A couple weeks ago, C-ville, a Charlottesville, Virginia, news weekly, ran a six-page spread celebrating Look 3, the Festival of the Photograph, which was about to open. In it Nick Nichols, the Look 3's co-founder and guiding spirit, called the Festival as gathering of "my tribe." This is an apt description, and it is, at the same time, Look 3's greatest strength and greatest liability.
Micheal Barnes at Look 3. (Click directly on the photo to see a larger version.)
Without Nichol’s tribe, the Festival would not exist. That’s a pretty categorical statement, but one that I think is true. In each of its three years in existence, including the first, Look 3 has brought to Charlottesville a truly impressive cast of characters--Eugene Richards, Sally Mann, Bill Allard, James Nachtwey, Mary Ellen Mark, Larry Fink, David Alan Harvey, Martin Parr, Sylvia Plachy, Gilles Peress, Maggie Steber, Alex Webb, and others that I’m surely forgetting. It’s no overstatement to say that these are some of the world’s leading photographers. My guess is that most of them came because Nichols asked them to.
That’s an oversimplification, no doubt, but Nichols seems to have used his personal and professional networks to do the heavy lifting of creating this festival. That is, he tapped into his tribe. Yes, it’s heavy on Americans, and, yes, the Magnum, ex-Magnum, and National Geographic connections are plain to see. But it remains a stellar line-up.
In addition to the stars, Look 3 has attracted fine photographers in all stages of their careers and people who have other careers and a passion for photography. From the beginning, it’s been a place people want to be.
Stars are one thing, money is another. The Festival has attracted significant corporate sponsorship from the very beginning. Apple, Adobe, Canon, National Geographic, and Aperture, are just a few of the brands that have attached themselves to Look 3. It’s also secured the cooperation of the City of Charlottesville and its taxpayers.
For such a young festival, Look 3 has been a tremendous success, in many ways.
Most of the exhibitions and slideshows have been artistic triumphs. The workshops, two of which I participated in, have ranged from merely worthwhile to (if participants are to be believed) life-changing. The schmoozing and networking have been superb.
But Look 3 has also failed. It’s failed to reach beyond Nichols’s tribe, which is almost entirely white.
In the background, Paolo Pellegrin's installation at Look 3.
I’m tempted to say that the only people of color to be seen at Look 3 are paying customers and the starving and diseased subjects of the photographs. That’s not as much of a cheap shot as it sounds. During the Festival’s first two years, none of the featured photographers, none of workshop leaders, and, as far as I can tell, no board member or person in a decision-making position on the Festival’s staff was Asian, Latino/a, or black.
This year, the situation improved. While none of the featured photographers--workshop leaders, those given solo exhibitions or slideshows, those accorded "Master" status or "Insight" conversation--was a person of color, several were part of the outdoor group projections. Others, such as some of the people in these photos, bought tickets and participated in workshops.
But, on the whole, Look 3 has both reflected and reproduced the lack of racial and ethnic diversity within the photography profession.
As I said in an earlier post, this critique has nothing to do with diversity for diversity’s sake.
Instead it’s the assertion that if Look 3 wants to be a truly world-class festival, it should open itself to the best work being done in all communities and all parts of the world. It should be willing to hear people of color speak for themselves (or, to phrase it more appropriately for photography, it should allow people of color to represent their own lives, rather than always relying on the representations of outsiders). It should be aware of the ways in which excluding photographers of color hinders their career development. Having one’s work seen at the Festival opens the door to networks of mentoring and patronage. Excluding photographers of color from the Festival excludes them from these networks.
Steve Floyd at Look 3.
Why should the Festival change its ways of doing things? Well, in a nation and world in which racism, ethnic prejudice, and social inequality are still problems, it’s the right thing to do If the people behind Look 3 believe that the Festival’s lack of racial and ethnic diversity is a problem, as they have told me that they do, then they’ll have to reach beyond Nichols’s tribe.
There’s a practical side to this as well. With success come responsibilities and obligations. The Festival isn’t a backyard cookout. It’s a public festival, sponsored by major corporations, receiving the support of the city of Charlottesville and its taxpayers, funded in part by a ticket-buying public. The Festival has acquired many new stakeholders--consumers, taxpayers, members of the audience--who have their right to expect that Look 3 will reflect the interests of their tribes, as well as Nichols’s.
Why am I spending so much time talking about Look 3? It’s my Festival.
I live five blocks away from the main Festival venues; I teach college courses in the history of photography in the same small town; I pay taxes in that town; I’ve bought tickets to each of the Festivals and participated in workshops at two. I acknowledge that many people have a stronger claim to ownership, but mine is certainly valid.
Bill Emory at Look 3.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about diversity in photography. It’s timely and important. Anyone wishing to hear what photographers and other people in the photo industry have been saying on the issue might want to start with the contributions of Stan at Reciprocity Failure, Rob at Photo Editor, Benjamin at Duckrabbit, Miriam Romais, the executive director of En Foco, at Photo District News, and Jim at (Notes on) Politics, Theory, and Photography.
The conversation on this issue at Lightstalkers has been largely civil. Some contributors seem to think that people who advocate greater diversity are unconcerned with quality. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I have made clear in this and other posts. (And as every other serious proponent of diversity has also done.) Others claim that sufficient number of qualified people of color simply doesn’t exist. That’s a reflection of their own ignorance, rather than a statement of reality. I invite them to educate themselves. They might want to begin by finding out who Deborah Willis and Okwui Enwezor are and why the exhibitions that they curated, respectively, at the Smithsonian Institution and the International Center of Photography are so important. (Doing that, by the way, will bring them up to speed only on African-American and African photography. They’ll still have a lot of learning to do to cover other cultures and communities.)
DVAfoto has very conveniently provided links to many of the most important contributions to this debate.
I like to think that in urging the Festival to change its ways I'm pushing on a open door. Time will tell.