FESTIVAL PHOTO LA GACILLY 2020

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International Festival of Photography

In so many ways, 2020 has been a year like no other.  Across France, festivals and large outdoor spectaculars have been cancelled at massive financial and cultural cost, all hapless victims of the coronavirus pandemic.

Arguably the most significant is the Festival Interceltique de Lorient (the FIL), a convivial gathering of the world’s Celtic nations, which, every year, brings some 800,000 participants and revellers to the Breton naval port of Lorient.  This would have been the 50th anniversary festival, appropriately dedicated to its birthplace – the Year of Brittany. Everyone who is anyone in Breton music, dance and literature would have been there but the celebrations have been put on ice until the summer of 2021.

One event which has gone ahead virtually unfettered is the 17th Festival Photo La Gacilly, this year highlighting the vibrant culture and history of South America under the banner Viva Latina!  The very nature of this prestigious international event has protected it from the worst damaging effects of Covid 19 rules and regulations.

While the organisers are strictly imposing the necessities of personal hygiene, social distancing and facial masks, the works of some of the world’s top photographers and photo-journalists are, as usual, displayed outdoors throughout this pretty little Breton town.

Every visitor will plot his or her own route along narrow, flinty streets, across the river, through the water meadows and dragonfly walks and up into the town to the market square  Thus each individual experience is unique and all the more memorable for that.

Surprises beckon around every corner.  It is impossible not to be caught unawares by the huge images staring down from the gable end of the complex of riverside buildings opposite the headquarters of the Yves Rocher natural beauty products company.

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This year they showcase the work of Luisa Dorr, a young, award-winning Brazilian portraitist.  Her double-sided exhibition Mulheres examines two very different faces of womanhood. In the first she delves into the world of the Flying Cholitas, the Bolivian female wrestlers, who are unafraid to celebrate their femininity in their own feisty, colourful style.

Then she whisks us away to Spain through a series of posed images depicting the Valencia Fallas.  These women focus their year on preparing their ornate dresses and accessories for the annual parades winding through streets lined with giant papier-mâché sculptures. The contrast between the two groups is striking.  Through the Cholitas, Dörr finds joy and creativity in poverty-stricken inner city favellas, then turns her attention to the extravagant lifestyles of Valencia’s wealthy bourgeoisie.

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A giant image shows Maria Fernandez, who is not a member of a traditional fallera family but who joined a community for her own pleasure and to ensure that her children could take part. The dresses are expensive so Maria sought out an old-style, end-of-line model and customised it herself.  Isn’t she splendid?

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This year La Gacilly pays tribute to one of the great photographers of the early 20th century, whose name is no longer widely known. Through a wide-ranging selection of the black and white studio portraits and carefully constructed outdoor scenarios – representing only a fraction of his huge canon of work – Emmanuel Honorato Vázquez opens a door into the society in which he grew up.

Born into a wealthy Ecuadorian family, he was a rebel, a bohemian and a lover of the high life. He died young but left his mark on the history of his country at a time when Latin America was slowly opening its eyes to the swirling influences of modernity. The atmospheric images allow glimpses into a deeply divided, unequal society brimming with time-honoured traditions and ritual celebrations.

“The greatest quality of Honorato’s work is undoubtedly the depth of his portraits, his ability to envision the lives of his models,” writes Pablo Corral Vega, another Ecuadorian photographer on show at the festival.

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An enduring cornerstone of this thought-provoking festival is the awesome beauty of the natural world and the increasingly perilous threats to its very existence.

Paris-based Carolina Arantes was so appalled by the spectre of the fires raging in the Amazon region that she travelled to Altamira in the state of Parà, where the fires blazed the longest and where the rainforest is being exploited for its coveted riches. Her fearless, highly politicised record, entitled The Green Gold Rush, captures in close-up what she calls ‘a sacrificed paradise’ in her own homeland.

She brings us face to face with self- sufficient, indigenous communities under siege from the ravages of 21st century greed, urged on by the man charged with the protection of the country, its President Jairo Bolsonaro.  From among the pitiful remnants of charred trees and vegetation emerge village chiefs, warriors, gold panners, farmers seeking new pastures for their ever-growing herds of cattle and the native people of the Amazon robbed of their land.

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Easily the most disturbing  collection at this year’s festival is to be found in leafy gardens beside the river.  From the road, one looks down from on high on a maze of infernal, writhing images.  Gold is the stark title of Sebastião Salgado’s unforgettable record of the 35 days in 1986 which he spent in the human, open-pit hell that is the Serra Palada gold mine in Brazil.  Salgado’s artistic statement begins with these chilling words:

“I’ve been to the depths of darkness. The first time I saw the Serra Pelada mine, I was speechless. There was this huge pit before me, almost two hundred metres in diameter and just as deep, swarming with tens of thousands of barely clothed men, half of them carrying heavy bags of earth on rickety wooden ladders, the other half hurtling down muddy slopes towards the abyss. They were looking for gold.”

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One senses a close bond of trust between the photographer and the ant-like hoards of scurrying, scrabbling, filthy, half-naked men desperate to uncover small nuggets of precious gold among the muck and rock of this terrible place.  Unflinching and confiding, they look straight into the camera lens in a spirit of determination and bravery impossible to imagine.

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The world renowned Ecuadorian photographer Vega contributes a deeply personalised series of portraits entitled Le Chant des Andes (The Hymn of the Andes), drawn from the people of the region in which he grew up.

As in the work of Saldgado, Vázquez, Dörr and Arantes, it is the human faces which linger long in the consciousness: brightly dressed mourners at the funeral of an old dancer; an elderly woman, clutching a battered hat she made when she and seven other women worked in the town’s now defunct hat factory; a group of young fishermen dragging in their catch at close of day.

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Hard though their lives may be, hope endures and nature prevails.  In spite of man’s worst efforts, the natural landscape will forever remain indestructible, bigger, stronger and more resilient than the  beings who inhabit and prey upon it.

Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who provides a series of illuminating texts to Vega’s powerful images, gives voice to the prevailing power of the natural world via a single awe-inspiring panorama of the city of Quito at night.

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“A landscape as idyllic and rich as this one, this myriad of lighted, haughty Quito, twinkling in the night, cannot be trusted. Because there in the background, massive and untouchable, stand those mountains of eternal snows, implacable and belligerent.”

 

Festival  Photo La Gacilly runs until 31 October.

Find out more on: http://www.festivalphoto-lagacilly.com

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