Looking to the future at Unseen Amsterdam

It’s six years since the inaugural edition of Unseen Amsterdam arrived with the mission to shake up the art fair model, focusing on emerging photographers and collectors, and instilling a welcome dose of fun to proceedings. And despite its beginnings during difficult times for arts funding, the ‘fair with a festival flair’ has largely succeeded, developing into something more ambitious than a glorified trade show, with its own public programme and a city-wide celebration of the medium in one of the world’s great photography capitals.

The emphasis remains on championing new talent, and with this in mind, the latest addition to Unseen is Futures, a cross-European photography platform bringing together 10 cultural institutions from around the continent, each with their own talent programmes.

Including British Journal of Photography, Photo España and Hyères Festival among the founding partners, Futures was initiated by Amsterdam-based creative agency, Vandejong, the owner of Unseen. Beginning with local events and shows staged by each of the partners in their home countries (BJP staged an exhibition from this year’s Ones To Watch issue at Peckham 24 during Photo London), a total of 60 artists drawn from the Futures network will be brought together during Unseen.

Their work will be exhibited in an outdoor installation around a pond located close to the main event square – a literal ‘talent pool’ – along with a further showcase of 10 artists at the fair’s Machinegebouw building, emphasising the many varied approaches of the young photographers. This ‘diversity pick’ includes Valeria Cherchi, one of BJP’s Ones To Watch, alongside fellow Italian Umberto Coa, Sanna Lehto from Finland, Kateryna Snizhko from Ukraine, Ciarán Óg Arnold from Ireland, Łukasz Rusznica from Poland, Sebastián Bejarano from Spain, Yana Wernicke from Germany, and Jeroen Bocken from Belgium.

From the series Front End © Dávid Biró, shortlisted for the ING Unseen Talent Award

All 60 artists have been invited to Amsterdam to take part in talks and coaching sessions, and were nominated for this year’s ING Unseen Talent Award. The five finalists for the €10,000 award are Alexey Shlyk, Dávid Biró, Eva O’Leary, Jaakko Kahilaniemi and Pauline Niks, each of whom will be given individual coaching and a separate display of their work at Unseen.

The mission is to pool the resources and talent programmes of the partners to create a networked community through which photographers can build their international profile, providing them with the opportunity to find a bigger audience and meet with editors, publishers, curators, collectors and other industry professionals. Co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union, Futures is about creating “stepping stones” for careers, says Emilia van Lynden, artistic director of Unseen. The hope is that by providing more and better support through a network of industry professionals, photographers will be able to sustain their practice in the long-term.

“As soon as a photographer is labelled ‘a talent’ it creates a vast amount of momentum, which slows down after a year or two. We need to keep that going so an artist can become established,” says Van Lynden. “We wanted to set up something that would give photographers more of a foundation and continue that momentum… The vast majority of these artists don’t have gallery representation or find it difficult to sell their work outside of their local networks. We believe it is important to build an international network so they can have the [means to connect with] collectors from all over the world.”

The founding partners will also benefit by taking their activities to a wider international audience and establishing new collaborations. “Futures has opened an avenue for us to connect with larger and more established organisations, skilfully facilitating artists from Ireland to reach European audiences in key events in the arts calendar,” says Ángel Luis Gonzalez, CEO and founder of PhotoIreland, one of the 10 partners, who also include Camera, the Centre for Italian Photography, in Turin; Fotomuseum in Antwerp; Fotofestiwal in Lódz; Photo Romania in Cluj-Napoca; Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center in Budapest; and the Triennial of Photography Hamburg.

“The superb thing is that the concept of the Futures project matches one of our greatest missions,” says Orsolya Kőrösi, managing director of the Robert Capa Center, “which is to give opportunities to emerging photographers – especially from Hungary and the region – to get attention and professional feedback regarding their work. For an institution that keeps alive the spirit of Robert Capa, international collaboration is a key issue, especially when the protagonists of these projects are young artists who raise questions relevant to our times in their works like their predecessor Capa did in the 20th century.”

The core of Unseen Amsterdam, taking place from 21 to 23 September, will be the fair at Westergasfabriek, an old gasworks in the Westerpark neighbourhood. More than 50 international galleries, including London-based spaces Seen Fifteen, TJ Boulting and The Photographers’ Gallery, will be in attendance. Last year, Unseen introduced Co-Op, showcasing artist-run initiatives and collectives in a dedicated space devoted to project work. And this September it returns with Zurich-based curator Lars Willumeit at the helm again, providing an umbrella for 12 collectives.

Installation view of Co-Op at last year’s Unseen Amsterdam © Maarten Nauw

Highlights include Böhm Kobayashi, an ongoing experimental collaboration between German artists Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber; Depression Era, an Athens-based collective of 25 political artists, whose work includes a subversive tourist campaign drawing on anxieties surrounding the economic and migrant crises; and Milan-based Fotoromanzo Italiano, whose work seeks to reinvent the photo novel.

There is also the annual Book Market, featuring leading independent publishers, an outdoor exhibition of work by six art ‘academies’ from Europe, and an exhibition from Project Pressure, a non-profit organisation that collaborates with international artists to bring attention to glaciers vanishing as a result of climate change. Created in collaboration with Unseen, the exhibition features work by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Edward Burtynsky, Noémie Goudal, Simon Norfolk, and project founder Klaus Thymann, among others. All of which serves to expand and strengthen Unseen Amsterdam’s reputation and position as a tastemaker – a force to be reckoned with when it comes to showcasing and supporting talent.

“Unseen is different to other photography events in the sense that it’s all about the new, it’s all about the now,” says Van Lynden. “Many artists, even before they get to mid-career, lose faith or are unable to sustain themselves financially, and we really want to help create more structure, or at least a manner in which artists can get their work shown and their stories told.

“We also want to show the diversity of photography in Europe – how it’s being used in different countries,” she adds. “The only way the photography community can strengthen itself, and for us to be able to create a stronger foundation for artists, is through collaboration.”

Unseen Amsterdam runs from 21-23 September at Westergasfabriek, Amsterdam unseenamsterdam.com futures-photography.com

From the series Happy Valley © Eva O’Leary, shortlisted for the ING Unseen Talent Award
From the series I am just a scenic spot © Pauline Niks, shortlisted for the ING Unseen Talent Award
From the series Bombay Dream © Yana Wernicke, part of the Futures show
From the series Ol © Allyssa Heuze, part of the Futures show
Bol – Buduma, from the series Chronicles of the Lake Chad Basin, 2017 © Benedicte Kurzen, courtesy TJ Boulting
From the series FORTIA, 2017 © Keyezua, courtesy Ed Cross Fine Art
Lili, from the series Swallow, 2018 © Andras Ladocsi, courtesy Supermarket Gallery
Sharde, Milwaukee, from the series America, 2014 © Jacob Aue Sobol, courtesy Galerie Wouter van Leeuwen