project tries to visualise those feelings of doubt and frustration,” Carpes told me. “It was like the day after the carnival, when the sky is grey, the beach is empty and all we are left with is a hangover.”
Special mention must also go to Lise McGreevy, a member of the East Belfast Artist Collective showing work outside the festival programme in the Engine Room Gallery, which lies just behind City Hall. For her series Abandoned, Not Forgotten she travelled to Donegal, to an area close to the border but governed by the Republic, and photographed the many abandoned homes there.
Many are more than 200 years old and are now being reclaimed by the lush Irish landscape; for McGreevy they recall a period when Ireland was one nation, though also suffering famine and mass migration. It’s a tremendous example of how stories can be told through photographs of what, at first glance, are simple observations of the landscape. Still life, but very much alive.
Belfast Photo Festival is open until 30 June www.