Industry Insights: Alessia Glaviano on photographic ethics and running a festival amidst a pandemic

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In collaboration with Direct Digital – the leading international photographic equipment rental facility – 1854 introduce Industry Insights, a series which delves into the ins and outs of the commercial photography industry

In this second instalment of Industry Insights, the Brand Visual Director of Vogue Italia reflects on the challenges posed by moving a festival from the physical space to virtual, and how she and her colleague, Francesca Marani, overcame them.

In 2020, famously a year without precedent, the art and photography world was forced to adapt — fast. Events were cancelled; programming was postponed; galleries closed down, then opened up, then closed down again. How would the industry look now? How might festivals be re-imagined to allow for a world in which people were necessarily separate?

These were some of the questions Vogue Italia’s Alessia Glaviano asked herself as she put together the fifth edition of Photo Vogue Festival with her colleague Francesca Marani. Despite all the challenges posed by the pandemic, the festival went ahead online from 19 to 22 November and attracted tens of thousands of visitors, with a packed virtual programme of talks, exhibitions, and projections, and a coinciding month-long physical exhibition in Milan’s Giardini di Porta Venezia.

Jeyza Gary from the series “See One”, From the exhibition All in this together (Photo Vogue Festival 2020) © Sophie Kietzmann.

Photo Vogue Festival bills itself as “the first conscious fashion photography festival that focuses on the common ground between ethics and aesthetics.” In 2011, Glaviano had begun to notice a conspicuous gap between these principles: work which was either beautiful but lacking in content, or full of content but poorly executed aesthetically. Her solution was to create Photo Vogue, an online space championing photography which straddled the two (and which today counts almost 240,000 contributors).

“I work in a fashion magazine, a publishing house, and I have a platform,” she remembers thinking. “So the idea is: what can I do to improve society? To improve the world that we live in, which is so unjust on so many levels?” Glaviano has championed diversity, inclusivity, and ethical representation at every step of the platform’s development. And five years after the birth of the platform came Photo Vogue Festival, building on these same principles.

Planning for the festival usually begins at the start of the year. By late February 2020, however, the pandemic was beginning to take hold in Italy, the first European country to declare a major Covid-19 outbreak, and it was clear that initial plans would have to change. “The first thing that struck me was this solidarity and empathy,” says Glaviano. “In the beginning you could really see it: people going on their balconies and singing, people helping each other.” Reflecting on this, the open call changed tack: its theme became ‘All In This Together’. By April, Glaviano and Marani had taken the tough decision to run the festival online, suspecting that the pandemic’s chaos would not be resolved in time for the festival in November.

Giardini di Porta Venezia © Photo Vogue Festival.
Discovering Sophie #2. Jan' 2020 © Imogen Freeland.

As painful as that time was, reimagining the form of the festival presented an opportunity. “When you have limitations – maybe especially when you have limitations – it’s a trigger for creativity,” Glaviano says. She considered virtual reality, and then an app, before deciding on a virtual exhibition space. “The idea of doing a digital platform is a creative thing. It can be amazing; it doesn’t need to be real-looking.” One of the exhibitions displayed images in a grand gallery space whose floor was piled with sand; another showed the photographs nestled on the walls of a two-storey trellis, pouring multi-coloured flowers; the projections were suspended by bleached wood in a desert landscape. The platform reflected the increasing urge towards nature, which many reported experiencing during the pandemic (especially in places, like Italy, where quarantine confined people to their homes).

Jesi Taylor Cruz and Io from the series “See One”, From the exhibition All in this together (Photo Vogue Festival 2020) © Sophie Kietzmann.
Untitled, From the series Notting Hill Carnival © Alice Zoo.
Ib Kamara. London UK 2017 From the exhibition In the picture (Photo Vogue Festival 2020) © Ruth Ossai.

“At a time like this, culture is fundamental.”

Ultimately, Photo Vogue Festival’s online platform was visited by 55,000 attendees from 80 different countries, with 77,000 visits to the platform in total, a reach of 10.5 million, and 502,000 video views. Numbers aside, Glaviano is proudest of the warmth she felt from the international photography scene. “As a community – Photo Vogue and the photography community around the world, critics, editors – I feel we are all very close,” she reflects. In a year of so much loneliness and isolation, it’s clear what an achievement this represents.

The physical exhibition, inspired by New York’s Photoville, was printed large and displayed around the gates of one of Milan’s most prominent and central public gardens. “It was important to have something physical, to reach people of the city of Milano; to give something to the community,” Glaviano says. Just as the online space allowed access to the festival to many thousands who might not have attended otherwise, around the Giardini the work found audiences who may never have been in touch with it otherwise.

All in this together, 2020 © Photo Vogue Festival.
In the picture © Photo Vogue Festival.

And in the same way that the ongoing pandemic reshaped Photo Vogue Festival, so too might it open a space in which wider society can reconsider its values. “I was frustrated that, in Italy for instance, culture wasn’t given the right importance,” says Glaviano, looking back on the early part of the year and the ways that funding and support were allocated. “At a time like this, culture is fundamental.”

“I think that our mission – people who are out there in the public, like me – is to stimulate creativity, to stimulate interaction. And to try to push boundaries, to keep talking. There’s so many things that happened this year apart from Covid-19…” Sociopolitical issues can always be reflected on and interrogated by art and culture, encouraging people to stay informed and engaged. “The intention is to not let the apathy that can happen in periods like this take over,” Glaviano says. “It’s a day-by-day work.”

“I hope for a completely different world in the future,” she continues. For her, this is a world in which the pandemic reframes our priorities. After all, the talk of “slowing down” and appreciating the pace of lockdown life is the luxury of those with savings, with childcare; for the global majority, “slowing down” means the possibility of not having food on the table. “Maybe the right discussion that we should be having now is: is this economic system the right one?” she says. “There are a lot of things that don’t work in this system. And I don’t think that we are talking enough about it.” Correspondingly, a cultural system should be founded on principles of empathy and community-building, rather than self-promotion and ego. This is Glaviano’s battle now, she says. “It always has been, in a subtle way, but I would like to make it more obvious.”

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Alice Zoo

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London. She is interested in the processes by which people construct meaning for themselves, often focussing on its expression in ritual, celebration, and recounted memory. Her work has been exhibited in public institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Photographic Society, and Royal Albert Hall, and published in British Journal of Photography, FT Weekend Magazine, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.