The FORMAT International Photography Festival Conference under the festival’s theme of ‘Evidence’ occurred on Friday 10th April, on the year of FORMAT’s 10th anniversary. The day featured talks by 28 speakers split into four parts over the day: the Political, the Authentic, Scientific Evidence and The Landscape & the Evidence of Evidence. The talks were dynamic and illustrated the numerous ways photography can be applied as evidence, both artistically, politically, scientifically and socially today. Within this article I will be focusing on 7 speakers from the day, some of which were also exhibiting artists as part of the FORMAT Festival.
The first speaker Stéphanie Solinas’ talk, How Photography Invented Identity, focused on the appearance of objectivity in photography and identification. In the 1880s Alphonse Bertillon created an anthropometric method using photography to recognize repeat offenders. This process was a pre-requisite for passport photographs as identification today. Photography is the method that has endured above all others to be used as official piece of evidence.
Solinas stated that if the photograph here does not lie, it simply says nothing. That identity can only exist in relation to classification of the other. Her work Sans titre, M.Bertillon in book form asks everyone to conceive their own image of Bertillon’s 3D face. This was exhibited at QUAD Gallery during the festival.
Debbie Adele Cooper is Artist in Residence at W W Winters Photography, a commercial portrait studio established in Derby in the 1850s and is still active today. With support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Winters and a group of volunteers are starting to catalogue their archive. The photographs housed within Winters not only tell the history of Derby and its residents but the history of photographic processes which they have used since the studio’s inception.
Cooper takes inspiration from the glass plates found stored at winters from which she has formed two fascinating projects. She is currently photographing local people, using the same glass plate process, who look like those within the archive. The other is a life-size greenhouse created using images from the archive’s glass plate photographs. The idea was formed from seeing Winters’ dig for victory campaign, the greenhouse was shown in St. Werburgh’s Church during the festival.
Kim Knoppers (curator at FOAM, Amsterdam) spoke on the how research and evidence are inseparable and how meaning is formed through the context seen. Knoppers referenced the 17th August 1992 Time Magazine cover, where a Bosnian Muslim appears to be held within a Serbian detention camp. This image was believed the world over, but was in fact later revealed to be a deception.
Knoppers states that research and evidence are inseparable, research is useless without the need to prove something and evidence cannot mean anything without research. Knoppers uses FOAM as a platform to move focus away from official history and onto other histories that have voices of their own. For example Foto Galatasaray (2013) exhibition investigated minorities that were under represented in Turkish history, and The Citadel (2014) curated by Vali Mahlouji featured photographs by Iranian documentary photographer Kaveh Golestan. These were exhibited alongside newspapers and other artifacts to support the reading of the images. Through this work you face those who are marginalised, the images used are a testimony into the lives of women who would have disappeared from collective memory. Here the photograph acts as a tool to bring alternate histories to the foreground, to reveal, document and to give minorities a place in visual history.
Director of Forensic Architecture, Eyal Weizman’s talk on Violence at the Threshold of Detectability was mind blowing and the highlight of the day. He started with the context of the David Irving Holocaust trial at the Old Bailey, part of which consisted of researching 4 holes that represent the only remaining gas chamber from Auschwitz-Birkenau. The existence of 4 holes in the roof of the building illustrate where the fatal gas would have been released. However, no one could find the holes. Irving also claimed that images of the Holocaust were paint brushed onto the photographs. From looking at the molecular level of the film to the grain size of silver salt particles, what Wiezman terms the ‘edge of detectability’, the salt grain is exactly the same size as human heads depicted in Holocaust photographs.
This has parallels with modern drone strikes; Forensic Architecture was asked to investigate drone warfare for the UN. When drones attack the only visible trace from above is a hole within the ceiling. Weizman and his team were asked to investigate drone strikes using satellite imagery, however the resolution is no sharper than ½ a metre a pixel, therefore the hole in the roof is smaller than one pixel and is subsequently undetectable.
Wiezman referred to a video that was broadcast by NBC showing the aftermath of an attack filmed anomalously through a window. His team took apart the video to make a large composite image using the film’s frame stills, from this they could determine road and building structures and match them to aerial imagery to locate the video site. In addition, from the length and angle of shadows they determined the time of day the video was filmed. From video footage taken inside the blast space, the team could map out all locations of blast fire, areas where there were less or no fragments on the wall marked where bodies had previously been.
The second video illustrated how trauma can obscure memory. They encouraged a victim to build a model of her own house, from entering the model virtually it helped to reconstruct her memory.
The talk showcased the amount of vital information that can be gathered from images that would otherwise be simply discarded. His team includes a combination of different practices working together, and illustrates how creative thought and process can become central in these situations. Wiezman’s work on investigating the identify and presumed death of Nazi Josef Megele was displayed within QUAD during FORMAT. In a discussion Weizman spoke how exhibiting the work within a gallery context enables the work to be presented for questioning.
Michelle Bogre in her talk The Photograph: Mirror or Memory stated that ‘truth is malleable’. One specific reference that sticks to mind is the work of Azadeh Akhlaghi, By An Eyewitness, where Iranian death scenes are recreated from written accounts for the camera.
Here Bogre asks does manipulation really matter? How much weight should we put on actual truth verses situational truth? Work by Akhlaghi is created to preserve collective memories of the events that have happened. However, in the future when these images are taken away from this context, the photographs will be read as true documents of the events happened. Thinking about this work, how much does it matter that it wasn’t the actual moment captured, when the story and the history are being retold. Through this Bogre also gets us to think if reconstruction images can be a more effective messages of truth.
Photographic artist Natasha Caruana discussed how gathering evidence is key to the personal narratives documented in her practice. She uses photography as a tool to investigate her own relationships and her feelings resulting from them. In her series Married Man she focused on how technology is changing relationships today. Caruana went on 80 first dates with married men and captured what seems like banal moments on disposable cameras. In Love Bomb (on show at QUAD Gallery) she questions why the tough side of love is hardly written about in the news. Confused in a relationship she visited Internet cafes to buy ingredients for love potion recipes and researched how to make homemade bombs. The work presented at FORMAT became an archive of the relationship with this person. Caruana, who is now married, then talked about At First Sight Coup de Foudre, where she has been researching into the phenomenon of love at first sight using key scientific experiments. Her dedication to involving herself and her relationship struggles within her work bring it truth and conviction.
Sarah Pickering’s talk Art and Antiquities focused on the exhibition of the same name shown within Derby Museum & Art Gallery as part of FORMAT. The work has many levels in response to Shaun Greenhalgh’s forgeries. Pickering’s initial ideas came from a Metropolitan Police display seen at the V&A, which exhibited a neatened version of the shed Greenhalgh worked in. Her exhibition includes props from a TV series looking into Greenhalgh’s work, images he took for evaluations, exhibition catalogues featuring Gauguin’s Faun (a forgery made by Greenhalgh) and salt prints made by Pickering of the faked artworks. The in-depth research that curators conduct is similar to what Greenhalgh used for his forgeries. Her talk and work challenges representation and authenticity not only in photography but also the art world.
In conclusion, a point raised in the plenary session of the day was ‘there is a purpose to it’.