Bill Kouwenhoven

Bill Kouwenhoven (Baltimore, 1961) ist bekannt für seinen unabhängigen Blick auf die Photographie und das seit mehr als 20 Jahren. Er lebt und arbeitet in New York und Berlin. Seine Texte wurden in Zeitschriften wie bspw. »Photo Metro«, »British Journal of Photography«, »Afterimage«, »Aperture«, »Photonews«, »Hotshoe«, und »European Photography« veröffentlicht. Als Autor war er an über 20 Publikationen beteiligt, darunter »Nuevas Historias« (Hatje Cantz, 2008) und »Hunters« (Schilt Publishing, 2012). Durch seine Tätigkeit als Kurator und Kritiker ist er immer am Puls der Zeit, was die zeitgenössische Photographie betrifft.

Bill Kouwenhoven (Baltimore, 1961) has been known for his independent perspective in photography criticism for over twenty years. He lives and works in New York and Berlin. His writing has been published in magazines such as Photo Metro, British Journal of Photography, Afterimage, Aperture, Photonews, Hotshoe, and European Photography. He has contributed to over twenty publications, including Nuevas Historias (Hatje Cantz, 2008) and Hunters (Schilt Publishing, 2012). Through his work as a curator and critic he has an acute awareness of the cutting-edge trends informing contemporary photography.

And Where Do We Go From Here? LIPF turns 10

The most important photography festival in China, the Lianzhou International Photography Festival, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. I have been to four of the previous nine editions. This gives me an understanding on this photography festival with “Chinese characteristics”, as it were.

As the People’s Republic of China has evolved over the years, culture has been a major part of the establishment of the Middle Kingdom on the world stage, and the LIPF has been a serious part of this transition.

In contradistinction to the more photojournalistically–oriented festival in Pingyao, the LIPF has both been more “art-oriented” and more international. As a result, the LIPF has become the dominant platform for the exchange of ideas—at least as far as photographers are concerned—between China [and within China, too] and the rest of the world and between various other photography festivals as typically represented by the top-tier umbrella group, the Festival of Light, that includes long-established festivals Arles, Paris, Houston, Buenos Aires, Mexico, Lodz, Madrid, and beyond.

As an entity that is sometimes subject to the whims of China’s government as are all cultural events in China, the LIPF occupies an interesting space, somewhat free and sometimes not so free, depending on local or national officials and the whims and needs of the powers that be. Some various incidents of censorship have occurred at the festival over the course of my experience there, mostly, I believe as a result of the various power plays between the powerful Guangdong state and that of Beijing. Guangzhou, Canton, to Westerners, is one of the most important power centers in China and includes Shenzhen, next door to Hong Kong. Nearly everything we in the West purchase is made there, or so it seems.

Lianzhou, a beautiful provincial city of some 500,000 inhabitants some 4-5 hours up the new road to the north-west from Guangzhou, has had a very interesting cultural history for thousands of years and more lately has become a place where new ideas are tested out before they are main-streamed. As such, it is the ideal location for a photography festival and a place for China to demonstrate its cultural prowess to international audiences and international photography specialists and artists from around the world whose works are included in the iterations of the LIPF, each technically better, more professional, and more international than the previous incarnation.

The 2008 co-curator Li Xianting noted that historically, Lianzhou was always a place of artistic expression. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) its distance from centers of power made it a place for the powers that be to exile troublesome intellectuals, officials, and artists. Thus put on ice, they were able to express themselves without causing too much trouble. Yet they succeeded nonetheless. During those years artists and writers such as Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan, and Liu Yuxi overturned the prevailing literary style and proposed a “Classical Prose Movement” “that championed creativity and cutting analysis of social ills in a plain language.” Li Xianting declared that the LIPF “is not only intended to assert the importance of our relationship to [the camera], but also to reaffirm the importance of the independent viewpoint and revisit the camera’s ability to bear witness to and confront us with reality, current events and emotions.”

Under the leadership of its founder, Duan Yuting, and with various other national and international guest curators, the LIPF has, without question, established itself as the most important photography festival in China.

The 2013 LIPF had a budget of some 4,000,000 Yuan (approximately 500,000 Euro or 650,000 US Dollars), has a main period of one week, although shows may run for a month or so, has approximately 10,000 visitors, 100,000,000 million hits on Weibo, the Chinese version of Google, for its 70 exhibitions presented in three disused industrial spaces. These are the official statistics from the closing press conference.

As an honored foreign observer, one who has written about the LIPF and participated on its most recent jury and has known many of the artists involved in the shows, I think it makes sense to take stock of the LIPF as it is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

While the LIPF has, generally speaking, had themes—2008’s “My Camera and I,” 2012’s Narrative and Narrative Forms, and more recently 2013’s Farewell to Experience—they are rather loose. Thus it is perhaps better to look at the role content plays in the festivals. Or, rather, the purpose of showing various exhibitions of Chinese and international photographers as well as historical retrospectives is more important than the actual themes.

The LIPF has consistently served as a platform for educating international audiences (represented by the foreign press, curators, and participating photographers) about the breadth and depth of Chinese historical photography and contemporary practices. At the same time, by exposing international photography to Chinese audiences and photographers, the festival encourages the exchange of ideas and possibilities inherent in photography to people who may not have had the opportunity to travel outside their province, let alone outside of China itself. Similarly, portfolio review sessions, workshops and colloquia facilitate this kind of cultural exchange. The presence of international curators is also a “force-multiplier” where work from China is then taken to other countries and shared with other audiences at festivals as varied as those in Arles, Houston, or Buenos Aires. For Chinese photography and for everyone else, it is a win-win situation and brings out the best of what photography festival can do.

Some examples:

In 2008 the LIPF combined a series of historical retrospectives starting in the 1930s through the death of Mao to the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Zhou Haiying’s “World in a Mirror Box” was a fantastic documentation of everyday life in the tumultuous period in the 1930s and -40s as China was rocked by the Japanese invasion and the civil war that led to Mao’s ascension to power in 1949. Shi Shaohau concentrated more on rural life than that in the big cities, but his work, scarcely known in the West, was also revelatory. So too was Li Xiaobin’s work about the post-Mao to Tiananmen.

Other works directly addressed transformations in China since Deng Xiao Peng’s political and economic reforms began to shake up China and rapid development took off and began to change the entire economically. Still, images from the new housing projects and the materialism that is the face of increasingly prosperous modern China were balanced by a far more critical look at the actual costs of transformation.

Jin Jiangbo’s “Great Economic Recession” looked behind the facades of the famous Hejun Toy Factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province. Here, as a result of a brief collapse in the world economy, the factory’s owners closed the factory and sent the equipment back to Taiwan. Jin Jiangbo, an academic from Beijing University, obtained unprecedented access to the abandoned factory floor and the dormitories replete with suicide nets and violent graffiti to reveal the world behind the scenes of the Chinese economic miracle and the huge factories more lovingly documented by Edward Burtynsky, among others. The Dickensian working conditions in Donnguan and elsewhere—Foxconn where this computer and much of our present electronica are produced—have seldom been so tellingly illuminated.

Ou Zhihang’s “Sight,” of his naked body performing push-ups with his face averted in front of architectural symbols of Chinese power, historical like the Great Wall and the Great Hall of the People, or contemporary like the then under construction Bird’s Nest Stadium or the CCTV tower in Beijing, in an ironic challenge to authority, were made more critical by an image of him exercising this time face up before the collapsed school in Fuxin where hundreds of students died during the Sichuan province in 2008. The collapse of that school and those of others in the province led to the deaths of more than 5,000 students and revealed a history of shoddy construction and political corruption that is to be seen all over the country and represents, along with terrible pollution, part of the true cost of China’s race to the future.

2012’s edition took a different approach by stressing different modes of artistic expression. While it took part during the context of the power struggle that led to the selection of Xi Jinping as Chinese premier and which opening ceremonies emphasized the power of Guangdong province viz other regional power centers, Beijing, Chongqing, and Shanghai, the LIPF concentrated many more personal projects that emphasized the photographers’ individual visions. There were far more whimsical or concept art related works than before with images by Chen Xiaoyun of people interacting with scraps of brush or Feng Li’s of isolated objects or people as examples. Although there were documentary and archival images, and images that did include nudity—a sensitive issue in Chinese culture, the festival mostly played it safe.

This brings us to last year’s LIPF entitled “Farewell to Experience. With several international festival directors and curators presenting projects from Argentina, Denmark, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, 2013’s edition marked both a coming of age on the international stage and a movement to the “curator as artist” trend that has recently swept the art world. This was most formally demonstrated by the project of Thomas Sauvin, “Beijing Silvermine,” that excerpted images of thousands negatives he found in 2009 in a recycling dump north of the capital. The great bulk of the images came from the 20 years since 1985 as the huge changes that have shaken China began to pick up speed. They show the incredible arrival of consumerism and material culture as documented in amateur pictures. For this, he was awarded a special prize by the jury.

Other works involved curatorial and workshop-related projects. A stunning series of images related to poverty and big city culture, curated by Duan Yuting featured imagery by Qin Wai and Ouyang Xingkai, from Hong Kong and Hunan, respectively, and Simon Wheatley from the UK, as well as their workshop participants in Lianzhou, gave the festival real depth and power.

What we can see from these developments is how the LIPF has grown both artistically and internationally. It has moved from exposing Chinese artists to the Western (and other Asian) artists and curators and vice versa in Lianzhou, but, through the incorporation of other festival exchanges, the LIPF is now taking Chinese photography on the road. Similarly, it has encouraged a professionalization of Chinese artistic practice by exposing new generations of Chinese photographers to their contemporaries outside of the country. Additionally, after encouraging the personalization of artistic expression and stressing rigorous artistic coherence in the presentation of one’s vision, the LIPF has introduced curation as artistic production. As such, the festival has, in a short nine years, brought Chinese photography up to speed with the rest of the art world whether in the Americas, in Europe or elsewhere in Asia.

The forthcoming 10th LIPF is scheduled to take place in November 2014 and to emphasize curation with more artists acting as curators of various projects. It looks to include more contemporary artists using photography and multimedia. Lianzhou is, just as 2008’s co-curator Li Xianting noted, a place where ideas can be tested that may have great ramifications for artistic and intellectual expression with political and economic consequences. We can hope now in 2014 that the LIPF will continue “to reaffirm the importance of the independent viewpoint and revisit the camera’s ability to bear witness to and confront us with reality, current events and emotions.”

This 10th festival will be taking its place as an equal among other international photography festivals, but it will always be one with Chinese characteristics.

See and for updates and archival materials.

…stories that demand we do not look away…

So, I have to apologize for not coming back to this blog until now. There have been some extenuating circumstances that may seem strange beyond my usual lack of sleep.

As you may know, I am a fervent believer in the need to speak truth to power and in the role photography and photojournalists play on the international stage—those people who bring us images from the ordinary scenarios of oppression through neglect or malfeasance or from more violent and more remote places, war zones in Afghanistan, Libya, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. These are the people who charge to wards the guns where everybody with a right mind would run away. They are those who are there before the battles begin and who remain in the refugee camps.

It is a very tough job that calls for intense dedication. I worked for World Press Photo as a freelance writer for two years writing profiles of photojournalists who set examples in the profession. Some of them, like Robert Capa, Larry Burroughs, Henri Huet, and Bernard Fall, had gotten killed in Indochina. It somehow seemed easier before then, not the getting killed part, but the way wars were understood especially in the West: just like in a cowboy movie—good guys v bad guys. People still talk about World War Two as the last clean war, a war against German Nazism and Japanese aggression. As if things were so simple!

What followed, those really nasty wars of re-colonialization and then of independence across Africa, Asia, and Indochina, were followed by wars against the oligarchs and dictators in Latin America… There were no more clean frontlines anymore. These new wars were guerrilla-style because there was no way an independence movement or a troupe of revolutionaries could stand up against the firepower of standing armies… Wars were fought without geographical frontlines and for the hearts and minds of cowed populaces.

In these circumstances, photojournalists found themselves in uncertain and often extremely dangerous territory. If Vietnam was lethal—and anybody who saw the legendary exhibition Requiem organized by the recently deceased former AP Station Chief, Saigon, Horst Faas, and the still active and no less legendary Tim Page will attest, it was horrifyingly lethal—Vietnam marked the beginning of wars without frontiers, wars where danger could come from any direction and from anybody including one’s so-called allies.

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made clear, there are often no such things as one side fighting another side—there are many sides many of which fight against each other even as they ally with one side or the other in a brutal “Game of Thrones” mash up. The previous concept of “Red” v “Blue”, “us against them”, has now incorporated “Green” v “Blue” or nominal allies attacking each other.

In the course of these horror shows, as in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Central African Republic, “Truth” is not the only first casualty. Civilians and journalists have become easier, softer, targets than combatants. Indeed, it is sometimes very hard to determine who the combatants are and for whom they are fighting.

I am writing this in this fashion for a couple of reasons that I find extremely important First off, I want to call attention to the incredibly dedicated people who go off to take pictures that tell stories of people enduring incredible horrors. As a member of Reporters without Borders and Amnesty International, and as a frequent attendee of World Press Photo’s Awards Days and Visa pour l’Image’s annual events, I have had the great honor to meet many of the people who do the unthinkable and then bring us back stories from places where the powers that be would rather we know nothing.

Unfortunately, many of these messengers get killed.

It is now, as I write this, the 60th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, an event that marked the end of French power in Indochina and the beginning of the American involvement in a continuing terrible war that would last another 20 years and cost the lives of millions of Vietnamese and some 58,000 Americans. It was also the first war that was fought on television and directly in the press. It was a war where photography made a serious impact on the conduct of the war and had great consequences for the politicians who directed it.

When I was a graduate student, I spent quite some time looking at that terrible and terribly conceived war, and one of the people whose work I thought most important to the analysis of that war was the French-American academic and reporter, Bernard Fall, a veteran of the Resistance, a reporter at the Nuremberg trials and one of the foremost experts on both the French and then the American involvement in Indochina. I just came across on Youtube the video of his last reportage from 1967 when accompanying the US Marines on the legendary Rue Sans Joie, was killed in an ambush while making a tape. I had read the transcript before in his posthumous book, Last Reflections on the War, and I later became close to one of his daughters, herself a very talented photographer, but this was the first time I saw, essentially, a person I later knew (after the fact), get killed before my eyes.

It is one thing to read a transcript—it ends with the incomplete sentence, “I believe we could be stepping into an amb— [BANG]!” I have also seen the last images on his camera—they are in Requiem. To experience this from so far away is horrible, of course.

This is however how most of us receive images from war zones whether “clean” or “dirty” wars.

And yet and yet, the killings and the horrors go on. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, I knew them. Remi Ochilik, I did not know. Anja Niedringhaus, I knew her. Camille Lepage, I didn’t. The list goes on.

We in the West seem to have now gotten used to the idea of “Drone Wars” where “smart bombs” or missiles launched from unmanned aircraft somehow promise a clean war against bad people that results in no collateral damage—read, civilian casualties. The truth on the ground is usually very different, and the likes of the above died in the process of bringing back pictures and stories from the front lines where there are no front lines, the places that are at the very heart of wars today.

This I write now is just a small tribute to those who go out to bring back the stories we need to see, the stories that demand we do not look away, the stories that demand we do something, the stories that make us ashamed that we did not help prevent these horrors, the stories that say they and the people whose stories they told did not die in vain.

Look on their pictures and demand change! Do not simply accept cheap clothes from Target or H&M built on the backs of Bangladeshi girls who die in factory collapses or mobile phones built from coltan mined from Congo and Ruanda where international companies pay militias to protect their interests (see Marcus Bleadsdale’s The Rape of a Nation).

Look at work by Jodi Bieber and James Nachtwey and all these people who go to incredible lengths to bring back stories that most of us prefer to ignore for the next episode of “American Idol” of “German’s Next Top Model”!

Go vote this weekend for tolerance in the EU!

Vote for peace, but stand to power!

Celebrate your storytellers!

They are dying to bring you the news.

If only we could do something about it all…

By the way, go look at the dozens of shows related to the outbreak of World War One (the German Historical Museum here in Berlin has such a show) but also to all of the other commemorations of man’s inhumanity to man (and woman!), and remember your, our, responsibilities to wage peace.

Georgia on My Mind: Ein Bericht aus Fotofestival-landia, Kolga Photography Festival, Tbilisi, Georgien

Seit die Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles vor mehr als 45 Jahren das Fotofestival Phänomen gelauncht hat, hat diese Mutter von allen Fotofestivals  ein Fotomostrum in die Welt gebracht. Jeden Tag gibt es noch ein neues Fotofestival irgendwo in der Welt, oder so scheint es. Jedes Dorf und jede Grossstadt will Status mit etwas Kulturelles aufpeppen. Und von den hunderten oder so Fotofestivals, wie kann man etwas Sinnvolles aus dieser Bilderflut herausfischen? Naja, eine gute Frage… Read more »