FORMAT International Photography Festival returns with both a physical and virtual programme, more expansive than ever before

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Overcoming hardships and uncertainties, the festival’s 10th edition is themed under Control, and includes exhibitions curated by Marina Paulenka, Azu Nwagbogu and WM Hunt


The theme for the 2021 edition of FORMAT – Britain’s largest festival of international photography, held biennially in Derby since 2004 – is Control. “Control has so many dimensions,” says the festival’s founder and director, Louise Fedotov-Clements. “It consists of actively influencing others, but it also implies the losing of control or the defying of control.” It spirals out into numerous concepts: self-control, state control, birth control, border control, disease control, out-of-control. It is laden with moral ambiguities. One can struggle for more control while bemoaning the control exerted by other individuals or institutions. And the very art of artistic creation – of, say, capturing a scene in a photograph – constitutes its own act of control.

Clements is also artistic director of QUAD, Derby’s centre for visual art and film, which serves as the festival’s hub. From there, exhibitions fan out across the city’s cultural institutions – including the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, the Déda dance centre and the charity-run Artcore Gallery – and a raft of less conventional venues. In 2021, visitors will be able to explore the world’s oldest department store, a chapel, the Smallprint Company’s hand-printing studio and a functioning market hall, where exhibits will be interposed with the stalls. “Derby,” says Clements, “is a very easy, very friendly city to walk around. And it’s a very collaborative city, in terms of the art organisations, but also in terms of businesses.”

Image © Ashfika Rahman, courtesy FORMAT21
Image © Ashfika Rahman, courtesy FORMAT21
From the series Are You There © Kelly O'Brien.

FORMAT21 will examine control from myriad angles. Among the 50 artists chosen to exhibit from the open call – which attracted over 800 entrants – the Colombian-born Felipe Romero Beltrán depicts undocumented migrants learning the martial techniques taught to Spanish police. Iran’s Sima Choubdarzadeh looks at her country’s patriarchal society and how it restricts the lives, rights and identities of women. Hungarian Dávid Biró examines surveillance and facial profiling, while Derby-based Kelly O’Brien looks at how clairvoyance distorts one’s control over the past. Bindi Vora, Satyadeep Singh and Mitchell Moreno also feature. 

The festival’s core programme demonstrates a similar heterogeneity. At QUAD, curator Marina Paulenka will present a keynote exhibition on the theme of control, looking at gender fluidity and body politics in the context of digital technology through the works of Tabita Rezaire and Juliana Huxtable. Brian Griffin, the festival’s patron, will launch Black Country Dada: an autobiographical volume exploring the formative years of his career in the last days of photography as a fully analogue profession. The Here, There and Everywhere strand, curated by Laura O’Leary in partnership with Azu Nwagbogu of the African Artists’ Foundation, presents three distinctive emerging voices from the continent: South Africans Anthony Bila and Sipho Gongxeka, and Uzoma Orji from Nigeria. Collector and curator WM Hunt’s Huddled Masses will draw on his own holdings to present group images from the early days of photography. “They’re amazing, epic images,” says Clements, “showing workplaces and events that gathered hundreds and hundreds of people.”

Hats in the Garment District, New York, 1930 © Margaret Bourke-White, courtesy FORMAT21
Unknown, 1890 © Ramona Rebekah Lodge, courtesy FORMAT21

Several exhibitions will look at the exercise of control in contemporary politics. Magnum Photos will present Linea, a long-gestating project by 14 photographers capturing life alongside the border wall between Mexico and the USA. “It’s extremely powerful and emotionally provocative,” says Clements of the project, “with harrowing images depicting the mismatch of dream and reality, people racing from border guards, and the harsh situation of migrants waiting to see what will happen next.” MacDonaldStrand (the partnership of Gordon MacDonald and Clare Strand) will reveal No More Flags, a new body of work which looks at the rise of far-right nationalism in Britain and the US. The artist duo will manipulate and remove content from the flags from images of activist marches for an installation tackling the psychology behind such groups. “It’s also about the act of image production and how we become complicit as witnesses or accomplices. And also how artists and curators control how viewers might look at and perceive something,” explains Clements.

This topic also animates the group exhibition titled Collaboration > Control, which won the FORMAT21 Award. Curated by Vincent Hasselbach and featuring multimedia work from Anna Ehrenstein, Nida Mehboob, Ashfika Rahman and the #turbinebagh solidarity movement, it seeks to inspire dialogue on artistic control and co-creation, using images “made with” collaborators rather than “taken of” subjects. Other award-winning open call projects include Etinosa Yvonne’s visually arresting It’s All in My Head, about the psychological impact of conflict in Nigeria; Tami Aftab’s The Dog’s in the Car, which tells stories of her father’s short-term memory loss; and River Claure’s (BJP‘s Ones to Watch in 2020)  Warawar Wawa (Son of the Stars), which relocates Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince into contemporary Bolivia. 

From Collaboration > Control, featuring multimedia work from Anna Ehrenstein, Nida Mehboob, Ashfika Rahman and the #turbinebagh solidarity movement © courtesy FORMAT21

There is also a global purview to FORMAT21’s extensive engagement with the pandemic, which has itself fuelled debate on the control a state can exercise over our behaviour. In March, Clements asked photographers, professional or amateur, to tag images of their lockdown experiences on social media with #massisolationFORMAT. “It was a simple idea,” she explains, “but we had over 40,000 images submitted, from 90 countries. The #massisolationFORMAT images chart world events, from Black Lives Matter protests and major weather crises to people’s daily lives in their homes.” 

As the virus seeped across the continents, the project chronicled both universally experienced and locally specific outcomes, from the UK’s weekly claps for the NHS to reportage from within Iran’s hospitals. Several projects at FORMAT21 will draw on this profusion of material. There will be an exhibition at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and another curated by Brigitte Lardinois and Paul Lowe of the Photography and the Archive Research Centre at the London College of Communication. The People’s Picture, led by artist Helen Marshall, will create both a physical photomosaic and a digital archive of the images.

#massisolationFORMAT © FORMAT21

The embrace of online technologies has always been a hallmark of FORMAT, but FORMAT21 will sail significantly further in that direction than ever before. Working in collaboration with the Los Angeles-based organisation New Art City, the festival will be translated into the digital domain in a major new multiplayer venue. Logging in as an avatar, visitors far and wide will be able to meet each other and visit the entire exhibition programme and attend events, including a major international portfolio review.  “You can be present in the space, have guided tours and speak to the artists,” explains Clements. “It’s quite an innovative, living space.” Diverging the festival’s long-term commitment to participation by allowing users across the world to take part, it should make the ninth edition of the festival its most expansive iteration yet. 

FORMAT21: Control runs from 12 March to 11 April 2021.

Joe Lloyd

Joe Lloyd is a freelance writer on art, architecture and photography (and any combination of the three). Based in London but revitalised by regular travel, he is particularly interested in cityscapes, socially-motivated practice and gastronomic history.