In Progress: Five photographers illustrate the shifting landscape of contemporary photography

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This article is produced in partnership with Bristol Photo Festival 2021: A Sense of Place, a city-wide international photo festival taking place from May to October 2021.

In a new show at the RPS, Laia Abril, Hoda Afshar, Alba Zari, Widline Cadet, and Adama Jalloh present new and ongoing projects, placing process at the centre of both their practice and presentations

In 1963, the American curator John Szarkowski (1925-2007) presented his first exhibition as director of photography at The Museum of Modern Art, New York: Five Unrelated Photographers: Heyman, Krause, Leibling, White, and Winogrand. He curated it as a group of one-man shows, moving away from the broad and expansive group exhibitions that his predecessor Edward Steichen became known for. Each photographer exhibited 25 images, and, in Szarkowski’s words, each part was “large enough to indicate the cumulative meaning of a body of work”. 

Aaron Schuman references this concept in his latest curatorial project, IN PROGRESS, currently on show at the Royal Photographic Society in Bristol. Schuman invited five artists – Laia Abril, Hoda Afshar, Alba Zari, Widline Cadet, and Adama Jalloh – to present a body of work that was ongoing at the time. “It is about showing each artist as an individual with their own approach and style,” says Schuman, who wanted to avoid linking the photographers through an overarching theme, or centering himself as the exhibition’s mastermind. 

Alongside the final work, the exhibition also presents behind-the-scenes and research materials. “[The artists are] not only highlighting the end result, but taking the audience on that journey with them,” says Schuman. “The intention was to show the complexity of photographic practice. To show that photography is more than having a camera and taking pictures, it involves a lot of other disciplines, and has different intentions beyond, and as well as, the visual.”

It feels significant to note that while Szarkowski’s 1963 show featured an entirely white, male, and American line-up, Schuman’s show presents a group of international female artists. However, the curator is wary of drawing attention to this as the exhibition’s focal point. “In the same way that it wasn’t strange for there to be a show of five white men in 1963, I’m trying to make the point that in 2021, it’s not strange for there to be a show of five women,” says Schuman. “The intention was not to produce a show about female photography… It just happens to be that five of the most interesting photographers working today are women.”

Indeed, looking at each of the artists’ process and output, Schuman’s sentiments become clear. Exploring subjects that range from whistleblowing and menstruation, to growing up in a Christian cult, each artist’s approach is unique, and when exhibited side-by-side, their projects illustrate the shifting, diverse definitions of contemporary photography. 

“It’s about trying to condense what’s going on in photography now onto one stage, with the understanding that’s impossible to do,” says Schuman. Here, we attempt to illustrate this landscape, through an introduction to each of the artists and their exhibitions.

Alba Zari

Occult (2018 – ongoing)

Alba Zari was born into The Children of God, a Christian fundamentalist cult whose core principles included free-love, tantric sex, and underage prostitution. Children conceived through prostitution were labelled “Jesus babies”, and Zari was one of them. Her family managed to escape when she was four years old, and the artist has led a nomadic lifestyle since, living in Thailand, Italy, and now New York. 

Occult is an ongoing project exploring the beliefs and visual propaganda that was used to recruit her grandmother, then-33, into the cult. Zari is currently in the process of editing her research, mixing archival materials with her own images, including new photographs of cults that are currently operating in India, Nepal and Thailand. Through the project, Zari wants to raise awareness about the damaging impact of cults, by drawing parallels between the past and present and the continued use of emotional manipulation to recruit and maintain followers. 

“This project starts from a strong feeling of necessity to understand my family history and in that process I thought about memory: the fragility and flawed-nature of memory itself and how we trust photographic images in helping us understand our pasts, believing blindly in the images we see,” she says. “I want to bring to light the how these cults instrumentalise and objectify women and how this affects these women’s relationships with themselves, their bodies and their sexualities.”

Widline Cadet

Seremoni Disparisyon (Ritual [Dis]Appearances) (2017 – ongoing)

“The process is equally as important as the final outcome,” says Widline Cadet. “My exhibition reflects the breadth of my practice through the inclusion of final exhibition-ready images as well as some of the research materials that have influenced the process of making some of the images.”

Through the repetition of figures, symbols and gestures, Cadet’s self-portraits – some solo, others with women performing as her double – construct alternate worlds that test the limits of what we understand to be reality. The Haitian-born, New York-based artist manipulates her photographs to distort the authenticity of the image, and of image-making as a means of surveillance and identification. Cadet’s images are captivating, but also disorientating, presenting a world in which certain gestures, clones, or disguises challenge the boundaries of reality and fiction. 

© Widline Cadet courtesy Royal Photographic Society.

Laia Abril

Menstruation Myths

People who menstruate spend an average of 1800 days – almost five years – of their lives having their period. In many cultures, the taboo surrounding menstruation can make many young women feel isolated, silenced, and confused about the changes happening to their bodies. In some religions, women are even forbidden from praying, eating certain foods, or sleeping in the same beds as their husbands while menstruating. On top of these social implications, hormonal imbalances experienced during the menstrual cycle can cause extreme mental stress, physical pain, and other debilitating symptoms that remain understudied. 

In an ongoing project, Menstruation Myths, Laia Abril investigates whether this lack of understanding could be perpetuating the suffering experienced by people who menstruate. Forming part of her long-term project, A History of Misogyny, Abril questions the place of women within societies that ignore the menstrual calendar. In similar vein to other chapters of her broader work – such as On Rape and On Abortion – elements from Abril’s research forms an integral part of the final presentation, and through doing so, she provides a deeper understanding of the roots and repercussions of miseducation and silence.

Adama Jalloh

Process (2015 – Present)

Six years in the making, Adama Jalloh’s Process is a collection of both personal and commissioned work: a reflection of her photographic practice as a whole. The project began in 2015, “which was when I started thoroughly making work that centred around my identity and relationship with London,” she explains. “Being Black, British, African and a Woman have all shaped the ways in which I both see and interpret the world,” writes Jalloh, in her artist’s statement. “Many aspects of my background, upbringing and personal life have served as the basis for how I’ve chosen to navigate my photographic practice in all its forms.”

Alongside her personal practice, Jalloh was taking on editorial and commercial commissions, and embedding the same style and process became important. By highlighting the parallels between these two elements of her work, Jalloh places the mechanics and underlying drive of her image-making at the centre of the series.  “[The images on show] aren’t in specific order, or actively telling the viewer which projects they are from,” she says. “[This gives] the viewer the chance to explore how the images loosely connect, and discover the consistencies that overlap with my way of working and thinking.”

© Adama Jalloh.
© Adama Jalloh.

Hoda Afshar

Agonistes (2019)

Hoda Afshar’s exhibition centres around the portraits and experiences of whistleblowers. Her monochrome 3D photographs picture former employees of Australian government agencies who spoke out against abuses, and now live with the consequences of doing so. Melbourne’s PHOTO Festival commissioned the Iranian-born, Melbourne-based artist to make the work in 2019, in response to the festival’s theme, ‘The Truth’. 

Titled Agonistes – a Latin word describing the endurance of an inner struggle – the project focuses on each individual’s story, and their shared experience of making a difficult choice between morality and survival. The individuals describe a breakdown in their professional and personal lives, and explain the reasons that led them to call out these abuses, despite being aware of the consequences. For Afshar, their stories are similar to Greek tragedies, which provided a reference point for the work. For one element of the project, Afshar made 3D portraits of her subjects, then used a 3D printer to convert them to sculptures reminiscent of Greek Hellenistic statues.

“[All of the projects on show are] research-based practices, and I think at the heart of it is this idea of ‘making’ photographs as opposed to ‘taking’ them,” says Afshar. “I’m thrilled to have my work shown alongside the artists that I truly admire, the talented and innovative image-makers whose practices are part of the process of reformatting photography for the next generation.”

© Hoda Afshar.
© Hoda Afshar.

IN PROGRESS: Laia Abril – Hoda Afshar – Widline Cadet – Adama Jalloh – Alba Zari is currently on show at The Royal Photographic Society in Bristol, until 24 October 2021, as part of Bristol Photo Festival. 

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.