The Swiss Alps' Outdoor Festival

Since 2013, Verzasca FOTO has been bringing photography to a beautiful valley in the Swiss canton of Ticino. We went to talk with Alfio Tommasini, the festival's director, who will award a PHM 2018 Women Photographers Grant submission a solo show at next year’s edition.

© Verzasca FOTO Archive, Argui Escandon. Outdoor Exhibition by Bego Anton

Verzasca FOTO is a festival out of the ordinary. Set in the beautiful Verzasca Valley, also known for James Bond "Goldeneye" Bungee Jump from the Contra Dam, the festival is deeply influenced by the atmosphere and settings that make the festival quite unique. Most of the shows are outdoor, where photos dialogue with nature and the morphology of the territory. Next year one of the PHM 2018 Women Photographers Grant submissions will be showcased here. For this reason, we had this nice conversation with Alfio Tommasini, the co-founder and artistic director of the festival, to learn more about the history and curatorial approach to this environmentally friendly event.

Ciao Alfio, a few days ago you inaugurated the 5th edition of the festival. What were the main motivations behind its foundation and how has the event evolved throughout these five years?

We created Verzasca FOTO Festival with the idea of setting an event in the little villages of an Alpine valley, where people can meet informally and share thoughts and ideas about photography in a strong natural surrounding. It's a place to spend a few days away from the urban frenzy and digital routine we are often faced with as artists.

One of our main missions is to contribute to the diffusion of work by talented national and international artists through an open-air showcase in a place where art and nature can interact and be contemplated together. We also aim to support emerging visual arts in our region and create an interest through photography and its different approaches in the local community.

Considering the growing number of international visitors I think that an artist who comes to the festival will gain popularity and make contacts that go further than our territorial borders. The Verzasca valley is located in the Swiss mountains and is home to less than one thousand inhabitants. Once you are in this beautiful natural space, it feels like being far away from everywhere, even if it is only a few hours from big cities like Zurich or Milan.

With our artist-in-residence program, we have built a further bridge to this place. Photographers can spend some time in the Valley developing an art project under the only condition that it be related to the territory. The partnership with international stakeholders and with other events similarly set in rural contexts is another step in our evolution and speaks of our desire to connect with other realities.

© Verzasca FOTO Archive, Marco Bufano. Photography Night 2017

Your curatorial approach to the festival seems to invest a lot in the dialogue with the territory, combining open-air exhibitions in places such as mountain sheds with more formal settings. What are the reasons for doing so and what has been the response from the local community and the general public?

The dialogue with the territory is one of the reasons we exist as a festival. As we have written in the introduction to this 5th edition, titled The Inner Forest: "We perceive nature as a source of creative stimulus. Walking and roaming through the forest, immersed in a primordial and free universe, we can draw inspiration along the way."

I think that through our exhibitions, we have managed to raise questions and present the local community with new perspectives. We offer the general public a way to interact with exhibitions that have their own personality and are strictly connected with the territory. Visitors can enjoy the works in a perhaps more relaxed way, in a sort of “slow show”, where everyone can establish their own pace and decide how much they want to interact with both the work of art and the work of nature.

We've had a great response from the people who have come to the valley. Both the artists and the festival-goers have demonstrated an open-mindedness and interest in exploring the small paths of the inner forest, off the main roads.

© Verzasca FOTO Archive. Artist in Residency Exhibition by Jorge Panchoaga

The festival seems to have a strong connection with the South American photography scene, having hosted such photographers as Estrella Herrera, Mariela Sancari, Federico Estol and Nicolas Janowski, to mention just a few. Considering the quite Eurocentric vision adopted by many festivals and institutions on the Continent, can you tell us where your attention to Latin American works comes from?

I have lived and travelled in Spain and Latin America for quite a few years. As for my interest in visual arts, I have always looked out for the works and met artists from these countries. As a festival curator, it's natural to invite some of the many talented photographers I have had the chance to meet along the way.

By supporting Latin American artists I also want to give something back. The continent is a great source of inspiration to me, from the indigenous cultures where art and spirituality are strictly connected and blended with natural elements, to the Mexican muralists and contemporary artists who create new narratives around their own places. I also greatly respect the energy and motivations of Latin American artists who manage to create and show their works despite the fact that in some countries the political and economic agendas don't include art support.

In our rural regions, we have a long history of emigration to the American continent. Today it is a pleasure to welcome the works by artists from that part of the world. I also think that our team and our local community appreciate the presence of artists who speak languages with the same Latin root (in the Verzasca valley the official language is Italian). I think we share a similar open spirit in all festival meetings.

© Verzasca FOTO Archive, Elena Vaninetti. Inaugural Walk during Verzasca FOTO Festival 2017

You will select a work from among the PHmuseum 2018 Women Photographers Grant submissions to be exhibited at the 2019 edition of Verzasca FOTO. Why did you decide to offer this prize, and what will be relevant for you when in the judging process?

We follow the work of PHmuseum with interest. Not only is it a very interesting platform that keeps you informed about what’s happening in contemporary photography, it also offers a great database to discover emerging artists. I think that we share a humanistic approach to photography with PHmuseum and this will probably be one of the relevant points when choosing a project to exhibit.

The faith in the human being and the empathy that an artist can build with her or his own subjects. In our exhibition program, half of the participants are women. An equal female presence is already a matter of fact in our festival. But still, once they are here they express their doubts about a photographic world where gender equality is not yet established. A price for women is our small contribution to this cause. Of course, our female team members supported the idea and gave us the final push about offering this prize.

How do you think the awarded photographer will benefit from the exhibition at Verzasca FOTO, and what should we expect from the 2019 edition?

I think the prize winner will have the opportunity to further extend her network - we will contribute to the diffusion of her project. Her work will have a central place during the festival exhibitions, which are free and accessible 24 hours. Her work will be exhibited for two months and, due to the growing number of international visitors, more people will have the chance to discover her work. We also boast a media partnership with the Swiss public television (RSI-Cult+). They make fantastic clips about the exhibiting artists.

By attending the festival the prize winner will have the chance to meet new people interested in photography in a genuine natural environment. Sitting together in one of the valleys' stone sheds, after a nice meal of polenta cooked on the fire and a fair glass of local red wine, it is probably easier to get closer, to relax and present the works to the public and the experts in the field.

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Alfio Tommasini is a photographer, curator and the art director of Verzasca FOTO Festival, Switzerland, which he co-founded in 2013. The aim of Verzasca FOTO is to offer a photography event in small alpine villages of stone houses surrounded by wild nature, where international photographers have the opportunity to get together and share their visions and ideas in an informal environment. As the art director and curator of the festival, he invites artists to interact with the territory by exhibiting their pictures in exterior settings of the Verzasca valley. With Verzasca FOTO he also invites worldwide photographers to artist-in-residence programs.

As a photographer, he studied in Madrid, Spain (a Masters at EFTI) and has published and exhibited his works internationally. Recently, he has been awarded the 3rd prize in the Sony World Photography Awards contemporary issues category, and he was a finalist at Prix Photoforum Pasquart, Switzerland and Head On Photo Awards, Australia. He's particularly interested in the relationship, adaptation and transformation that people have with the territory where they live. He's currently based in Ticino, Switzerland.

Rocco Venezia is an Italian visual artist. His latest work, Nekyia, is a book published by the independent Italian editor Witty Kiwi in 2017. Next to his personal projects he is working as curator and producer at PHmuseum.

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