Les Rencontres d’Arles is the most prestigious photo festival in the world – that’s beyond question. But according to a high-profile group of photographers, curators, and writers, there’s still more that it could do. They’ve got together to sign a public letter to festival director Sam Stourdzé, which urges him to include more exhibitions by women in the main programme at Arles, and which was published in the French newspaper Libération on 03 September.
The letter is signed by influential industry figures such as Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery; Victor Burgin, Professor Emeritus of History of Consciousness, University of California, Santa Cruz, and Emeritus Millard Chair of Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London; collectors Claire and James Hyman; and Olivier Richon, Professor of Photography, Royal College of Art, London, as well as photographers and artists such as Clare Strand, Sunil Gupta, and Anna Fox.
The letter urges Stourdzé to create “a more gender balanced festival” and to do so by next year – as 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the festival, and as: “women artists have no more time to waste!” It also points out that there is an appetite for work by women, pointing out that the New Discoveries section of Arles, in which international galleries are invited to recommend new photographic talent, “arouses public interest, who vote for the award, and regularly reward women”. It also points out that Arles’ Prix du livre went to a woman this year – Laurence Aëgerter, for her book Photographic Treatment.
“Women artists with high quality work exist in abundance,” the letter concludes. “The audience is ready and the market will follow. All you have to do is to decide and say it publicly: ‘The Rencontres d’Arles will become an equal opportunity event in 2019, the year of their 50th edition. The major exhibition venues, the means used, in terms of financing, production and communication, will be fairly distributed between the selected artists, women and men, of all ages and origins.’
“You, and only you, can play this triggering role for the Rencontres. In 2019, for the 50th edition of Arles – and the editions that follow – work a little harder to raise the percentage of exhibited female artists to 50%. Just do it!”
Arles has responded with a statement, pointing out that the official programme this year featured 31 solo shows by men and 16 by women – 34% of the women exhibited. The statement adds that Rencontres d’Arles “has been working to improve the festival’s gender balance” for several years – and that this extends to the curators, jury members, award winners, and management involved, as well as the photographers.
“The festival started seeking parity for Discovery Award recipients in 2015, created the award for best exhibition by a female photographer (Prix Arles Madame Figaro) in 2016 and, in partnership with the Filles de la Photo organisation, launched the first gender parity monitoring body in 2018,” the statement reads. “Those actions are gradually changing years of habit in the art world. In 2018, talented women accounted for five of nine award winners, 21 of 31 jury members and eight of the festival’s 10 management team members.
“There is still a way to go to achieve a fair balance,” the statement concedes. “The Rencontres d’Arles is working on it, without establishing quotas, which would cast doubt on the credibility of an artistic selection.”
The Prix du livre also came up for discussion at Arles this year, with publisher Valentina Abenavoli from Akina Books the most vocal of those questioning why Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s publication War Primer 2 won the Photo-text Book Award when it was first published by Mack Books in 2011 (and won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2013).
“After the announcement was made, the day after, the main subject of discussion in the whole festival was the disappointment of having just witnessed a break in the only rule of the competition: ‘Application is open to all photography books and catalogues that have been published between June 1, 2017 and May 31, 2018’,” Abenavoli told BJP.
Those involved argue that the book was eligible because it was printed in paperback this year, however – whereas the first publication was handmade and available in a very limited edition. “The book in 2011 was not ‘printed’ in its literal sense as a normal book,” says Federica Chiocchetti, PhD candidate in Photo-text Relations at the University of Westminster, who helped compile the 17-strong Photo-text Book Award shortlist but could not attend the final jury meeting.
“The artists purchased 100 copies of the first 1998 English edition of Brecht’s War Primer, then selected and printed images of contemporary conflicts and applied (glued) them, with the help of a group of students, by hand, on top of Brecht’s images, on each of the 100 copies of the 1998 Brecht English edition.
“These 2011 handmade 100 copies that physically inhabited Brecht’s book are an ‘artistic’ intervention on a pre-existing different book and went sold out very quickly on the internet. Then WP2 was published digitally by MAPP in 2012 with accompanying essays, including mine. And then, in 2018, Mack published the first trade paperback edition, which is the very first printed edition that gives the book a real physical first circulation among a larger public. So to be precise I don’t think it is technically accurate to call it ‘re-print’ as it was not printed in 2011. The publisher calls it a facsimile on its website.
“It is an incredibly important book. However, because of its recognition in related forms years earlier, I would have never thought it would actually win, but I could have envisaged a special mention, to celebrate its importance, to show that strong works have a long life and to send out a somewhat provocative message to the current oversaturated world of the photobook.”
“We did have an extended discussion about this with the jury,” adds Marloes Krijnen, head of FOAM and president of Arles’ 2018 Prix du livre jury. “In 2018 it was the first time the book was actually printed and could be accessible to the larger public. Bloomberg and Chanarin’s 2018 paperback edition is actually the first printed and trade edition. We saw this edition as different – in production process and circulation, and the fact that it has now been made available to a large audience was very important to us.
“The book is fundamental as it marks a watershed in the history of contemporary photobooks because of the innovative way it combines text and imagery. We felt this book is of such outstanding quality and innovative nature that it deserves to be rewarded.”
Abenavoli counters that the competition does not stipulate any rules other than that the book must have been published in the last year, however – and that the original War Primer 2 cannot be described as an artists’ book as it was put out by a third party, Mack Books. Regarding the limited number of copies produced of the first book, she points out that most photobooks are published in very limited numbers, especially in their first edition.
“I think it is almost necessary to publish the standard edition of a book originally printed in a limited number of copies, and therefore not really accessible to the large audience,” she says. “I believe in the democracy of the book form and in spreading concepts and points of view, when interesting and groundbreaking, as much as possible. This is not a reason why the book should win a 2018 competition though. The book was already successful in 2011, it won a huge prize in 2013, and was simply re-published (keeping exactly the same content and design) in 2018. It is not a book from 2017-2018 (as per the rule of the competition).”
It’s a debate that may continue but, looking to the future, Chiocchetti concludes that: “At least this episode will healthily oblige all awards to update and publish very clearly their specific rules.”