Belfast Photo Festival 2021 imagines the possible future(s) of humanity

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Photo: © Mandy Barker.

“In our era of pandemics, climate chaos, global migration and political turmoil, we believe there has never been a more important time to connect audiences to the work artists are making”

What kind of world do we want to collectively create? That’s the question at the heart of the 2021 Belfast Photo Festival. “In our era of pandemics, climate chaos, global migration and political turmoil, we believe there has never been a more important time to connect audiences to the work artists are making,” says Clare Gormley, the festival’s Head of Programmes. “Artists are adept at problem-solving, world-making and asking questions about the future of society. They challenge us to see the world from new angles and perspectives, and we need this kind of ingenuity and creativity right now.”

Programmed around the theme of ‘Future(s)’, this year’s roster of exhibitions is underpinned by a sense of urgency. Tackling subjects as diverse and far-reaching as protest, surveillance and the advancement of technology, the festival runs throughout June in venues and public places across the city, as well as online. In the gardens of Belfast’s Queen’s University, the South African visual activist Zanele Muholi presents their first major UK show since their Tate Modern exhibition earlier this year. With work from Muholi’s ongoing project Somnyama Ngonyama, the exhibition mines themes of labour, racism, Eurocentrism and sexual politics.

© David Vintiner & Gem Fletcher.

Elsewhere, says Gormley, a number of immersive installations are set to take place. In Belfast’s Riddle’s Warehouse – a huge 19th Century ironmongery depot – Simon Norfolk and Klaus Thymann will present their large-scale work Shroud, which documents the melting of the Rhone glacier in Southern Switzerland in painfully attentive detail. Meanwhile, in the city centre, there will be a sensory sci-fi exhibition by French artist Quentin Lacombe called Event Horizon, and relatedly, in Belfast’s Writer’s Square, the Finnish artist Maija Tammi will present her project One of Them is a Human. “At a time when our species is, in many senses, facing the very real prospect of technological replacement, Tammi’s uncanny robot portraits challenge our conceptions of what it is to be ‘alive’,” says Gormley. 

Other exhibitions include a dive into the world of transhumanism by David Vintiner and Gem Fletcher at the University of Atypical; Mandy Barker’s award-winning work on plastic pollution will feature in an outdoor exhibition at Belfast’s docklands, and, shown at public sites across Belfast, Davion Alston’s Stepping on The Ant Bed will feature collaged images of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. 

© Davion Alston.

Also being presented in the Belfast Botanic Gardens this year is the Portrait of Humanity 2021 exhibition. Comprising 30 winning images and three bodies of work from across the globe, the curation is a vast and moving exploration of what it means to be human at a momentous time in our history. “The pandemic has demonstrated how linked we are as a global community,” says Gormely, “and after what has been an incredibly difficult year, it feels important to be able to acknowledge our shared struggle, our joys and sorrows. This exhibition is a wonderful celebration of humanity’s interconnectedness.” 

And that same impulse reaches out across the festival, she says. “Ultimately, we hope the 2021 Belfast Photo Festival can act as a vehicle for inquiry and questioning about the world we want to live in post-pandemic.”

Belfast Photo Festival runs from 03 – 30 June 2021

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London