This year’s PhotoBrussels Festival (21 January – 27 March 2021) showcases the varied ways in which 27 photographers in Europe captured experiences of lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic
The fifth edition of the festival, founded by Delphine Dumont, brings together a series of works made in quarantine in a thematic exhibition, The World Within, at Hangar, the photography centre of Brussels. Assembling established photographers such as Julia Fullerton-Batten and Edgar Martins alongside emerging talents, it features intimate, introspective and intellectual reflections on how confinement affected, and continues to affect, people’s lives.
The call for projects was launched in March 2020 shortly after the restrictions in Belgium came into effect. “The lockdown was announced on the eve of the opening of our exhibition on Ruud Van Empel, we had to cancel everything [Van Empel’s exhibition was postponed to May] and decided to work on our festival,” Dumont says. “After thinking about whether to call for projects about Belgium or the whole world, we opened it to photographers confined in Europe as European countries were all undergoing the same experience.” Dumont focused on the projects that offered a counterpoint to reports about the Covid-19 health crisis in the media. “We stated in our initial text that a sort of resilience should be felt,” she says.
A total of 419 entries were received from 20 countries, spanning the photography spectrum, from portraiture to documentary and landscape. “What surprised us is how an artist can pull something out of an ordinary, daily existence to create something extremely personal,” Dumont remarks.
Yet Dumont and her team struggled to figure out how to produce the selected projects. “Initially, we thought of producing all the series in one unique format but the photographers objected, saying that the production and presentation of the work is essential too,” Dumont explains.
From July to September, each curator collaborated with nine artists on an individual basis. “We went to the laboratory to make the prints and showed them to the photographers on FaceTime or WhatsApp,” Dumont says. “Some photographers readily agreed to this solution to producing their work, with others we had to gain their trust.”
The visions of lockdown take us to diverse places. Fullerton-Batten photographs various households in London through their windows at twilight and interviews her subjects about their experiences while standing outside. Meanwhile, Martins ”accidentally” found himself in Beijing, Madrid and London during the Covid-19 pandemic. His arresting series comprises diptychs, pairing deserted cityscapes shot in the morning and late afternoon – normally the rush hours – from the tops of buildings he was inhabiting with abstract, conceptual images produced by overlaying materials from his darkroom. It contrasts the constrained conditions of quarantine with the liberating practices of darkroom processes.
Several series deal with how families coped. Nick Hannes creates a photo diary of life with his wife and two daughters in their countryside home near Antwerp, capturing their range of emotions from joy to uncertainty. Laure Vasconi made a photo diary of her 16-year-old son’s mixed reactions – he has Down syndrome – in their apartment in Paris. In Lisbon, Gonçalo Fonseca photographed African migrant single mothers squatting in abandoned apartments with her children whilst working shifts.
Other works are infused with elements of play, showing how photographers sought to alleviate stress. Gérome Barry made short, humorous films in his small Parisian flat, in which he pretends to be on a summer holiday, at the opera or playing poker. Lucas Leffler creates sculptural installations and mises-en-scène with everyday objects in his living room in a shared house in Brussels. And Kíra Krász makes compositions on paper from cut-out images of her and her boyfriend’s yoga postures that imitate a computer game’s geometric sequences, in their bedroom in Brighton.
Some photographers produced projects virtually. Simon Vansteenwinckel used Google Street View to wander around Wuhan in China and took pictures of his computer screen using black-and-white ‘Washi F’ film used in medical X-rays. By contrast, Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni took screenshots of their conversations with quarantined teenagers and students in Europe, China and Morocco about the pandemic’s impact on their lives.
Other highlights include Giovanni Hänninen’s portrait of Milan, focusing on the empty white billboards dotted around the city’s streets mirroring the absence of activity and Alexandra Serrano’s cyanotypes of gathered plants and flowers on newspaper cuttings, which form a poetic response to the pandemic.
Bringing all these diverse styles and interpretations together, the festival and exhibition offers a powerful, historical trace of life under lockdown and of collective memories.