Triennial of Photography Hamburg returns with the theme of Currency

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The eighth edition of the festival is directed by Koyo Kuouh, who has created a space to debate how the ubiquity of imagery is changing the way we think and behave

“I wanted to explore how photography – historically, contemporarily and also prospectively – has shaped, is shaping, and will continue to shape the way we perceive each other and the world,” says Koyo Kouoh, the chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town. “Traditionally, humanity was defined by language and objects. I think today humanity is defined by what we see, and what we see is very much defined and determined by photography and moving image.”

 Kouoh is the artistic director of the Triennial of Photography Hamburg’s eighth edition, which takes place this year from 20 May to 18 September. Spread across 12 exhibitions in 10 venues around the German city, the Triennial’s theme is Currency – a concept which, for Kouoh, expresses the contemporary ubiquity of images and their impact on our lives. “The somewhat scary reality is that in the last 30 years we have produced as many images as in the entire span of humanity,” she points out. “What does that mean? What does it mean that today the circulation of images is so fluid, and instant, and so extremely exposed to manipulation? This is a currency – a currency in terms of what we exchange, a trade not only in objects but in perception and emotions.”

Sara Cwynar, Glass Life (Film-Still), 2021, Courtesy the artist, The Approach and Foxy Production, New York.
formafantasma, Cambio, 2020, Video still. Courtesy: the artist.

Each exhibition interprets the theme in different ways, drawing on an international community of curators and artists. Currency: Photography Beyond Capture, curated by Kouoh together with Rasha Salti, Gabriella Beckhurst Feijoo and Oluremi C Onabanjo, goes on show at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg. The group show of 29 artists is a good example of the phenomenon she describes. Featuring works by Fazal Sheikh, Alfredo Jaar, Otobong Nkanga, Akinbode Akinbiyi, and Mame-Diarra Niang, among others, it considers artistic explorations interrogating how contemporary photography shapes acts of seeing and being seen. “We live in a retinal age, which very strongly defines how we function and even changes our behaviours,” says Kouoh.

Sheikh shares images from his series Desert Bloom, for example, part of his comprehensive study of Palestinian and Israeli life, published as a book titled The Erasure Trilogy (Steidl, 2015). The dystopian aerial photographs bear witness to the many forces that have displaced and erased the Palestinian Bedouin people of the Negev desert. Mame-Diarra Niang, meanwhile, shows recent work that plays with the limits of photographic representation. “It’s writing the beginning of a new language in terms of focusing,” says Kouoh of the work. “In terms of the idea of visibility and invisibility, of photography beyond capture.”

Herbert List, 'Ghost of Lykkabettos #1', Athen 1937, Münchner Stadtmuseum, Photography Collection, Archive List. Herbert List Estate / Magnum Photos.
Herbert List, Beneath the temple of Poseidon, Sounion 1937, Münchner Stadtmuseum, Photography Collection, Archive List. Herbert List Estate, Hamburg, Germany.

Kouoh is also excited about the other exhibitions in the Triennial. Give and Take: Images Upon Images at the Hamburger Kunsthalle includes artists such as Sara Cwynar, Max Pinckers, Walid Raad, and Wolfgang Tillmans, whose work explores how images can be reinterpreted over time. Demonstrating that the meaning assigned to images is fluid and unstable, these artists suggest that photography is best understood in terms of narrative, not ‘truth’. 


“The Triennial is a constellation of exhibitions and, as artistic director, I developed a framework of thinking and looking that was taken over by the 10 producer institutions.”

Koyo Kouoh, Artistic Director


“The Triennial is a constellation of exhibitions and, as artistic director, I developed a framework of thinking and looking that was taken over by the 10 producer institutions,” Kouoh explains. “Give and Take is one of the translations of the multiple conversations we’ve had about currency, and they’re looking at fiction and the idea of photography. Generally, people still believe that a photograph is a document of truth or the real; this exhibition turns that on its head by working with artists who have used the photographic image as a manipulative, fictional type of material.”

The Triennial also includes two exhibitions devoted to the late German photographer, Herbert List (1903–1975). The Magic Eye at the Bucerius Kunst Forum is a retrospective of his career, spanning surrealist works to extensive pictorial reports of non-European cultures and male nudes; Präuschers Panoptikum. A Photo Book by Herbert List at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg presents a previously unseen photobook from the 1930s and 40s, titled Präuschers Panoptikum, as well as magazine articles and wax figures from the Vienna Wax Museum. 

'Instructive View into the Ribcage' 1944 © Herbert List Estate. Hamburg   Magnum Photos.
'Man (which is his nickname)', 2019, from the series South County, AL (a Hale County), 2012-present © RaMell Ross.
Images from Macht. Mittel. Geld. Chris Schwagga, SHMH-MHG. (2)

“Pictures always contain different levels and readings that come to light at different times.”

Esther Ruelfs, curator at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg


Both shows suggest that List’s images have been contextualised and recontextualised over the years. In doing so, they imply that our interpretation of photography shifts, says Esther Ruelfs, the curator at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg. Some of List’s nude images were published in the gay magazine Der Kreis in 1949, for example, but when they were circulated in journals with a wider contemporary readership, they were framed with texts and other images, “in such a way that they could not be understood as gender ambiguous,” Ruelfs comments. “I think pictures always contain different levels and readings that come to light at different times.”

LaToya Ruby Frazier presents a solo show at the Kunstverein. Flint is Family, Act III is the latest instalment of her work on the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which was caused by industrial and governmental neglect. The Triennial describes Frazier’s documentary work as “politically forceful” rather than open to interpretation; in this case, says Nicholas Tammens, curator at Kunstverein, the idea of currency suggests the echoes her work can have beyond the Flint community.

“LaToya Ruby Frazier’s work amplifies the possibility of art to speak of a historical moment,” Tammens says. “She does this by telling stories from contexts with particular issues that we could argue are universal in their themes – emancipation, equality, justice. Photography’s role in her work is to take part in that process of representation. In terms of interpretation, we can ask how these themes, such as class struggle, are present in our own context and lives as viewers.”

'Zion Doing Her Math Homework' from the International Academy of Flint (Est. 1999), Flint, Michigan, 2016-2017 © LaToya Ruby Frazier. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery.

Other exhibitions include Strike! at the Museum der Arbeit, a photographic history of labour struggles from the 1960s to now, and two shows devoted to 20th century artists from Hamburg: fashion and advertising photographer Charlotte March, and architectural and street photographer Hans Meyer-Veden. PHOXXI, the temporary House of Photography, is presenting two exhibitions around collecting, one on the FC Gundlach private collection, the other considering Paris Photo as the ‘stock exchange’ of photography. 

Macht Mittel Geld at the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, meanwhile, will literally look at currency via the museum’s collection of coins that reflect colonial history; Archive of Experiences at the Museum am Rothenbaum: World Cultures and Arts will present a family album from 1868, a wealthy Hamburg merchant’s vision of Singapore. “It’s stunning because you see exactly the colonial case – the social hierarchies and everything that is not explicitly said,” says Kouoh, who was born in Cameroon and is now based in South Africa. It’s another example of how photography can be recontextualised and therefore reconsidered and, as Kouoh points out, these exhibitions offer an opportunity to consider an otherwise overwhelming contemporary flow of images. “That’s why a photographic exhibition is helpful,” she says. “It helps you to stop and see images in contexts that allow for reflection and enquiry, for drawing relationships, and for retrospective and even prospective thinking.” 

Triennial of Photography Hamburg takes place from 20 May to 18 September. Dates for individual exhibitions may vary

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy