Head On Photo Festival 2018

May 18, 2018
Beautiful Guantanamo Bay.. Debi Cornwall's 'Welcome to Camp America'

Head On is still not getting the attention it deserves. We make a big fuss about the Sydney Biennale, we go wild for Vivid, we swarm over the Sydney foreshores during Sculpture by the Sea, but after ten years the Head On Photo Festival survives on a fraction of the resources devoted to other events. One might think that an annual spectacle that boasts 700 artists from 22 countries, spread across more than 100 exhibitions doesn’t have anything left to prove.

This year the NSW Government and the Sydney City Council are listed as supporters, but as usual, Head On relies on volunteers and poorly-paid staffers to put together a photography festival with a worldwide reputation. One can’t get too excited about modest handouts from a state government that is willing to spend billions demolishing and rebuilding sports stadia or vandalising the Powerhouse. Or a Sydney City Council that has just invested more than $900,000 in a set of little bronze birds by Tracey Emin.

Is it too much to expect these representatives of the people to get behind an established event that attracts many thousands of visitors and generates income for the local economy? It seems easier to throw money away than invest it in a worthwhile project.

Head On’s cash problem is exposed by its brevity. Most of the major exhibitions close after only a fortnight. This is a ridiculously short run for an event that requires such herculean efforts. The Biennale drags on for almost four months, as does the wretched Archibald Prize.

The major venue this year is Paddington Town Hall, where one may sample a staggering array of exhibitions. There are more shows within a minute’s walk, at the Paddington Reservoir Gardens, and Juniper Hall, which is also hosting the finalists of the Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize (until 27 May).

Other significant parts of the festival may be found at the Royal Botanic Gardens, and Delmar Gallery on the grounds of Trinity Grammar School, Ashfield. To explore the full program, one should refer to the Head On website or pick up a booklet at any venue.

There’s no way to review such an event in an even-handed manner. Instead, I’ll look briefly at the shows in Paddington, and the three Chinese-themed exhibitions at Delmar, where I spoke at the opening last week.

Paul Bronstein's Afghanistan

Paul Bronstein’s Afghanistan

Paula Bronstein’s Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear at the Town Hall is a first-class piece of photojournalism, documenting the effects of a long drawn-out conflict on everyday life in a country defined by suffering and endurance. However, it’s not all bad news, as Bronstein also shows aspects of Afghanistan that don’t make the news bulletins.

The same might be said of Dread and Dreams by Afghanistani photographer, Zalmaï, at the reservoir Gardens. These images are in stark black-and-white, whereas Bronstein’s are in colour, but they show people trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances.

This is almost the defining mission of the world’s best photojournalism: to put a human face to the vast, impersonal conflicts that flash by on our TV screens; to bridge the ideological, sectarian divides that generate so much hatred and fear.

Alongside these shows there are bizarre displays such as Taro Karibe’s Saori, about a 61-year-old Japanese man who co-habits with a life-sized love doll; or Alain Schroeder’s Living for Death, which documents an annual ceremony in the Pangala region of Indonesia in which the corpses of family members are removed from their graves, cleaned and given new clothing. You’ll be amazed by the affection lavished on these decayed bodies.

Alain Schroeder's 'Living with Death'

Alain Schroeder’s ‘Living with Death’

It’s not sufficient that a photographer merely documents a place or an event, there must also be a formal element that sets their work apart. One sees this in its purest form with Debi Cornwall’s Welcome to Camp America at the Reservoir Gardens: a portrait of Guantanamo Bay that had to conform to the most rigid set of rules.

I thought of the Oulipians – a group of French writers who set themselves the challenge of writing texts in which, for instance, the letter ‘e’ could not be used. Cornwall wasn’t permitted to show faces, or indeed prisoners. The restrictions required ingenious responses, leading to images of empty rooms, soldiers with their backs turned to the camera, and the cute merchandise sold in the camp giftshop. It makes the prison look like a deserted holiday resort, full of forced, empty cheerfulness.

Cornwall has captured the air of unreality that pervades the entire enterprise. The camp comes across as a mere façade, a publicity stunt in which real people are held without legal recourse and interrograted for crimes for which there is little evidence. She followed up her stay in Guantanamo by photographing former detainees who had been released, without charge, into countries such as Albania and Uzbekistan where they don’t speak the language and don’t have permission to leave.

By focussing on the artificiality of Guantamo Bay, Cornwall has exposed the camp as an absurd, mendacious mix of torture and “fun”. There is no drama, no editorialising. The images say it all.

The same play with artificiality characterises the three exhibitions at Delmar Gallery. Peng Xiangjie’s Cosplay shows young Chinese who have adopted the Japanese practise of dressing up like cartoon characters and superheroes. In Japan it’s a rebellion against stifling social conformity that merely substitutes one set of codes for another. In China it has a more desperate edge, as a harmless, permissible deviation in a society that discourages political disagreement.

Olivia Martin-Maguire, 'China Love'

Olivia Martin-Maguire, ‘China Love’

Olivia Martin-Maguire’s China Love focuses on the multi-billion dollar industry of Chinese wedding photos, often taken a year in advance of the actual ceremony. Another form of cosplay, the photoshoots are lavish, show-off displays of personal wealth that underscore the idea of marriage as primarily an economic arrangement.

Sheila Zhao, 'The East was Red'

Sheila Zhao, ‘The East was Red’

The Disneyfied aspect of these marriage photos is put in context by Sheila Zhao’s The East was Red, a devastating installation of found photos from the time of the Cultural Revolution, in which every piece of propaganda has been coloured an opaque red. In this sea of smiling faces, of hands joyfully waving the little red book, one sees the roots of China’s dangerous love of make-believe and self-deception.

What began as brainwashing has become a habit of mind, as the emphasis on the collective has given way to rampant individualism. The most extreme forms of communist fervour find their mirror image today in the new capitalism, in which the greatest glory, following Deng Xiaoping’s famous pronouncement, is to get rich.

Head On 2018
Paddington Town Hall; Paddington Reservoir Gardens; State Library of NSW; Royal Botanic Gardens, 5-20 May, 2018.
Parliament NSW, 5 -24 May, 2018
Delmar Gallery; Juniper Hall, 5 – 27 May, 2018
For a full program: headon.com.au

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May, 2018