Look3, the Festival of the Photograph, is turning the corner on race and ethnicity.
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That, friends, is a sentence that I've been hoping to write ever since the festival first opened its doors, in 2007.
Like many members of Charlottesville's photographic and academic communities, I've been ambivalent about Look3. On the one hand, I've been delighted to find a major photo festival happening almost literally on my doorstep, a five-minute walk from my house.
On the other, I've been dismayed by the festival's failure to include photographers of African, Asian, and Latino descent among those that it has featured. None of the the more than two dozen photographers who were "Insight Artists," "Masters," and workshop leaders, or who were given gallery shows, during Look3's first three years, were persons of color. (The festival was on hiatus in 2010.)
This year, it's different. For the first time, a photographer of color will be among those featured at the festival. She's LaToya Ruby Frazier, and she's fabulous. Just as importantly, Nick Nichols, Look3's co-founder and guiding light, told me over lunch just a few weeks ago that he and the festival's curators and staff are committed to including more great photographers of color in future festivals. I believe him.
(Click on the images to see larger versions.)
That is, I believe him, now. But I really didn't know what to expect when Andrew Owen, Look3's managing director, invited me to have lunch with him and Nick. After all, I've been very public about my misgivings and, with a number of others, I've been pressing the festival -- publicly and privately -- to open itself to photographers of color. We've pursued two lines of argument.
First, we've said, no festival that aspires to world-class status can afford to ignore the powerful, challenging, and often aesthetically stunning photography that's being produced in the developing world and by members of minority communities in industrialized nations. Anybody who pays any attention at all to contemporary photography knows that some of the strongest work is being done in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and by black, brown, and yellow people in the West.
Second, the festival, which has its roots in a private gathering that Nick held at his home every summer, is now a public event. It's attracted sponsorship from major corporations and financial and in-kind contributions from the city of Charlottesville. It's also collaborated with the University of Virginia, the public institution at which I teach. In doing these things, it's acquired a new set of stakeholders and a new array of responsibilities. The calculus is pretty simple: Consumers come in all colors; taxpayers' money can't be spent in racially and ethnically discriminatory ways; and the university, as an institution, is committed to diversity.
Even before our lunch with Nick and Andrew, I had an inkling that things had begun to change. Last fall, Look3 invited me to nominate photographers for inclusion in its "Shots" and "Works" evening projections. The invitation came as a surprise, given my uneasy relationship with the festival. I wasn't quite sure how to read the invitation, but I took it at face value and accepted it. I'm happy to say that one of the photographers that I nominated was invited to participate. In a delicious irony, she's white (and fully deserving of the honor).
Given what I perceived as Look3's history of foot-dragging, I was skeptical even of the announcement that earlier this year that Frazier, an African-American, will be one of five photographers who will give a "Master's Talk," this year. (The others are Christopher Anderson, Ashley Gilbertson, David Littswager, and Steve McCurry.) After all, Frazier's appearance might be mere tokenism, a one-off. I became convinced that Look3 is genuinely committed to embracing the work of photographers of color only during that lunch-time conversation with Nick and Andrew.
Back-of-the-napkin graph of "Your Development Potential. Yes or No." Source: Aid Watch Blog
What could have been a tense encounter turned out to be cordial. (We were joined by my colleague Richard Statman.) After some small-talk, Nick and Andrew both said that they and the festival's curators share our concern about Look3's lack of racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity. Nick acknowledged that, for a variety of reasons, the festival has been heavily populated by members of what he calls "my tribe" -- photographers who are his friends and colleagues, and who are overwhelming white. He and Andrew both agreed that, if it is to achieve its potential, the festival will have to leave tribalism behind.
Nick did point out that relying on his "tribe" to fill the ranks of featured photographers allowed a young and not-especially-well-funded festival to bring in the likes of James Nachtwey, Eugene Richards, Sally Mann, Mary Ellen Mark, Bill Allard, Sylvia Plachy, Martin Parr, Maggie Steber, and Giles Peress, among others. Richard and I agreed that it's an impressive line-up, no matter how you slice it. Our problem, however, has never been with who's invited to Look3. It's been with who isn't.
Nick and Andrew also told us that Look3 had twice tried to bring African-American photographers to the festival as featured photographers. Neither was able to attend, however. One was too old to travel (he has since passed away), and the other was quite ill (he has since recovered). It occurred to me that trying twice in four years isn't trying particularly hard, but I let the thought pass.
Finally, Nick and Andrew said that the festival and its curators realize they'll need help in identifying photographers from outside of the "tribe." He asked us to help; we'll certainly do anything we can. And we won't be alone in this. I get the sense that the festival knows it must ultimately turn to people like Deborah Willis and Okwui Enwezor, to name just two rather obvious possibilities.
There are other promising signs of change. This year, The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative will be teaming up with the folks from Luceo Images to run a photo workshop for disadvantaged black and Latino youth. The workshop builds on earlier, informal connections between Look3 and the Bridge, but remains the first major outreach effort that the festival has sponsored. If all goes according to plan, I'll help to bring a group of young people from one of Charlottesville's public housing projects to the festival. They'll spend an afternoon looking at the exhibits and meeting some of the photographers.
One festival does not a transformation make. The Look3 has yet to reach beyond the United States and Europe for its featured photographers, and, even after this year, none will have been of Asian or Latino descent. But Nick and Andrew have pledged that further change is on the way, and, as I've said, I believe it.
We all know that enduring change won't come easily. Look3's culture -- its way of doing business -- can't stay the same. It will have to open itself to new ideas and to people from other "tribes," who will bring new areas of expertise and new creative visions. I admire Nick, Andrew, the staff, and curators for being willing to take up the challenge.