Rencontres d'Arles / Rencontres d’Arles book awards – 2017
Sarah Allen recaps the winners of this year’s Rencontres d’Arles book awards and speaks to Olga Kravets, Maria Morina, and Oksana Yushko whose photobook Grozny: Nine Cities is the winner of this year’s LUMA book dummy award.
The Rencontres d’Arles book awards have been a fixture of the festival since its first instalment in 1970. The awards recognises publications in three categories: the historical book award, the photo-text award and the author book award. The LUMA book dummy award, now in its third year, awards unpublished book dummy projects with a special focus on the experimental and innovative.
This year’s winner of the historical book award is a timely appraisal of the work of Latif Al Ani. Often referred to as the ‘father of Iraqi photography’, Baghdad-born Al Ani documented the social life of Iraq during its ‘golden age’ – a period of modernisation and a time of increased cosmopolitanism. His high-contrast black and white images show political life in Iraq’s capital, oil-fuelled industry and popular western-style fashion and are accompanied by insightful essays by curator Morad Montazami.
The winner of this year’s author book award is Dutch artist Henk Wildschut’s for his publication Ville de Calais. Shot over a 12 year period, the publication documents refugees living temporarily in Calais, France while waiting to cross the atlantic ocean to the UK. Wildschut honed in on the particular living conditions of the refugees focusing on how dignity and pride is found even when humans are pushed to the the extremes of what philosopher Giorgio Agamben called ‘bare life.’
Masanao Abe’s publication Mount Fuji is the winner of this year’s photo text award. Abe was a Japanese physicist working in Japan in the late 1920s. He built an observatory with a view of Mount Fuji and recorded the clouds that surrounded the mountain over the course of 15 years. Helmut Volter discovered Abe’s archive while researching his book Cloud Studies and collated his findings into this publication which features contact sheets, drawings, side reflections and writings. The book’s systematic, scientific approach breathes new life into the traditional iconographic subject matter of Mount Fuji.
This year’s winner of the LUMA book dummy award are Olga Kravets, Maria Morina, and Oksana Yushko for their publication Grozny: Nine Cities. Separated into nine chapters it offers a view into the complex conflict in Chechnya. It reveals a country bitterly divided between Chechen values, Muslim traditions and globalisation; a history which plays out in the opening lines of the photobook…Take a walk down Putin Prospect, Grozny’s main street, with shining marble facades, look carefully at long-limbed Muslim women filing out of beauty salons, men riding in brand new SUVs, and you would never believe that this place was leveled by Russian aerial and artillery assaults less than a decade ago.
Having grown up during the collapse of the USSR and separated from Chechnya by thousands of miles (Olga in Moscow, Maria St Petersburg and Oskana in Ukraine), the photographers felt they lacked a comprehensive understanding of the wars which devastated the country. “Growing up with a faraway war constantly in the background made me perceive Grozny as a sort of a black hole I was totally disconnected from what was happening there,” says Maria. Media portrayals of the war were misleading and seemed to contradict their lived experience. “We continued to hear so many differing stories about this place that we felt we needed to see what was happening with our own eyes”, she adds.
In 2009, the year Russia ended its counterterrorist operations in the county signalling a formal end to the war, the photographers commenced the project with the shared goal of shedding light on the complex history of post-war Grozny through first-hand experience. “They say that a war starts when journalists arrive, and that it’s over when they leave,” comments Oksana “for us it became clear that the first year after the official war was over was a good starting point to dig deeper to reveal the consequences of years of conflict.”
The concept of nine cities or spheres of experience set out in Thornton Wilder’s 1973 novel Theophilus North inspired the project. “We discussed the book at length and felt Wilder’s structure would be a perfect way to visually make sense of our subject and to map the circles and centers of power in Grozny,” says Olga. Through nine separate chapters, the city is revealed layer upon layer and hidden narratives slowly emerge – “hidden war, hidden evidence, hidden hell,” she adds.
Chapters reveal lives destroyed by war, uncover the complex history of the country and explore cultural or social phenomenon, for example the influence of Sufi identity or the lionisation of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. The position of men and women plays out in the chapters entitled City of Men and City of Women, the former showing men in SUVs with assault rifles the later documenting marriage scenes and women in domestic settings.
Hard-hitting subject matter is punctuated with images showing how normality persists even in the hardest of times – “people exhausted by over 15 year of vile fighting and self-destruction cover floors in their new brick homes with thick, bright colored carpets, throw feasts and dance their feet off at crowded weddings in their most beautiful clothes, grabbing the chance to enjoy the happy moments before more troubles roll into their fearsome city”, writes Anna Nemtsova in her introduction to the book.
Each chapter contains compelling text with interviews which give voice to the victims of the city’s fraught history. One person comments: “Although wartime debris is gone, I still remember that destroyed city — not that pre-war city which I loved with all my heart, but that one left lying in smoking rubble.” In the chapter dedicated to religion a participant comments: “What is a culture and what is a sub- culture? What is democracy? What is freedom and what is permissiveness? The things we see on Western TV and on the Internet — these are just inhuman values.” Navigating sensitive subject matter, and engaging with people from myriad walks of life was “a huge undertaking” says Maria “we had to make sure we protected our collaborators and that the trust wasn’t broken.”
Working as a trio allowed the photographers to cover more ground and engage with different aspects of life in Chechnya. The result is an extensive 344 page document of the city which leaves the viewer with a keen sense of the country’s history and complexities. “Additionally, we hope the work is less subjective by virtue of the fact it’s authored by three different people,” adds Olga.
Editor and curator Anna Shpakova was tasked with drawing together the three photographer’s work and building a solid narrative. The result is a project in multiple forms. As well as a photobook, it is also an installation, an exhibition and an immersive website experience. “The cross media approach of this piece is crucial. Each iteration of the project is different. For example, the installation, which is displayed on three screens, doesn’t give you any contextual information…it’s all about feeling – its main goal is to evoke a sense of the country to a viewer who has never been there. Conversely, the web-documentary is more journalistic, a kind of wikipedia on what happened in Chechnya”, explains Olga.
“The photobook has a special position in the project,” Maria explains. As well as being both experiential and journalistic it is also a much more permanent object. The technical format of the internet will inevitably change and elements of the project may not exist in the same way that they do now. The photobook is therefore the best way for us to archive the project and make sure it is available in years to come.”
The photobook will be published by LUMA Arles and Schilt Publishing and will be released during the Rencontres d’Arles 2018, nine years after the photographers began the project. Keep up to date with more details here:
Sarah Allen is Curatorial Assistant, International Art at Tate Modern. In her role she has curated many displays from the permanent collection and researches acquisitions for the international collection with a specialised focus on photobooks. Recently curated displays have included monographic rooms of Daido Moriyama, Kaveh Golestan and Gyorgy Kepes. She has worked in a curatorial and editorial capacity in institutions such as The Photographers’ Gallery, The Solomon R. Guggenheim and The Hugh Lane Gallery. She writes regularly on contemporary art and photography and her writing has been published in the British Journal of Photography, Irish Arts Review and Aesthetica magazine, among others. She holds a BA hons from Trinity College, Dublin and an MA hons from UCL, London.