Bruges photography festival turns the lens on human condition


The fourth edition of the Brugge Photo Festival showcases a wide range of photographers, mediums and styles, with exhibitions all across the city

Diversity of perspectives

Fight your way through the thick tide of Christmas tourists, and you’ll find a city-wide photography festival under way in Bruges. Ranging from classic documentary photography and portraiture to found images and multimedia, there is something here for every taste.

The highlight of the Brugge Photo Festival is the joint exhibition of work by Ian Berry and John Vink, both veterans of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency. Their images of by-gone England and Belgium wrap around the cloister of the Carmelite church on Ezelstraat.

Berry made his name in the 1960s as a photojournalist, most notably documenting the Sharpeville massacre in apartheid South Africa. On returning to the UK in the 1970s, he set out to explore his homeland with fresh eyes. He photographed people on the streets, in their homes and in social situations.

As well as commenting on issues such as the British class system, its racial mix and the generation gap, Berry’s multi-layered photographs also contain mysterious personal stories that we can only guess at. Where, for example, is a young Londoner going with a kitten clutched in one hand and his daughter in another?

This was Belgium

Vink acknowledges Berry as an inspiration, and his series This Was Belgium takes a similar view of events such as carnivals, bicycle racing and farming. Where Berry’s images are mysterious, Vink’s are more open and playful. In one, a sleeping dog owner at a show is watched over by a vast white poodle, while in another a gibbon appears to balance with one foot on the Atomium.

The Carmelite cloister is an excellent setting for these photographs, but other venues in the festival require a bit more work. A few doors down, Klaartje Lambrechts’ portraits of Antwerp asylum seekers are displayed awkwardly in the bar of the Snuffel youth hostel.

The otherworldly feeling is heightened by a light show that casts strange shadows over the photographs

If the idea was to bring out a sense of people in transit, then it is undercut by the contrast between the holidaying Eurokids checking in and the pictures of people presumably driven out of their homelands by war and other hardships.

The detail of their stories remains obscure, since no information beyond the image is provided, not even their names. Most wear characteristic ethnic or national dress for these three-quarter length studio photographs, and Lambrechts puts each in the same pose, a dignified half-turn to the right. The images are beautiful, but distant.

Another tricky location is De Werf, open only on selected days, where photographs by Bruges native Jelle Van Hulle are squeezed into the arts venue’s compact cafe. The photos are small and dark, dream images in black and white, such as a tiny pistol resting in an overturned espresso cup, a man in a bear suit with his arm around a woman, or the shadow of a crooked tree unwinding sinuously down a country road.

The otherworldly feeling is heightened by a light show that casts strange shadows over the photographs. Paper strips stream out from a fan hung from the ceiling, adding sound effects.

Body on film

Walk on to the docks, and you will find Daniil Lavrovski’s pictures of Russian youth culture pasted onto the walls of a stairwell in Het Entrepot. This rough treatment lends itself to the Brussels-based photographer’s gritty, grainy images of skateboarders, swimmers and young people smoking and hanging out.

There are more conventional displays, such as portraits by Jenny Boot, Rob Mellink and Luc Rabaey at De Schipperskapel. Danielle van Zadelhoff’s portraits influenced by old master paintings are placed in the suitably mediaeval context of the Broederklooster of Sint-Jans Hospital. And the results of the Fotonale Brugge competition can be seen at Hal Cultuur.

A Super 8 film shows a camel wandering the windswept dunes of the Flemish coast

The festival also includes art where photography is only a part of the story. At the Bogardenkapel on Katelijnestraat, for example, Young Belgian Art Prize winner Jasper Rigole dips into his collection of found objects, known as the International Institute for the Conservation, Archiving and Distribution of Other People’s Memories.

His most photographic installation gathers found images of children sitting between the humps of a camel, pressed into service to promote a brand of macaroni. In a small room spread with sand, a whispered soundtrack imagines the camel’s journey, while a Super 8 film shows a camel wandering the windswept dunes of the Flemish coast.

Finally, the group exhibition So Many Steps, So Little Time at De Bond explores visual art emerging from the contemporary dance scene in the UK. Most of the work here is video, from Dick Jewell’s films about British club culture to Gina Czarnecki’s startling meditations on the strangeness of bodies.

But there is also a generous selection of photographs by Maria Falconer, some snatching images from dance performances, others composing more enigmatic scenes into series dealing with domestic abuse and the pressures of fashion on body image.

Until 8 January, across Bruges

Photo top: John Vink/This Was Belgium
Photo above: Wayne McGregor/Concertgebouw