Allan Sekula, the American photographer and critic, once noted that "the only 'objective' truth that photographs offer is the assertion that somebody or something […] was somewhere and took a picture." But considering the excessive possibilities today to manipulate an image, perhaps even that statement is tricky.
Photography is still a container for evidence, of course, but we just can't be absolutely sure, at least not on first sight, what visual confirmation exactly is being transmitted through the image. It could document something arriving from the actual social world that surrounds us, or it could, alternatively, be a testimony to the artistic vision of its 'producer' (in that case, maybe also best to avoid the word 'photographer') but it is even possible that both connotations are factual and evident. The thing is: we just can't tell by merely looking at the picture.
This year, only weeks after World Press Photo had to disqualify 20% of its finalists due to unaccepted 'image manipulation', FORMAT – the international photography festival in Derby, UK – opened its biannual manifestation of exhibitions and lectures with the theme 'Evidence'. On March 12 at QUAD, the main venue and vibrant cultural heart of Derby, the festival opened with the presentation of a group show including several body of works by artists that remind us that the camera, in the words of its curator, Lars Willumeit, "provokes us to question how we determine the truth, beyond reasonable doubt."
The main scope of this exhibition – inspired by the seminal work 'Evidence' (1977) by Mike Mandel and the late Larry Sultan – but also of all that is on display at the other locations around town, is on artists that investigate the tension between authenticity and doubt, that in itself arrives from the ambiguity between fact and fiction, probability and truth. More specifically, the represented artists do so within the 'frame' of documentary photography, that by now has established itself within the realm of the medium as a trustworthy and authoritative means of social storytelling.
Since its inception, photography has been subverted as a subjective medium. "Despite this," says Louise Clements, the artistic director of both QUAD and the FORMAT Festival, "it was once considered the most accurate way to record the world around us." Something has changed, over time: with progressive knowledge also came the admission that we can no longer see the photograph as indisputable proof. That is to say, as Clements states: "[T]oday photography still acts as a prime evidential medium in many cases, however it certainly has become more difficult to distinguish between the documentary, staged or manipulated image."
With the clause that Derby in itself is not the much spectacular town in the world, it certainly is a most worthy place to visit during the FORMAT International Photography Festival. It is the place to engage in an incredible range of new work alongside leading practitioners from around the world, all with a focus on the slippery territory of the photograph as testimonial, as the auspicious conservator of truth. The festival itself will run until April 12 but there will also be an interdisciplinary conference held at the cultural centre QUAD that takes as its main starting point the main theme of FORMAT: 'Evidence'.
10 April, 9:30am – 5:30pm (registration begins at 9am)
QUAD, Cinema 1
Passes: £60, £45 concessions (QUAD members, over 60s, unwaged, student)
Refreshments and a light-lunch will be included