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Alternative Narratives: Photoworks celebrates 25 years

The Brighton-based organisation remodel their biennale festival and annual magazine, with the aim of widening access and passing on power

“We are questioning the idea that there is one history of photography. Instead, we’re saying that there are multiple histories,” says Shoair Mavlian, director of Brighton-based organisation Photoworks, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, under the theme ‘Alternative Narratives’. The pandemic has brought about many challenges for publications and festivals, but for Photoworks, it has been an opportunity to reflect and rethink — and their annual journal and biennial festival does just that.

Released last month, Annual 26  — a collectable journal published every autumn — is guest-edited by Jamila Prowse. The 25-year-old curator is, significantly, the same age as Photoworks, and was invited to examine the organisations’ archives, inviting curators, writers and photographers to reflect on its history, from 1995 to 2020. Featuring work by photographers including Boris Mikhailov, Nina Manandhar, Marcia Michael and Hideka Tonomura, alongside written reflections and interviews, Prowse’s curation engages with the idea of archiving as a process of inclusion and omission. “A lot of things that are mentioned in the annual are things that Photoworks did in the last 25 years, but a lot of it is things that we didn’t do, and perhaps should have,” reflects Mavlian. 

Homemade Sushi, 2010 © Pixy Liao.

“Allowing me to consider its archive through the lens of both what is included and what is omitted demonstrates a self-reflexivity that I hope more organisations and practitioners with exercise”

Jamila Prowse, writing in Photoworks’ Annual 26
24th Parallel South, Chile, 2018 © Roger Eberhard.

In line with this idea of passing on power, this year’s festival, which will take place for a month from 24 September, will showcase a younger generation of practitioners. The confirmed lineup includes Farah Al Qasimi, Lotte Andersen, Poulomi Basu, Roger Eberhard, Ivars Gravlejs, Pixy Liao, Alix Marie, Ronan McKenzie, Sethembile Msezane, Alberta Whittle and Guanyu Xu.

What is unique about this year’s festival is that it can be experienced in three ways. The physical show will take place in Brighton, entirely outdoors — “We wanted to think of a model that would be Covid-proof,” says Mavlian, “and by having a festival that’s outdoor, we’re reaching an audience that may not usually come to a gallery.” The exhibitions will also be accessible online, through a “digital hub”, which will host a programme of virtual events, films and podcasts. 

The final way to experience the event is through a “festival in a box”. Inspired by Dayanita Singh’s innovative photobooks, this will be curated as a deconstructable magazine, with posters and texts that can be displayed at home. “It’s giving the audience the opportunity to play around with curation, like a DIY curator,” says Mavlian. The limited edition box will include texts by Julia Bunnemann, Simon Baker, Pamila Gupta, Thyago Nogueira, and more to be announced. 

Celestial Mediations II, 2017 © Alberta Whittle.
Abraj Mall 2019 © Farah Al Qasimi, Courtesy of the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

“We wanted to rethink the traditional model of a photography festival. Every festival in the UK is based on the model of Arles — multiple small venues across the city. That works in the south of France, but it doesn’t necessarily work in the UK, and in cities that have different types of architecture, layouts, and demographics,” says Mavlian. “This year’s festival is about asking what the possibilities are for photography in the future, and showing exciting artists that are making local photography at this moment.”

The organisation’s approach this year has centered around access and power. “Jamila editing the annual is about passing on the power to the next generation,” says Mavlian. “There’s a lot of conversations around hierarchy that have become more apparent over the last few months. This is something we were thinking about a lot last year, about how we can share this power and give other people opportunities.”

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