“Will I ever see my freedom?”: Powerful portraits of daily life from OpenWalls Arles 2020

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From anti-Brexiteers and Chinese fishermen to women serving life sentences in the USA, BJP delves deeper into the ‘Daily Life’ single image winners of OpenWalls Arles 2021

OpenWalls Arles is a global photography award that exhibits both emerging and established photographers alongside Les Rencontres D’Arles. Enter OpenWalls Arles 2021, now seeking submissions under the theme Then & Now.

At work, at leisure, awake, asleep, in the street, in reflection. The everyday is, according to 20th century French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, that which is “most difficult to discover”: it is “what we are first of all, and most often”; it is ourselves, ordinarily. But the immediate proximity of our everyday renders its beauty hard to appreciate.

When ‘Daily Life’ was chosen as one of two themes for OpenWalls Arles 2020 — a look at the small moments, the ordinary routines, that make up human existence — we had no idea the exhibition would fall in such an extraordinary year. At the time of writing, the world is slowly emerging from lockdown, persisting through a pandemic that continues to magnify cracks in our systems. Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesotan police in May, the Black Lives Matter movement has erupted around the globe. Across oceans and borders, ways of thinking, acting and existing are in flux — which begs the question, will daily life ever really be the same?

It’s a question that lends new meaning to the curation of last year’s OpenWalls, shown at Galerie Huit Arles in September 2020. Bringing together work by 62 artists from around the world, the exhibition spanned four rooms, split between themes of ‘Daily Life’ and ‘Growth’. The winners have been selected by a judging panel including Fariba Farshad, Director of Photo London, and Stephan Erfurt, Chair of the Board of Directors of the C/O Berlin Foundation. In the absence of last year’s Les Rencontres d’Arles due to Covid-19, OpenWalls coincided instead with Arles Contemporain: a spontaneous festival of art, photography and performance in the cultural heart of the city.

© Catherine Hyland.
© Greg Turner.

From Tomasz Kowalski’s anti-Brexiteers and Greg Turner’s blind runners to Catherine Hyland’s Chinese fishermen on the Luo River, the challenge posed by the ‘Daily Life’ category was perhaps one of the foremost a photographer faces. That is, wrestling meaning from a fleeting moment; evoking lifelong patterns and rhythms within a single frame. Collectively, the selection invites us not simply to marvel romantically at the beauty of the mundane, but to confront our own privilege and assumptions toward daily lives that have – by genetic, geographic or social accident – unravelled in ways very different to our own.

Amongst them, former criminal defense lawyer Sara Bennett features with two photographs from her series Looking Inside: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences, conceived to draw attention to deep-rooted flaws in the US criminal legal system. “The public doesn’t really think about people who are behind bars,” Bennett tells British Journal of Photography. “And yet people serving life sentences create lives for themselves, complete with friends, family, jobs, hobbies. If you took Sahiah out of her prison uniform, she could be any young woman in a library; if you took Linda out of her prison uniform, she could be in any quasi-institutional setting.” Paired with handwritten notes from the women themselves — “There is light at the end of my tunnel, I will be free”; “I beg for forgiveness and a second chance. Will I ever see my freedom?” — the portraits serve as arresting reminders that those convicted of serious crimes are no less human than you or me.

“Through portraiture, the viewer gets a sense of the humanity of people who may have committed serious crimes. From them, we learn about dignity, resilience, hope. I want the viewer to ask: what do we do with a redeemed life?”

Sara Bennett

© Sara Bennett.
© Sara Bennett.
© Hossein Fardinfard.

Hossein Fardinfard’s Blackout, too, tells a story of resilience. When war broke out between Russia and Georgia in Abkhazia territory in 1992, refugees fled to the city of Tskaltubo and were rehoused in grand, abandoned sanitariums from the communist era. The Iranian photographer’s winning portrait centres Merry — whose brother and husband were murdered by Abkhaz separatist forces — in her new home, the sparseness of her belongings stressed against the engulfing backdrop of a once-luxurious structure. “I remember the first moment I stepped into the room,” recalls Fardinfard. “I found myself lost in time. It’s the small details that capture the essence of Merry’s everyday: each corner of the space, the objects inside it, the subtle details of how they’re arranged.”

Then there are the moments perhaps closer to home — like Tristan Bejawn’s solemn South London schoolboys, part of a series quietly observing pace and passersby on the capital’s bustling streets. “Photographing people in this space, each drifting through, deep in personal thought, exposed the magnitude of London’s cultural and ethnic diversity,” says the documentary photographer, whose wider work examines city youth culture, often challenging portrayals of young Black men in mainstream media. “Some portraits capture solitude, others suspicion. In this instance, a distinct and tangible South London energy.”

© Tristan Bejawn.
© Oskar Alvarado.
© Julie Hrudova.

Elsewhere in the category, Oskar Alvarado reflects on identity and community in his native Spanish village, while Christostomos Kamberis’ wife steals a moment to stretch her legs after a long day; Diego Moreno speaks to spiritual legacy through his maternal grandmother and Maria Short celebrates the diligence and dedication of a teenage horse tender.

To behold all ten images in succession is to witness strength, fragility, magic, nostalgia. It is to realise that much of the time, the more powerful moments are not in front of the action, but on the sidelines — and too often, they will go unobserved.


Enter OpenWalls Arles 2021

© Diego Moreno.
© Maria Short.
© Tomasz Kowalski.
© Greg Turner.
Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.