FOCUS Photography Festival Puts The Spotlight On Memories

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Photographing the Female pushes female narratives to the forefront of social storytelling at the FOCUS Photography Festival 2017.

“True focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.” In one of my favourite lines in film history, a young Charles Xavier says this to a young Magneto to inspire him to concentrate all his powers in that one moment. This premise can also apply to the concept of “focus” in photography: that moment in time, at a point between rage and serenity when everything is neutral, when what the photographer sees and what he wants to portray are perfectly aligned. Pop goes the flash, the film moves from one frame to the next and a chemical reaction later, is the image, captured for posterity. Bear with me, this rambling brings me to a point: that of the FOCUS Photography Festival Mumbai 2017.

A biennial festival that takes place in March, the FOCUS Photography Festival was launched in 2013 with the intention of providing free access to the rich history of photography to everyone. It brings photography out of the confines of galleries and right onto the street – onto walls, streets, shops and cafes of the city. Every edition of the festival revolves around a different theme, and the photographs this year revolve around the theme of “Memory”.

focus photography festival 2017 mumbai memory photographing the female
Paul Shiakallis, MillieHans. From the series Leathered Skins, Unchained hearts, 2015

Memories and photographs are intimately linked: one look at a photograph is enough to bring alive a memory and transport us right back to when – and where – it was taken. But photographs, like memories, can also be deceptive. Each photograph is what the photographer wants you, the viewer, to see. That photograph is not just happenstance – it’s a very calculated move that has taken hours, maybe even days, of preparation to produce, and only once the person behind the lens is satisfied does the photograph become reality. While this may seem harmless in the regular context of photos, the rules aren’t the same when you think of photojournalists. Photography, according to the festival’s website, “has been used to construct and shape history, underpinning socio-political narratives and building geographies.” What does that mean then for our memories? Are our memories under the threat of being replaced? That is the question the festival hopes to get artists to engage with.

Spread out over multiple venues across Mumbai from Byculla to Bandra and Ballard Estate to Prabhadevi, the festival also has sub-themes and sections within the theme of Memory. One of these is “Photographing the Female”, a theme that is vital in India where the theory and reality of women’s rights are often at odds. The City Story caught up with Photographing the Female’s curator, Sarah Julie Ege Høilund, to get an insider’s perspective in the festival.

TCS: Can you expand on the theme for your section this year? How did the idea come into being?

SH: The overall theme is memory, which is super exciting and can be translated in so many ways when it comes to photography. I was inspired by the photographic archive and how it relates to our social memory and identity. Having always been concerned with the place and role of women in society, I conceptualised Photographing the Female because I think it's essential that we continue to push female narratives to the forefront of social storytelling.

It's about understanding that the concept of the female is totally fluid but that it's still impossible to escape societal notions and ideas. Also, in a world where images and information are exchanged everyday, it seemed pointless to limit the project to photographers from just one country. My friends Matilde Søes and Poulomi Basu (whose work is in the show) helped me get the project to where it is now, and at its core it's all about collaboration and furthering understanding and tolerance.

focus photography festival 2017 mumbai memory photographing the female
Luo Yang, Xie yue. From the series Girls, 2008-2016

TCS: As a curator, what is it that you look for when selecting a photographer/his or her work?

SH: For this exhibition I looked to photographers who had a particular interesting take on female identity, one that either challenged traditional notions of female-hood or really dug deep into the personal or societal issues.

TCS: What are some of the highlights a visitor can expect?

SH: We have 25 photographers in our show, so there’s a lot to take in. I think we can all learn something from Finnish Iiu Susiraja and how she uses humour and herself as subject to underline a very serious issue of absurd beauty standards. Everyone in the show has something extremely profound to say and are all experts on their own terms. Rania Matar speaks to the humanity in all of us, Poulomi’s work will make you cry and Prarthna Singh offers a new perspective on female expression in India.

TCS: How do you think the theme of women is relevant in today's time, especially in India, where women's rights are questionable? Do you hope to bring about an awareness of sorts?

SH: I think the concept of being female is continuously relevant anywhere. It is such a layered conversation, and India also holds probably the most strong and fierce females I have ever met. The reason this exhibition is international is because female identity is as individual as it is global these days, and so is the audience. This is all about awareness, about creating tolerance and understand and about letting people know that we have to work on changing societal notions and concepts before we can change anything else.

The FOCUS Photography Festival 2017 runs from March 9 to 23 at various locations in Mumbai. Photographing the Female is being held at Studio Sonam, 13 B/C Sunmill Compound, entrance Sunmill Road, Opposite Cama Industrial Estate, Lower Parel (w), Mumbai 400 013.

Feature photo Tasneem Alsultan, image from her series Saudi Tales of Love, 2016. All photographs courtesy the FOCUS Photography Festival.

focus photography festival 2017 mumbai memory photographing the female