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When delving into Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the first of two books written by Professor Yuval Noah Harari, you may find yourself enthralled by his colourful descriptions of fact-supported theories of our species’ evolution. The survival of homo sapiens over the course of history is explained in such detail that we recognise, in our daily habits, similarities in behaviour with our 10,000-year-old ancestors.

A personal favourite was the revelation that gorging on high-calorie, sugary foods, such as ice cream, is in fact hardwired into our DNA. Some 30,000 years ago, coming across a ripe fruit tree while foraging in the savannah was a rarity, and so Stone Age homo sapiens would instinctively eat their fill and more, knowing that they may not find such a rich source of nutrition again for a while. Today, we have retained this instinct, but our over-consumption has made way for worldwide issues with obesity.

And this is the problem. We take, we consume, we gorge, and we take some more, and not only with food but with anything we can get our hands on. Today, the Earth’s population has grown to 7.5 billion, for whom 70 billion animals are commercially bred for their meat. Greenpeace estimates that each year 12.7 million tonnes of plastic are disposed of into our oceans. Thousands of species of flora and fauna are becoming extinct every year. These are unfathomable numbers, which bring us to the unfortunate context for the theme of this year’s Triennial of Photography in Hamburg, Breaking Point: Searching For Change.

Untitled, 2016 © Martin Errichiello & Filippo Menichetti. Featured in Enter

For the second time, the 18-year-old Triennial will be directed by Polish curator Krzysztof Candrowicz, who moved to Hamburg four years ago and set about transforming the festival, bringing people and institutions together, and determined to make it more relevant to the viewing public.

The 2015 edition was, he says, “The first holistic attempt to create the collaborative framework of the festival. Before, the museums were basically highlighting their own exhibitions, but there was no actual curatorial collective structure.”

The determinedly political and environmentally conscious theme this year was inspired by an amalgamation of many factors, he says, including spending a year “away from structured, mechanised and commercial reality”, travelling around Latin America, Nepal and India. “It was a mixture of personal experiences and observing the current geopolitical situation, reading many stimulating articles and books,” he says. “Many inspirations also came from Noam Chomsky, Yuval Noah Harari, Naomi Klein, Hermann Hesse and Eckhart Tolle.

“After 15 years of working professionally with photography, I took a year’s sabbatical that helped me to evaluate my viewpoints. In a certain way, it distanced me from the Western perspective. After coming back to Europe, I felt it was time to rethink, unlearn and reset. Breaking Point became, for me, a metaphor for rapid and sometimes unexpected transformation on a personal and global level.”

For over three months between June and September (starting with 10 days of activities from 07-17 June), the festival’s seventh edition includes exhibitions, portfolio reviews, masterclasses led by Noor and World Press Photo, talks, and workshops. Eight exhibitions form the backbone of the Triennial, interpreting the overarching theme with titles inspired by the keyboard commands we use hundreds of times a day without thinking about their original meaning – Enter, Control, Space, Delete, Shift, Return, Escape and Home.

Exterior view of Deichtorhallen Hamburg/House of Photography. Image © Conny Hilker

Enter, as the name suggests, makes for a good starting point, honing in on the principle ideas behind the theme and designed to kickstart important conversations on the issues faced by our increasingly fragile environment. Co-curated by Candrowicz and Emma Bowkett, director of photography at the FT Weekend Magazine, the work of 15 artists will be presented in the courtyard of the Deichtorhallen [also known as Hamburg’s House of Photography], each housed in a shipping container in the square.

The staging is significant, as Hamburg is one of Europe’s major port cities, connecting the Elbe river to the North Sea. “The exhibition will dig deep into the social, political and environmental narratives defining our global world,” says Bowkett. “It’s not for the faint-hearted. We are curating a show that we hope will challenge social structures and abuse of power. We want it to be a wake-up call.”

Condensed edits of Mathieu Asselin’s in-depth investigative project on the Monsanto group, also nominated for this year’s Deutsche Börse award, Mandy Barker’s remarkable visualisation of microscopic plastic debris and Martin Errichiello and Filippo Menichetti’s reassessment of Italy’s fragmented political history will manifest, alongside projects by Katrin Koenning, Artur Urbański, Valentina Abenavoli, Ewa Ciechanowska, Lucas Foglia and Tamara Kametani, who will all participate. Also on show are Salvatore Vitale, Sarker Protick, Claudius Schulze and Gábor Arion Kudász.

Space, curated by Sabina Schnakenberg, deals with street photography. Aside from dividing the 250 images into seven groups, the curator describes their hanging as an organised explosion of photography. The venue of the House of Photography itself is impressive, with a tall ceiling emblazoned with lights individually controlled to best complement the photographs they illuminate.

Exigent State from the series Babel Tales © Peter Funch, courtesy of V1 Gallery, Copenhagen. Featured in Space

The architectural nuances of exposed steel and glass, characteristic of the former market house built on the grounds of the old railway station, make the Deichtorhallen a befitting venue for images of “the passengers of the street”, says Schnakenberg. Maciej Dakowicz, William Klein, Diane Arbus, Melanie Einzig, Harri Pälviranta and Peter Funch are among the 52 participating photographers.

Familiar series are placed alongside contemporary image-makers, concentrating on “feeling and intuition of subject” rather than their chronological order to avoid it becoming “just another street photography exhibition,” says Schnakenberg. “I don’t want to show beautiful pictures. If someone says to me, ‘That is a beautiful image’, that is problematic.”

She adds that the photography speaks for itself and is “enough”, deliberately omitting any video works or multimedia gimmicks. The room will be silent – a deliberate contrast to the brash noises, smells and sensations of the street, instead seeking to encourage connections and a dialogue between the photographs on the walls.

Control, meanwhile, imagines a different type of space between viewer, photographer and subject by addressing the controversial topic of surveillance, and the questions surrounding technology and the camera in relation to monitoring and exercising power on those aware or unaware of being watched. In this way, the co-curators Dr Petra Roettig and Stephanie Bunk also address our lack of control. Increasingly we voluntarily give away personal data, allowing our behaviour and movements to be logged and tracked.

“We don’t want to be controlled,” says Bunk. “But it’s not so easy to ‘damn’ it.”

Still from Incoming, 2014-16 © Richard Mosse, courtesy of Carlier/Gebauer. Berlin/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Featured in Control

As with Space, selected projects, such as Barbara Probst’s work in New York, are placed next to lesser-known imagery, such as German photographer Annette Kelm, who is interested in ideas of mass production and advertising. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Spirit is a Bone will also show, but here combines two sets of more than 200 3D scanned portraits of dehumanised faces, shown together for the first time.

Visitors will enter the square formation of Hamburger Kunsthalle exhibition space and find themselves in darkness, slowly making their way around the 10 rooms, their senses acute to the hum of the film soundtracks playing next door, and the conversations of their peers. “We want to make people feel a little uncomfortable,” says Bunk. “Our way of seeing is changing. It began with using the camera as an instrument of control, but now machines and computers are rendering pictures automatically.”

After the intense experience of viewing Richard Mosse’s Incoming in the final room, there is a ‘point of control’ – or rather, the educational point – where you are encouraged to enjoy the library of documents and research laptops, perhaps to make sense of the content just witnessed.

A group exhibition looking at ideas of belonging, safety and migration, Home will be spread out among various locations around the city – namely purpose-built pavilions and the Altonaer Museum. The projects are each an example of different interpretations of the home, from Andrea Diefenbach’s Country without Parents about economic migrants in Moldova, to Gineke de Rooij’s personal documentary about the largest squat in Amsterdam, to the visual diaries of three homeless people living in Hamburg.

The museum will also host another of the group exhibitions: Return, where curator Sebastian Lux takes us back 100 years to the breaking point of 1918, and questions what lessons we can learn from our past, through revisiting the politics and culture that characterised the Weimar Republic. In an exclusive preview of a much larger exhibition titled Photography in the Weimar Republic 1918-1933, to be held at the LVR Landesmuseum Bonn later in 2018, Lux delves into four impressions; ‘Revolution and Republic’, ‘From slow-foxtrot to grotesque dance’, ‘Fashion in the Golden Twenties’, and ‘From New Objectivity to New Vision’.

In Delete, curators Esther Ruelfs and Sven Schumacher take on the vast debate of the influence of our media through censorship. An exhibition of photojournalism from the 1960s through to the 1980s will be held at the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, featuring work by Hanns-Jörg Anders, Ryuichi Hirokawa and Thomas Hoepker, among others. For Shift, Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff, a multidisciplinary arts duo using photography as their primary tool, have been commissioned to produce an experimental new work exploring the need for personal change and to alter our way of thinking in the future.

Over time the pair have become increasingly interested in performance art, reflected in their most recent display at Cabinet Gallery in London, in which they constructed a machine representing a printing press that looped and recycled rolls of paper depicting their photographs of official buildings in the US – which were shot on the day that James Comey, the former FBI director, was removed from office. The result of this year’s commission will be displayed at the Kunstverein, one of the oldest art institutions in Germany, active since 1817, and a former market hall near the Deichtorhallen.

Preparatory sketch for ‘Erotique Voilée’ at Trepat’s factory, 1931, from Photography: Crisis of HIstory © Joan Fontcuberta, whose solo show is on at Barlach Halle K

In an invitation to action of sorts, Escape is a display of some of the works resulting from two workshops led by Candrowicz and co-tutor Christian Barbe and the curator Virgilio Ferreira. The sessions brought together artists of various practices who used their individual narratives to exchange and make content for promoting discussions on sustainability, the environment, the impact of humanity and the frustration at the failures of the system to address these global issues.

Then there are the solo exhibitions dedicated to Shirana Shahbazi, Joan Fontcuberta and Anton Corbijn. Although still loosely connected to the overarching theme of Breaking Point, these make up a distinct facet of the summer events but with a change of pace – giving visitors a chance to delve deeper and look back to some notable moments of their life’s work. Corbijn, for example, is latterly known for his films, but this time it will be the Dutch multidiscipline artist’s photography repertoire that will be displayed at the Bucerius Kunst Forum, titled The Living and the Dead.

His shots of Joy Division, Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stones and U2, to name a few, marked a break in the traditional glamorised band-photo sleeves and posters popular at the time, and took us backstage into celebrities’ dressing rooms, dispelling some of the mysteries of British stardom and later Hollywood. He was also a master of disguise, impressively donning immaculate costume and make-up to impersonate some of his icons for a series of self-portraits.

“This show is more focused on the artist, a way of understanding oneself and individually, but also in more general terms, the meaning of life,” says Franz Wilhelm Kaiser, who curated the show. “I think that’s the quest of an artist to ask those questions.”

Fontcuberta, who is not so well known in Germany, will have his first show in Hamburg, Photography: Crisis of History, at the Barlach Halle K, curated by Alison Nordström. She explains that the exhibition covers 25 years of his work and research, presenting an alternative history of photography, shown through three series drawing on other photographers’ images, presenting them “as curatorial/ historical projects, claiming that for each of them, Fontcuberta discovered previously unknown photographs that expand or otherwise contribute to the canon”. As ever, when it comes to Fontcuberta, all is not what it seems…

Nick Cave, London, 1996 © Anton Corbijn

Stepping away from the larger, more established art institutions, for the first time, this year the Triennial is hosting an Off section, with 15 photographers exhibiting at 15 different venues around Hamburg as a result of an open call, curated by the artist Nina Venus. “We realised the festival needs to have a way for artists other than just the ones that have been chosen to join,” says Venus. “There’s not one parameter – Off can be interpreted as off-the-beaten-track, or off-mainstream. But it’s more than that. Some can be very on! It’s about the people who run it and the ideals that drive them.”

Venus curated the Area Revisited show at the last Triennial in 2015, and together with Candrowicz hosted a hugely successful after-party that brought together people from all areas of the event, be it photographers, ‘the bourgeoisie’ or art administrations. “We realised that this is how it should be done, because this is what a festival is about – it’s not all museums. We wanted to take what we experienced and give it some shape. But first we needed a great jury of photography experts.”

This panel includes Ute Meta Bauer, William Hunt, Susanna Kirschnick, Nordström, Candrowicz and Venus, who selected the finalists out of nearly 500 entries. Next came the careful selection process for the grassroots and independent galleries and spaces dotted around the city, including Âme Nue, run by founder and curator Liberty Adrien, who focuses on showcasing strong female artists, and who for the festival will house the work of Marina Berio and Christine Fenzl; M Bassy, a non-profit space dedicated to contemporary African Art and this time showing Alex Heide; and 14A, a former kiosk converted into a gallery space by Marie Becker, daughter of the esteemed gallerist Jürgen Becker, committed to showing work from overseas, will show Sonja Hamad’s work.

“I really want to spotlight these locations, because they do such important work for the culture of the city and they do it on nothing – they don’t run on a lot of funds,” says Venus. “Each year these spaces have to ask for more money and they always struggle. I hate the system, because the big houses get the millions. The artists are always last, especially in the small spaces. We have to change this. For this Off, I’m really trying to open up the city.” She adds that she hopes the locations will collaborate with each other – “open a talk here, invite a curator here, and create a network, because that’s also what this is about”.

New Lodge boys #9, from the series Playing Belfast, 2007–2009 © Harri Pälviranta, courtesy the artist. Featured in Space

The portfolio reviews have also taken on a new structure this year, “a bit like Tinder”, as Candrowicz describes them. Portfolio Match was first implemented at the Lodz Fotofestiwal last year, a festival also co-founded and directed by Candrowicz, and will take place over two days. On the first day, photographers will have five minutes to essentially pitch their portfolios to the reviewers, after which there will be a casual networking session. Later, each photographer and reviewer will list their top three choices of the person they would like a meeting with, and if there is a match between two, the portfolio review goes ahead. No match, no review.

“The Match review is based on equal opportunities and free choices, both on the side of artists and experts,” says Candrowicz. “The meeting is confirmed only if both parties are interested. The matching process also creates a lighter and more playful flair. It’s two days long, with two evening events adding to the feeling of being in a small community of professionals.”

On top of all that, there will also be film screenings and a space at the House of Photography dedicated to photobooks. There is a lot to see and do here, with the festival eager not only to entertain and educate, but also draw attention to the city of Hamburg and the people that make up its vibrant art scene. The collective drive for inclusion is also characteristic of the festival, not only in the way it invites photographers and non-photographers to enjoy and participate in the programme, but also in the number and variety of institutions involved in its presentation – over 80 museums, galleries and contemporary exhibition spaces, 12 of which worked together to co-curate the three-month event.

“It’s not about separate exhibitions, but rather one curatorial programme that is a result of collaborative work,” says Candrowicz. “Hamburg is one of the largest ports in the world, therefore the festival centre is built out of shipping containers, which become a space for temporary exhibitions. A visibility in the public spaces makes the festival more inclusive and accessible.

“And, the Triennial structure itself is based on long-term research, which allows us to create a broad and diverse exploration [compared to annual festivals] like Lodz, Arles or Madrid, which require rather quick-thinking curatorial decisions, and we’re focused mainly on contemporary and cutting edge projects.”

And in his statement summing up the festival ethos, Candrowicz reflects: “A breaking point is a critical moment in the process of change. It is a time when we can no longer search for new goals or values but must immediately take a new direction. Photography has an ability to freeze time and bring focus to such moments. The Triennial of Photography Hamburg will be an attempt to raise awareness. The festival programme is a humanistic statement on sustainability and change. It is an inspiration and an invitation to act.”

The Hamburg Triennial is open from 07 June-September, with special events taking place from 07-17 June This article was first published in the May issue of BJP

Untitled, 2016 © Martin Errichiello & Filippo Menichetti. Featured in Enter
Presidency 1, 2008 © Thomas Demand, courtesy of VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Featured in Control
From the series Alta Densidad © Jorge Taboada. Featured in Home
From the series Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation © Mathieu Asselin. Featured in Enter
New Crop Varieties for Extreme Weather, Geneva Greenhouses, New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, New York © Lucas Foglia, courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery, London. Featured in Enter
Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.