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Sina Shiri, 'Silent side, Neishabour, Iran' September 2015 │© Sina Shiri, Courtesy of Rencontres d’Arles
Sina Shiri, 'Silent side, Neishabour, Iran' September 2015 │© Sina Shiri, Courtesy of Rencontres d’Arles
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Photographers Blur Borders in Geopolitics at the 2017 Rencontres d'Arles

Picture of Paul McQueen
Updated: 4 September 2017
The Rencontres d’Arles, where contemporary world photography meets the ancient heritage of a southern French city, this year promises its visitors ‘a sweeping journey to the heart of busy and complex geopolitics’. As Culture Trip learns from two of its group shows – La Vuelta, featuring 28 Colombian artists, and Iran: Year 38 – images documenting global political and economic forces can inadvertently end up smoothing their passage.

Arles in 2017: numbers and mission

The Arles photography festival was inaugurated in 1970, and in 2016 a record 100,000 people attended over the course of the summer. Even more are expected to turn up to see the work of 250 artists at 25 sites across the city before the end of its 48th edition on September 24.

Many of them will sensibly make tracks for the group shows featuring Colombian and Iranian artists, hoping to learn more about their two countries that have been discussed so much in the news of late. In his welcome address, the President of the Rencontres d’Arles, Hubert Védrine, writes: ‘With their gaze, 28 artists will speak to us this year about Colombia, which, after half a century of civil war, walks a fragile road to peace. Meanwhile, 66 photographers, many young, and many female, will tell us in photographs about Iran from 1979 to 2017.’

Oscar Muñoz, Juego de las Probabilidades, 2007, Courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier Gallery, Paris │© Oscar Muñoz, Courtesy of Rencontres d’Arles
Oscar Muñoz, ‘Juego de las Probabilidades’ (2007), courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier Gallery, Paris │ | © Oscar Muñoz, Courtesy of Rencontres d’Arles

It is precisely their difficult recent pasts that make them such interesting subjects. As Sam Stourdzé, Director of the Rencontres d’Arles, puts it: ‘The more we think a country closed, stuck in political and economic crises, the more we find photographers there. They reveal, describe, demonstrate, invent, repair, build, in their own language, that of the image. They decipher the preliminary signs of societies in upheaval’.

Colombia at Arles: the visible hand of diplomacy

In case you missed the announcement, 2017 is officially the France-Colombia Year. Launched in Bogota last December, it is intended to strengthen bilateral ties between the nations and update their citizens’ perceptions of one another. As far as the French are concerned, this essentially means emphasising the resolution of the conflict between the Colombian government and FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) one month prior to the celebration’s beginning, as well as the country’s renewed aspirations for economic growth. The program of events has been split into two seasons, with ‘France in Colombia’ in the first six months of 2017 and ‘Colombia in France’ in the last. The La Vuelta exhibition is intended to kick off this second chapter in style.

The artists featured in the show span several generations and photographic genres, from traditional to experimental and research-based practices. Together, their selected works explore Colombia’s changing cultural, social and political landscapes, with particular regard for issues of class, identity and economic survival, and its six decades of armed conflict, which is inseparable from the country’s booming and brutal drug trade. The exhibition’s title, borrowed from an artwork by Juan Fernando Herrán, means an illegal mission (as in the artist’s pieces), a multi-stage race like the Tour de France (as in the journey the exhibition takes its visitors on), and a comeback (as in the one promised by Colombia’s peace process).

Oscar Muñoz and Juan Pablo Echeverri are among the photographers who have been chosen to help reconfigure France’s understanding of Colombia and its people. Muñoz is known for his incorporation of ephemeral materials in his work – that bridges film, video, photography, installation, and sculpture – and for his poetic reflections on memory and mortality. Echeverri works exclusively in self-portraits, most notably in his Miss Foto Japón series, which has seen him take a photo booth picture of himself every day since 2000.

Juan Pablo Echeverrí, Hulk, from the Supersonas series, 2011 │© Juan Pablo Echeverrí, Courtesy of Rencontres d’Arles
Juan Pablo Echeverrí, ‘Hulk’ from the Supersonas series (2011) │ | © Juan Pablo Echeverrí, Courtesy of Rencontres d’Arles

Iran at Arles: The invisible hand of diplomacy

There is no such year-long celebration for Iran. However, if you pay attention to the newspapers in France you’ll know that many people have an awful lot to be happy about. Since the 2015 nuclear deal was agreed upon and the trade embargoes lifted, French business interests have been aggressively reinserting themselves in Iran. Deals cumulatively worth tens of billions have been struck in the past two years, most recently by the oil company Total in July and Renault in August. The press has gone so far as to call Iran an ‘El Dorado’ for French auto, energy, and high-tech firms.

They represent a concentrated effort to rebuild the Franco-Iranian economic ties that were obliterated by the US-backed UN sanctions, some of which the US has recently unilaterally reimposed. They can also be seen as a move by an emboldened France to strengthen the EU’s trading position in the world, specifically with favourable access to Iran’s domestic market of 80 million people, during a time of political turmoil in Britain and America.

But none of these maneuverings will fly if the French public’s perception of Iran remains negative and nuclear-centric – or at least they’ll have a harder time getting off the ground. Simply put, an elaborate exhibition showcasing Iran’s rich cultural contribution to the world is just what Iran needs.

‘With this exhibition, we want to introduce those who are shaping the image of Iran today’, the co-curators of Iran: Year 38, Anahita Ghabaian and Newsha Tavakolian, write. ‘A very diverse mix of photographers, artists and filmmakers portraying a country still caught up in revolution and war, but also fast-changing beyond recognition. Iran is both a young and an old country at the same time. Thousands of years of history have come before the 1979 Islamic revolution. We start counting again from that year’.

Shadi Ghadirian, Qajar, 1998, Courtesy of the artist and Silk Road Gallery │© Shadi Ghadirian, Courtesy of Rencontres d’Arles
From Shadi Ghadirian’s Qajar series (1998), courtesy of the artist and Silk Road Gallery │ | © Shadi Ghadirian, Courtesy of Rencontres d’Arles

Shadi Ghadirian is one artist whose work ingenuously traverses this line in history. Her Qajar series took its inspiration from the 19th-century photographs of the Ghajar dynasty, the first portraits to be allowed under religious law. Ghadirian’s own images are carefully staged using antique furniture and costumes to evoke their opulent style, however each one is thrown off kilter by the presence of a contemporary product and distinctly modern posing. The brilliance lies in Ghadirian’s ability to use a jolt of humour to subtly convey a contemporary Iranian female experience of existing as if outside of time.

Ghadirian’s somber tones could not contrast more strongly with the neon brightness of Sina Shiri’s work. This self-taught photographer uses Instagram to document life in Tehran. ‘The cliché photos, they usually show the limitations of Iran, like the hijab, the covering of women, the hardships, or the limitations’, he writes. ‘I don’t want to show only the limitations. I want to show that Iran is a different country than what you are seeing in photos’.

Sina Shiri, Silent side, Neishabour, Iran, September 2015 │© Sina Shiri, Courtesy of Rencontres d’Arles
Sina Shiri, ‘Silent side, Neishabour, Iran’ (September 2015) │ | © Sina Shiri, Courtesy of Rencontres d’Arles

Photographing is documenting, exhibiting is advertising

With both shows, the act of exhibiting is a geopolitical act. For La Vuelta, it is deliberate, explicit: this is, after all, the centrepiece of a year-long diplomatic mission. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se; you might like to keep your politics and your culture separate, but good luck trying to do that anytime in the near future.

For Iran: Year 38, however, the picture is a little bit murkier. Of course, there’s no reason why the fascinating work of 66 talented photographers shouldn’t be displayed – far from it – but the problem lies in the fact that, in doing so, Arles has played directly into the hands of France’s current economic and political strategy, essentially greasing the wheels of industry.

Geopolitics is indeed a tricky business.

Rencontres d’Arles, 34 Rue du Dr Fanton, Arles, France, +33 4 90 96 76 06