PhotoIreland 2012 / Interview with curator Moritz Neumüller
PhotoIreland is an annual photography festival held in Dublin. PhotoIreland 2012 took the theme of “Migrations”, a subject explored through curated exhibitions and complimented by an open exhibition programme, as well as talks, workshops, portfolio reviews and film screenings. Dorothy Hunter spoke with the curator of PhotoIreland, Moritz Neumüller, to discuss the festival and On Migration, PhotoIreland’s main exhibition.
Dorothy Hunter: Migration is obviously a fundamental component of Ireland itself, in terms of its history and the effects of the economic collapse; any movement is always going to carry the weight of previous, similar migrations by others. As the festival covers such a wide remit of history and geography, how have the main themes of the festival presented themselves to you?
Moritz Neumüller: It is certainly a very important subject for Ireland. The Irish are always interested in discussing the emigration from their country, the so-called Irish diaspora. Yet in the last 15 years, when the Celtic tiger was still roaring, there has been a lot of immigration to the country, and there wasn’t as much talk about these new communities. Whilst many of these immigration patterns are mirrored in the UK or other European countries, some are very particular to Ireland: for instance, Lithuanians makes up the second largest group of foreigners within Ireland.
So it is an Irish theme, but also very much linked to the time we collectively live in. There are some exhibitions in the festival that focus specifically on what I would call the Irish diaspora. Living/Leaving, for example, features two projects on Irish migration. Maurice Gunning looks at present-day Irish diaspora in Argentina, and alongside the photographs he exhibits letters from Irish immigrants, written from the country in the 19th Century. The content is more or less indistinguishable from what would be written today, discussing emotions, money and everyday life in the same manner as someone would write an email home.
As we are an international festival for photography, our mission is to enrich the Irish context of migration with international voices, both from the curatorial side and the artists’ side. On Migration at Moxie Studios features photographers from all over the world, and mostly early to mid-career artists. Probably the most well known photographers of On Migration would be Andrea Robbins and Max Becher.
DH: I felt that their 770 series was the strongest work in the show, along with Tumulus (Pitt Lake) by Roger Eberhard and James Nizam. The symbolism behind the buildings was very potent in both series.
MN: These projects revolve around migration, but I didn’t want to be very literal in my curatorial focus. I wanted to show things that happen around the subject. In the Tumulus series, these summerhouses in British Columbia are destroyed after their land’s lease has expired. It shows a strategy of burning things down so that nothing is left to benefit those who remain, which is a common strategy of the white man throughout history. Taking the trouble to destroy everything, that is apparently the human soul.
Project 770 is a funny one. The building was not of any importance to the rebbe’s community, it was a former medical clinic; and yet when he bought it for his Lubavitch congregation in Brooklyn, it was replicated across the world as they migrated. These are projects that I included in the show as even though they are not purely migration centric, it makes for a wider approach to the topic. There are very few photo-reportage projects in the festival, because we see them in the papers every day. I didn’t feel that was necessary.
DH: What was prevalent in a lot of the work in On Migration is the subject’s uncertain awareness of the camera. In some projects it’s quite apparent, such as The Mother Of All Journeys by Dinu Li; being partly composed of staged family portraits that are reframed in the context of the exhibition. In others there is often no knowing how informed the subjects are, or how staged the image is. To what extent does this matter, and how do you feel the work within On Migration navigates the realms of art photography and documentary?
MN: I think there are hardly any projects that could not fit into the field of art photography. Perhaps some of the work featured in the book exhibition is on the brim of photojournalism and art photography, such as Sebastião Salgado, or even Dorothea Lange. Her American Exodus was done in one particular documentary context, and is now a classic in museums.
It’s an old problem of photography. I don’t think it’s so different in our context (of an exhibition). Photography includes many dialogues, and one is the artistic dialogue. But there is also a very practical history of photography, of the direct, propagandistic, information or media-based history. If you take Dinu Li’s example, these pictures are photography of his family who left their home country in the 70s, when he was a boy, to come to England. As an adult he went back to the area that they first moved to, making the journey backwards to their old home and corner shop. So his project mixes old family photographs with new images that he has taken as an adult, of the same or similar places.
For me it is more of a legal issue if someone is aware that they are being photographed, but not so much in art photography, because you can see if there is a special relationship in the portrait taken. In Anthony Luvera’s assisted self-portraits he gives the camera to the person and assists them only, taking out the role of the photographer completely. He is a photographic coach, and the subject becomes both image and photographer. Normally the roles of subject and photographer are quite clear-cut, but here the role of photography is a big issue, although perhaps not the main one.
It’s more about each work and what it means, and if the people are aware of the camera or not may be of importance, or of secondary importance. It’s the same issue as “Is it important if there is other media than photography?” and that depends on the project. Sometimes it’s important if something is glued on the wall, or if it comes in a book, or if it is a video. Sometimes it’s very important and sometimes it’s more about the image itself.
DH: There seems to be a strong relationship to the printed image in On Migration, as it merges with the Books on Migration and Magazines on the Wall exhibitions. What do you feel the photobook as a vehicle has to offer the topic of migration?
MN: Practically speaking, the photobook is the main vehicle of the image in migration. Hardly any artists in On Migration, for example, live where they were born. Nomadism and being an artist seems to be quite highly connected nowadays, and they take books with them, carrying the knowledge and works of other photographers with them. So the book is a migratory vehicle in itself.
In the magazine exhibition, we invited five magazine editors from central and Eastern Europe to showcase photographers they have featured in their publication. These are areas which have a lot of migratory issues: some photographers were chosen due to the themes of their work, whilst others were chosen because the artist had actually migrated somewhere else, or because of the visual language or personal story, and so on. In this case, we wanted to make the point that the process of editing magazines is like an ongoing curatorial process.
Whilst the works are on the wall, it’s still a kind of homage to a magazine. Maybe we will expand upon this link in a future theme for PhotoIreland. This year it was migrations, last year it was collaborative change, and next year it will be something to do with nature, voyage, the afterlife…I haven’t given it the right form yet. But whatever the concept is next year, there will again be the third foot of the printed matter.
DH: As a whole, PhotoIreland seems to look toward the effects of an increasingly globalised society. As a subset of this, would you say that traditional cultural distinctions in photography have changed in recent years? Have you noticed any particular shifts in the subject matter people are looking at, or the formal qualities that would traditionally be quite distinct?
MN: I think it’s difficult to make statements like “The Americans don’t work with nature as much any more”, as it’s just very hard to say who is American and who is not. I’m Austrian and I live in Spain, and I was once asked to present Spanish photographers at a festival focusing on work from the home countries of curators. It was wrong because I’m not Spanish, but I’ve lived and worked more in Spain than in Austria; I wouldn’t even know that many Austrian photographers. We can’t even say where people are from any more, which includes myself, but also many other curators and artists.
I think the problem is much deeper than which nationalities keep working on which themes, as it’s based on the interchange between what people do and where people live. It’s more a case of which community to which you count yourself, which is a label that you can put on yourself that can be removed when you go elsewhere.
In some cases it may be like the recurrence of themes within films. Whilst American films tend to be about law and order, good and bad, European films often focus on the complexities of life and relationships in a very small space, where everything is cramped and complicated. In regions like Asia or New York City, where there are a lot of cultural mechanisms, the themes within work will probably focus on that; and if you are a photographer who lives in Arizona, and you have a wide landscape before you, you might work about this. It depends on your field of vision, what interests you, and what’s available to interest you.