PhotoVogue 2022: How does the ubiquity of images shape our ability to feel?

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We speak to Alessia Glaviano, director of fashion photography festival PhotoVogue, about how this year’s program responds to the question: What would Susan Sontag say?

Susan Sontag was one of the first writers to interrogate the ethical implications of photography, particularly the dangers of becoming desensitised to images. Her 1977 book of essays, On Photography, published 45 years ago, is strikingly relevant today. She writes:  “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”

By nature of her job, Alessia Glaviano, director of fashion photography festival PhotoVogue, consumes images all day long: “Looking at how many images are uploaded online every day, how many are consumed in our phones, devices where our eyes linger on an image no longer than 0.05 seconds before resuming the scrolling, I asked myself: what would Susan Sontag say today?”

This question formed the theme of this year’s PhotoVogue festival: ‘The Contradiction of Overexposure: A debate on how the ubiquity of images shapes our ability to feel’. Opening in Milan this Thursday, the seventh edition of the festival presents a program that celebrates both the local and global, including an exhibition of emerging home-grown talent, and a show collating some of the most powerful covers from all global editions of Vogue.

Here, we speak to Glaviano about how the program responds to this year’s theme, and whether fashion can act as a tool for social change. 

© Victoria Ruiz.

This year’s festival is centred around a debate surrounding the ubiquity of images, and how this can shape our ability to feel. Could you give us an example of how the work reflects on this idea of ‘The Contradiction of Overexposure’? 

There are two exhibitions that deal specifically with the theme. One is Regarding the Pain of Others, which features the most iconic images and videos of devastating events in our recent history. However, they will not be visually displayed but instead presented through their written description to counteract the “normalising” effect that repeated exposure to these kinds of visuals could produce. The public is thus invited to think and visualise the photographs and videos with their mind’s eyes, a challenge to be active responsible viewers rather than distracted passive voyeurs questioning our responsibility as consumers of images. 

Face Forward: Redefining the Vogue Cover, which features some of the most powerful covers from all global editions of Vogue, is instead an example of how the normalising effect could be used to push for a more diverse visual world. This collection will show how important the work that Vogue has done over the decades has been and can be, the reach that we have, and how we can be influential in contributing to building a better and fairer world. 

The theme is present in many of the exhibiting artists in other exhibitions too – from Aida Muluneh in the exhibition Visual Communication for Change: Using creativity to address Neglected Tropical Diseases in Africa, to Xavier Scott Marshall and Jaimy Gail in The Next Great Fashion Image Makers, or Marzio Emilio Villa in Italian Panorama. Almost all the artists that we are featuring touch upon the theme, because they are conscious artists, whose work is imbued with issues of justice and representation

“Some of the manifestations of fashion are consumerist, materialistic and frivolous – we just need to look at social media to see that. But at its core this is not at all what fashion is – it is a language that speaks about identity and so much more.”

© Meseret Argaw.

This belief that fashion can be a tool for social change is ingrained into the DNA of PhotoVogue. How do you respond to critics who denote fashion as consumerist, materialistic, or frivolous?

I would understand why many people think this, because some of the manifestations of fashion are consumerist, materialistic and frivolous – we just need to look at social media to see that. But at its core this is not at all what fashion is – it is a language that speaks about identity and so much more. I have been fighting all my professional life to tell another story about fashion and the representation of it. I have always been fascinated by fashion photography, which reflects the culture and the people of its time, could have the power to shift perceptions and shape identities and has become more and more political. Think of how for instance the cover of a magazine circulates on social media and the internet, how many people can reach. People who before the internet would have never come in contact with it. This alone can be so powerful. I’m glad to work for Vogue, whose mission is culture through the lens of fashion. Not only does Vogue elevate fashion, but we are interested in the historical, sociological, political and self-expressive facets of fashion and how it plays a role in our society. 

 

Could you pick out some exhibiting photographers who are promoting these kinds of values? What stories are they trying to tell, or what kind of social causes are they advocating for?

There are so many – I would say all of them, because as I was saying before, we are talking about a new generation of image makers that are conscious of the society they live in, of the injustices, the prejudices, and who are willing to make a change. There are artists exploring womanhood, such as Jaimy Gail, Ashley Markle, and Rachel Lamb; those who decolonise narratives, such as Xavier Scott Marshall, Silvana Trevale, and Imraan Christian; or those who are exploring new definitions of beauty, such as Aart Verrips, Tara Laure Claire, and Jara García Azor. Elsewhere, Lucrezia Testa Iannilli, Matteo Buonomo, and Eleonora Strano explore the human-nature relationship, while Claudia Amatruda illustrates the experience of living with a disability. The list could go on! 

Vogue India, August 2022.
Vogue China, March 2022.

In what ways is this year’s festival different from previous years?

 

The festival is growing – there are more exhibitions, artists and talks. It is also the first year that PhotoVogue has effectively become a global reality, with the active participation of all the international editions of Vogue. Also this year at the festival we will showcase our first step into web3 showcasing an NFT collection created by 81 PhotoVogue artists, which is now available for sale on Voice.  The collection deals with themes of equity and justice. We think it’s important to explore this new world and we partnered with Voice, a carbon neutral NFT platform, because we share a common focus, which is to empower emerging creators from underrepresented and marginalised communities.

PhotoVogue takes place at BASE Milano in from 17 to 20 November 2022.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy 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, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.