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head on photo festival: review

Nic Bezzina Photography

Nic Bezzina Photography

This year’s Head On Photo Festival, a celebration of photography exhibited in various locations across Sydney, presents a range of poignant photographic surveys dealing with diverse subjects, including a plethora of topical social issues. Many of these issues are related to, or a consequence of gender inequality in international contexts. The voice of these issues however, is presented overwhelmingly by a vast number of male photographers, compared to only one female with any significant survey of their work located in the Lower Ground Town Hall exhibition space: the self-proclaimed ‘hub’ of the Photo Festival.

It is not a new concept to suggest that art has the ability to both reflect the world in which it is created and inform and incite social critique and change. This duality is perhaps never more apparent than within the medium of photography. Photography occupies a unique space in our contemporary consciousness through its literal insight to the physical world of its construction, and its ability to metaphorically and symbolically convey the conceptual intention of its creator. It is the changing perception of photography from a scientific form to a conceptual medium that it has grown to be accepted as a unique and legitimate art form in the mainstream world of ‘fine arts’. This appreciation and legitimisation can be seen through the institutional acceptance and promotion of this form. Such acceptance can be seen in instances such as the growth of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ photography collection from its establishment in 1975, which now boasts over 5,000 photographs, and the prevalence of photography festivals around the world, including Sydney’s own internationally minded Head On Photo Festival.

Upon viewing the array of artists on display in the ‘hub’ of the photo festival, I was impressed and surprised to see the sensitive treatment of a range of social issues explored. From seemingly light-hearted candid portraiture to the exploration of cultures of violence and poverty, many of these issues, particularly focused on what may best be described as ‘women’s issues,’ or more simply, social issues which significantly impact women or are a consequence of gender inequality in contemporary society. Such issues can be seen in a variety of works such as Sebastian Liste’s depiction of prostitution in poverty stricken communities in Latin America, Ramak Bamzar’s portraiture of Iranian weddings (photographs which would not be allowed to be exhibited in Iran due to law regarding the public exhibition of uncovered women), Georges Pacheco’s poignant portraits of breastfeeding mothers and Nic Bezzina’s exploration of voyeurism in the digital age of live webcam ‘sex shows.’ Although any voice given to these topics is fundamental in the raising of awareness and effectually driving social change, I was surprised to notice that only one of the photographers exploring these concepts through a significant survey of work on show was a female, that being Ramak Bamzar and her seminal Iranian wedding portraits. This imbalance forces me to question, how important is the representation of the female voice in the dialogue surrounding these issues?

Though many would perceive the contemporary art world as a diverse and ‘equal’ industry when compared to many other male dominated industries, when statistics are highlighted, this is significantly not the case. Websites dedicated to the illumination of this inequality such as the blog ‘Countesses’ reveal statistics surrounding many major art galleries and cultural events as fundamentally male-dominated both within curatorial representation and the exhibiting artists. This complex issue manifests itself within the Head On Photo Festival in a significant way, as a variety of male photographers explore issues that significantly impact ideas surrounding gender equality in contemporary society.

Georges Pacheco, in his series Amalthee, constructs poignant portraits of breastfeeding mothers, timelessly draped with materials in the style of the iconic Madonna, which embody the unique bond of mother and child. With this uncensored, visceral portrayal of mothers breastfeeding their children, Pacheco contributes to the discourse surrounding what has been a topic of debate in recent times. In the wake of controversy and widespread media coverage surrounding the many instances of breastfeeding women being asked to ‘cover up’ or even leave particular premises, this work is undeniably topical. Though not explicitly stated as a political work, through the depiction of what Pacheco describes of as a ‘privileged bond and intimate mother with their child,’ the artist critically examines the act of breastfeeding in full view of his audience, dispelling the need for any notions of concealment through the intimate depiction of his subjects as linked to a universal image of motherhood. The expression of such topics has not historically existed in the domain of ‘male’ artistic discourse. Though this advancement could be read as a positive contribution to an inclusive society, I question positivity of the presence of this voice in the place of female artists, rather than in addition to.

There are however, more polarizing works displayed in the hub of the photo festival. Nic Bezzina’s series CAM_GIRLS utilizes the domain of ‘live sex shows’ performed over the medium of internet-connected cameras. Bezzina’s ‘screenshots’ of these models juxtapose instances of performance and direction with those of non-performance. The male gaze has been an inherent element in the art world since its very foundation. Many canonical ‘modern masterpieces’ are constructed within this paradigm and have a significant element of voyeurism. CAM_GIRLS critically re-evaluates this notion of the voyeur in the age of the digital image. In consideration of the assertive form the artist takes in directing his models, a number of key questions become important: What is the significance of the re-evaluation of this historical artistic precedent, again through the paradigm of a male voice? And how does this work differ from historical objectifying images of women?

As has been a prominent ethos in the social commentary of gender inequality and the consequential range of issues that impact women’s lives, these debates require active participation of both males and females in order to create lasting and meaningful change. Such values have recently been championed in speeches such as Emma Watson’s 2014 address to the UN and the associated #heforshe campaign. However, I believe that it cannot be emphasised enough that a balance in representation and voice must always be sought, and in my opinion, Head on Photo Festival does not achieve this if their self-proclaimed ‘hub’ is to be representative the festival’s whole.

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