Questions of identity infuse Ghent’s new photo festival

Summary

Ghent’s first-ever citywide photography festival tackles themes of identity with powerful photo essays that explore what it’s like to be a Gentenaar, to lose your sense of self when you grow old and to be fat in a society that values the opposite

Medieval meets contemporary

Ghent is a festival city. There’s Ghent Jazz, Gentse Feesten, Ghent Film Fest, Ghent Light Festival – all that was really missing was a photo festival. But no longer.

To fill the gap in the city’s cultural calendar, heritage organisation Historische Huizen Gent has created 80 Days of Summer, Ghent’s first citywide photo festival, which takes in 10 historic venues with 30 exhibitions by 20 photographers. The focus is on identity, and the walking trail puts the identity of the city itself in the spotlight, too, inviting visitors to explore with photography as their guide.

“We’ve collected a range of visual stories about identity,” says Anke D’Haene of Historische Huizen Gent. “But we also found it very important to make the link with our heritage, as we have so many beautiful monuments and buildings in the city.”

The venues include the STAM city museum, Sint-Baafs Abbey and the Dr Guislain Museum, as well as Historische Huizen Gent’s Facebook page, where Lisa Van Damme is curating an ongoing series of photo essays about the city’s inhabitants called Humans of Ghent.

But at the heart of 80 Days of Summer, and typical of the medieval-meets-contemporary ethos, is Sint-Pieters Abbey. It’s the nerve centre of the event, hosting four exhibitions and acting as a meeting place for visitors wanting to experience the parcours.

Pervading atmosphere

Among its exhibitions is The Inner Circle of Europe by young Flemish photographer Gert Verbelen, who travelled to the geographical centre of 18 countries in search of a specific European identity, immersing himself in each community for a week at a time.

This is a comment about what we allow ourselves to do with our elders

- Photographer Maja Daniels

The resulting images show a remarkable level of intimacy. A man sits asleep in a chair in his living room; a mother lies with her child in bed beneath a huge animal skin that hangs on the wall; a boy stands in the street clutching a rifle. Verbelen says he also saw his own identity reflected through his choice of subjects.

London-based Swedish photographer Maja Daniels immersed herself in a community of a different kind for her series Into Oblivion. She lived in a geriatric hospital in France for up to a week at a time over the course of three years, photographing residents with dementia in an attempt to understand their lives.

 

There are no carers to be seen in these images, where pastel tones and abundant light can’t soften the pervading atmosphere of loneliness. “The importance for me is really what it might be like to live in this place, from the point of view of the residents,” Daniels says.

She’s interested in identity construction and in the body, she explains. “So my interest was in what happens with the body when our idea of self is fading. In our minds, our way of dealing with growing old and dying and losing our memory is connected with the self in a way that I don’t think is very healthy.

“So this is a comment about what we allow ourselves to do with our elders when we believe that the notion of themselves is somewhat faded.”

Ghosts below the surface

The festival organisers have chosen to highlight documentary work while exploring the point where it meets art photography. A case in point is Matt Wilson’s This Place Called Home, which ostensibly tells of an English childhood. Indeed, it started as a family album but later grew to encompass other places and times that would become home. The small-scale prints invite and reward close inspection, revealing the poetry Wilson creates in everyday scenes.  

From here, in contrast, you move to a series of large, bright canvases depicting deserts and endless skies, scenes that from a Western viewpoint immediately feel “other”. They’re the work of Katharine MacDaid, who’s led a nomadic existence as the daughter of expats.

Born and raised in Oman until the age of nine, she returned to work there as an adult. “Having been away for 20 years, this fantasy of Oman had formed in my imagination,” she says. “I had a sense of it in my memory and a sort of hope.”

She spent two years there, taking thousands of photos all over the country that she then took back to London. “I was looking at them and really trying to pull out what my unconscious was telling me and what my encounter with this place was,” she says. “For all my desire for it to be this place that was mine, it wasn’t; it was really unknowable, it was impenetrable, and it wasn’t mine. This work is about the impossibility of returning to that place.”

Did she feel like an outsider, looking in to somewhere that had once been home? “I work very much in the moment of the encounter; I take a photograph, and I move on,” she explains. “It’s only later that I really look at the work. When I’m in that zone of photographing, I don’t really know what I feel.

“When I look at the photos later, there’s an uneasiness in a lot of the pictures for me, definitely. There’s something underneath; my ghosts are in the landscape.”

A slice of life

This is followed by a series by Sibusiso Bheka, Lindokhule Sobekwa and Tshepiso Mazibuko, the result of workshops led by Flemish photographers Bieke Depoorter and Tjorven Bruyneel. The photos by these three young South Africans are also full of demons. In one image, a posse of boys stare defiantly at the camera, at once desperate to be seen as men but with fear and haunting in their eyes; in another, double exposure lends a ghostly air to a night-time cityscape.

I would create a picture, and it would release the insecurity

- Photographer Jen Davis

The last gallery houses Self Portraits, a project about the body and identity by Jen Davis (pictured) from New York. It began in 2002 with a group portrait on a beach and takes in the following years in which she confronted insecurities about her weight and eventually underwent a stomach operation.

“That first picture was the beginning of the process of me looking at myself,” she explains. “It had been a while since I’d been in a bathing suit, and I had this intention to make some images, but I didn’t know what they were going to be. I just felt uncomfortable and wanted to see if I could capture that.”

She was amazed, she says, by the way the photos caught the authenticity of the moment: “It didn’t feel contrived; it really felt like a slice of my life. That was the licence to continue working.”

From that point, she started looking at her vulnerabilities, as well as at societal standards of beauty. “The camera became this outlet for me, a voice to articulate this otherness in my life that was missing,” she says. “Like partnership, a lover, a boyfriend.”

Battling insecurities

As her work evolved and she became more comfortable in front of the camera, Davis started asking friends to play a relationship with her in the images. “I wanted to have that affection, to understand touch,” she says. “I would create a picture, and it would release the insecurity.”

The years went by, until she came to edit the images for a publication and realised she’d never physically changed in that time. It had never been her intention for the work to be about losing weight and to photograph the process, she says; rather, the work led her to that place.

“It was only through nine years of looking that I was able to understand I wanted this change,” she explains of her decision to undergo surgery. “The rest of the pictures in the series are about that transition, about the body and how it’s shifting, how there’s this residual thing that’s still about battling insecurities.”

And how does she feel about the woman in the pictures now? “I’m kind of desensitised because I’ve been looking at them for so long,” she admits. “Looking back, what affects me more is thinking about what it felt like to take that photograph or what it felt like to be held – all these experiences that author the pictures.”

Shades of light

All but one of the venues in 80 Days of Summer are within walking distance of each other, but the Dr Guislain Museum is well worth the detour by tram.

The former asylum is host to four exhibitions as part of the festival. For Facing Japan, 10 contemporary Flemish photographers spent time capturing the essence of the country through portraits, landscapes and images of food.

Lichtgevoelig (Photosensitive) gathers portraits of and by people with mental illness around the world, from the past 150 years, while New Zealander Robin Hammond’s Condemned is a collection of searing images of people with mental problems in sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom have spent their life in chains.

Finally, Het huis (The House) by Karin Borghouts depicts her childhood home after it was destroyed by fire. In one, a charred family photo hangs next to a blackened mirror reflecting the photographer back at the camera; another shows shelves of her elderly mother’s lovingly arranged antiques with a perfect circle where a single plate has shattered.

“There were tears in my eyes when I saw that the entire interior and all my mother’s things had been blackened and devastated,” says Borghouts. “I was confronted with something irretrievable. After the fire, we no longer talked about ‘home’ or ‘our house’; we talked only about ‘the house’.” She has nevertheless found shades of light and beauty in the blackness that engulfs her work.

Until 30 August, across Ghent

Photo courtesy Jen Davis and Lee Marks Fine Art, Indiana, and ClampArt, New York