Ángel Luis González Fernández / PhotoIreland Festival 2017
Ángel Luis González Fernández is the founder and director of PhotoIreland, a festival that promotes critical engagement with photography. The first edition of the Dublin-based festival took place in 2010, and 2017 marks the eighth edition, which takes ‘The Recount of Conflict’ as its central theme.
Born in what he calls “the old part of Madrid”, Luis González Fernández grew up in Villaviciosa de Odón to the west of the city centre. He moved to Ireland in 1998 and has been living in the country ever since. He holds a BA in Photography and Critical Theory from the Dublin Institute of Technology, and an MA in Visual Arts Practices, Curatorial Strand, from Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.
In 2011 Luis González Fernández launched The Library Project, a collection of publications about photography, which is accessible to the public. The collection comprises more than 1500 items from 200 publishers worldwide and travels around the world to festivals. The collection is housed at The Library Project headquarters on Temple Bar Street in Dublin where, in addition to the expanding photobook archive, there is an art bookshop and gallery space.
This year, PhotoIreland, which normally takes place in July, will be held in May. Ángel Luis González Fernández talks to Gemma Padley about the festival’s beginnings, the decision to bring the date forward, what’s in store this year, and how he and his dedicated team keep momentum going.
Gemma Padley: It was in 2008 that you had the idea to launch a festival about photography in Ireland. What made you want to start an event of this kind, and why?
Ángel Luis González Fernández: After I graduated from my BA in 2007, I realised the photography situation in Ireland was quite behind in terms of what I’ve seen internationally. Through research I did at that time and when I was studying, I could see there were few voices in Ireland [within photography]. I was considering whether to move back to Spain, or elsewhere, and in the end I chose to stay in Ireland. Inspired by my entrepreneurial friends, I decided I too wanted to be an entrepreneur. I spoke to a former tutor of mine about photography-related ideas and the idea of a festival came up. I was familiar with the PHotoEspaña model and I thought it would be great if we could do something similar in Ireland. I felt that a festival could contribute to [what was already going on culturally in the country] and might call more people to action. Between 2007 and 2008 I did research and talked with local gallery directors, curators, photographers, and other relevant parties, to gather information and try to see whether it would be possible. It was more of a conversation. Some people were critical about the idea, but no-one said, “don’t do it”. There were challenges but nothing [insurmountable]. It was just a matter of hard work. So I decided to go ahead with it.
At the time I had moved to Zurich and was flying back to Dublin every second week. I remember being at a party in 2009 and talking to someone about my plans for a festival, and the person suggested I speak with curator and educator Moritz Neumüller because of his experience. We chatted there and then on the phone, and when I followed up on our conversation, he said: “if you’re crazy enough to want to make a festival, I’ll help you.” Moritz became the festival’s curator and I worked more on the production and fundraising side of things. We worked for a year to make the festival happen and continued to collaborate for a few years after that. It was a slow process – talking to people, and trying to raise funds – but finally the first edition happened in 2010. There was no theme – it was more a celebration of photography with exhibitions across Dublin. Everything was very positive. Over the years Moritz has been amazing. I don’t think the festival would have happened without him.
GP: What challenges did you encounter in the early months and years, and how have you overcome these?
ÁLGF: There were no models with which to compare what I was proposing. Initially I met with the minister who deals with culture in Ireland. I had with me two sides of A4 [outlining my proposal]. It was a hard sell. Ireland’s cultural institutions and embassies were keen to partner with a festival because they understood what it could bring to the city, and once I had those guys on board, talking to the minister was easier.
The festival has always been underfunded and it has been a struggle to make things happen. We have been working with a budget (from public funds) of around 20,000 to 30 000 Euros [per edition], but we spend well over that, perhaps in the region of 80,000 Euros. And we’ve all been working on a voluntary basis. I gave up [all material things] and went into survival mode. Quomo (the design studio I set up in 2001) kept me alive [financially], and the festival kept me busy.
Today, we’re a small team – the festival is run with a core of two people and perhaps 10 to 15 volunteers. In the beginning we had more than 100 volunteers, but as we’ve become more efficient we’ve needed fewer people. It’s can be a struggle to find good venues to put on the exhibitions. New spaces appear and others close down, but it’s always been that way. This year, we have the newly renovated Tara Building where two of our main exhibitions will be shown. For a while it was disused but now it’s a co-working space with studios. It also has a large gallery in the basement.
GP: How do you manage to keep the energy, drive, and momentum going, and how, when there are so many international photography and art festivals do you stay relevant?
ÁLGF: The festival is one part [of what we’re doing] and we run projects throughout the year, which have included: 2014’s Greetings from Ireland – an open call for artists to submit work interpreting Ireland today; New Irish Works (2016-17); Phototropism – an exhibition bringing together photography and plants; and the print fair, Halftone (2016). In autumn 2013 we were offered a space to house The Library Project, which transformed the project into a physical space that people could visit. We decided to open a bookshop, which meant our relationship with publishers [and photographers] shifted from promoting to selling their work. We could also programme events and activities in the gallery space, and in doing so continue to promote local and international artists. We didn’t just focus on photography – it was also important for us to engage with other disciplines including contemporary art, visual culture, and critical thinking. Greetings from Ireland was key in that it began a process of separating the festival from something else that we now call the PhotoIreland Foundation – the organisation under which we run all our projects (including PhotoIreland). We’re officially launching the foundation this May. So to answer your question, we haven’t lost energy after all these years of doing the festival because there’s something more, which has been slowly growing and is now starting to take shape.
In terms of remaining relevant, the only way we can do that is by being critical about what we do. It’s a case of asking ourselves: what is a photography festival, and what is it supposed to do? I see a festival as a celebration, a showcase of what’s relevant in a particular discipline. It’s a way to motivate organisations to programme together around a specific theme or subject, and for practitioners it’s a way to connect with an international network of curators, a chance to make friends, to build relationships that are super important. It’s also a great way to discover a city. Ultimately, for us at the foundation, it’s about putting photography in context, and considering what might be next in photography. I’m interested in how the image relates to visual culture… It’s a case of thinking about both the image and the consumption of the image. We have to keep pushing and to keep experimenting, keep being critical, keep asking ourselves what is photography today? And we also need to look to the future. The sense of fight helps a lot in what we’re trying to do. The goal is to make PhotoIreland Foundation a stable organisation that outlives me and whoever comes after me. That’s the legacy I will leave behind if I ever move away from Ireland.
GP: We often hear about this ‘great moment for photography’ that is currently unfolding in Ireland. How do you feel you and your team at PhotoIreland have contributed to this? And how do you strike a balance between showcasing homegrown talent and shining a light on what’s going on internationally?
ÁLGF: You’ll perhaps have to ask a third party because if you ask me, I’m going to say we have contributed quite a lot! People have long contributed to the history of photography in Ireland – for example, the photographers who set up the BA photography programmes in the country. You could say we are reaping the rewards of all the work that was done before. I think we at the foundation are part of a process, and the festival [came along] at a time when everything was starting to open up. Other photography magazines launched [around the same time] including Blow Photo and the online magazine SuperMassiveBlackHole, more spaces started to show photography, more curators began working [in this field], and people started to publish more. I’d like to think we helped a little in bringing the notion of the ‘photobook’ to Ireland, and we’ve certainly demonstrated the importance of the photobook through our collection. Over time, the festival has helped to get people interested [in photography], and we’re now part of a much larger network of festivals worldwide. In terms of the smaller projects we’ve been running, we’ve [contributed] to the cultural scene by teaching people who were involved in other areas of the arts what contemporary photography can look like, and to your point about striking a balance between Irish talent and international photographers, we try to make sure we have opportunities for locals, such as the Open Programme, which features fringe exhibitions presented by individuals and organisations that add a sense of spontaneity. I think it’s important to bring works from abroad to Ireland because that’s what we’re missing – we’re still underserved in that way.
GP: This year’s edition of PhotoIreland is now happening in May. Why the change, and could you share some of the highlights from the 2017 festival?
ÁLGF: We moved from July to May for several reasons. July is high season so flights and accommodation are expensive (in terms of hosting guests and for visitors to come here.) We are also mindful of engaging more with local photographers and students, and by putting the festival on in May we can work with universities in the autumn and winter to develop projects that can be shown at PhotoIreland in the spring. We chose July originally because statistically it rains less, but May is a beautiful month. It also frees us up for the summer months so we can have a presence at Les Rencontres d’Arles and at other international events that happen in the summer.
In terms of 2017 highlights, one of our main exhibitions is The Recount of Conflict, which focuses on the disruption of the everyday lives of individuals, families, communities, and organisations by conflict. The exhibition will explore themes that include: identity, gender, and migration through the work of select photojournalists, documentary photographers, and art photographers. Elsewhere we’re showing Michal Iwanowski’s Clear of People in which he retraces his grandfather’s escape from Soviet captivity, crossing over 2000 kilometres in 1945. It’s an interesting story and was ideal for the theme of the festival – Iwanowski takes on the role of storyteller and [recounts] his grandfather’s experiences. The launch of Iwanowski’s photobook takes place on 4 May during the official festival launch and we will be showing Steven Nestor’s Bellum et Pax, a new installation that features images from before, during, and after World War II which Nestor purchased online. Through these images he rebuilds narratives to reveal how war and hatred is taught and constructed. We’ve also collaborated with the Instituto Cervantes Dublin to put out a call for work that explores themes linked to the Hispanic world in Ireland and abroad and we’ll be showing work from the New Irish Works project at The Library Project from 6 May.
New for this year is our Critical Practice Reviews (CPR) . We didn’t programme portfolio reviews in 2016, but instead tested a new model where two photographers sit down with three professionals. The photographers talk about their work and have the chance to listen to each other. We found this format led to a fluid conversation where one photographer could learn from the other. The model offers a more complete overall and valid experience I think [compared to traditional portfolio reviews]. I should also mention we’re running our second How to Flatten a Mountain residency where participants are encouraged to develop a new project that will be exhibited during the festival at Rathfarnham Castle.
Blow Photo will launch their 15th issue on 4 May at The Liquor Rooms . The magazine started at the same time as the festival and the latest edition looks at abstract art photography; Nico Krijno, Chloe Sells, and Taisuke Koyama feature, among others. Junior Magazine, a photographic journal that provides a platform for emerging talent in Irish photography, is also launching its latest issue at The Library Project on 25 May.
PhotoIreland runs until 31 May, for more information visit:http://2017.photoireland.org