Everything Old Is New Again

Sabrina Mandanici at the 49th Rencontres d’Arles

Jonas Benediksen's The Last Testament at the Eglise Sainte-Anne. (All photos: Sabrina Mandanici)

ONE REASON I’VE ALWAYS LOVED THIS PHOTOGRAPHY FESTIVAL is the faded splendor of the city itself. An ancient limestone gem of some fifty thousand inhabitants, Arles lies along the Rhône River, bordering the swamps of the Camargue. Should you go, mosquito repellent is a must for Arles’s nights. Roman remnants, such as the arena and the theater, silently compete with early Christian and Romanesque churches. Residential homes and nineteenth-century industrial buildings further bridge the eras. During the opening week at the beginning of July, many of these venues hosted events and workshops, book fairs and signings, panel discussions, parties, and portfolio reviews.

Each year, the festival’s mission is simple and ambitious: Showcase new, largely unknown work from a broad range of photographers, work closely with its artists, and engage an audience through inclusive programming of contemporary relevance. Sam Stourdzé, the festival’s director since 2014, emphasized this at a Wednesday-evening conference, noting that the leading questions that shape his team’s approach are: “What do we have to say?” and “Where do we want to go?”

Rencontres d’Arles Festival director Sam Stourdze.

Nonetheless, “Back to the Future,” the umbrella theme of the forty-ninth edition of Recontres d’Arles, does not correspond with my experiences of previous years—in terms of curatorial specificity and in providing responses to “the shocks that remind us the world is changing, sometimes right before our eyes” (as the 2018 program states). Revolts and utopian endeavors, geopolitical struggles, and the broad subject of humanity mark the thirty-six exhibitions in this year’s festival—notable in works such as Matthieu Gafsou’s H+, which explores transhumanism, and Jane Evelyn Atwood’s and Joan Colom’s intimate depictions of overlooked and exploited communities.

To start, I went for a series of exhibits grouped under the title “America Great Again!” While Robert Frank’s Sidelines, Raymond Depardon’s Depardon USA 1968–1999, and Paul Graham’s beautifully installed The Whiteness of the Whale were worthwhile, I still would have hoped for everything but anachronism when viewing these photographers through an AGA lens.

Appropriately housed in a church, Jonas Bendiksen’s The Last Testament was among the works that stood out. The Norwegian photographer portrays seven men—underdogs and creatures of power from Brazil, England, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, and Zambia—who all claim to be the new Messiah. Combining texts, documents, and videos, Bendiksen’s thoughtfully composed color photographs grapple with the often-kooky mechanisms of religion, making you debate how and why belief turns into faith.

View of “A Pillar of Smoke” at the Maison des Peintres.

“A Pillar of Smoke,” curated by Ilgın Deniz Akseloğlu and Yann Perreau, unites seventeen Turkish photographers and artists whose works address, defy, and contextualize the country’s increasingly repressive regime. Most gripping were Çağdaş Erdoğan’s tenacious black-and-white images of dogfights, aggressive sex, and street violence, all against the swallowing void of nocturnal Istanbul.

As committed but less grim is “Hope. A Collective Perspective,” a group show at the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation. Dedicated to the documentary image, it spotlights photographers actively engaged with the communities they portray. During the public tour, I particularly enjoyed the presentation of John Hall’s fifty-five-foot-long leporello of pro-Allende protests in 1960s Chile and Patrick Willocq’s large-scale color series “My Story Is a Story of Hope,” in which the residents of a small French village and some fifty asylum-seekers sent by the government reenact the many sides of the refugee experience. While one viewer labeled Willocq’s genre-painting-like tableau “cheesy,” I was touched by the emotional labor, artistic respect, and empathy connecting people whose colliding worlds are in upheaval.

View of “The Family of No Man.”

Given the increasing impact of public conversations around sexual harassment and discrimination against women, transgender, and cisgender individuals, I was struck that the only show deliberately engaging with feminist and counter-narratives was housed within three rooms at the festival’s Cosmos photobook fair. “The Family of No Man” is an explicit reaction to Edward Steichen’s watershed exhibition of 1953. Through an open call, curators Brad Feuerhelm and Natasha Christa selected one image each from the 494 submissions from female and intergender artists who work with photography. The show also includes texts and documents, as well as outdoor performances.

So it felt like poetic justice that this year’s New Discovery and Public’s Choice awards went, respectively, to Paulien Oltheten’s La Défense—a humorous and intriguing video performance investigating daily routines—and Wiktoria Wojciechowska’s Sparks, a series of striking portraits, videos, collages, and materials collected from young nonprofessional soldiers fighting the separatist war in Ukraine. These two winners resonated with me, as their photographic images are more than presentations: They closely relate to the tactics of theater––that is, the transference of emotion.