Poulomi Basu on Just Another Photo Festival

In this interview, Poulomi Basu, the co-founder and director of Just Another Photo Festival, tells us about the Indian festival where the PHM 2017 Grant awarded works will be projected and why it is important to take photography to the people.

Regardless of its name, Just Another Photo Festival (JAPF) is considered as a fresh and different festival from the many others out there. What makes it different?

JAPF is not a monolithic institution nor do we seek it to become so. From the very beginning we have put the audience on a pedestal: each work is introduced in the local language to make it more accessible and we seek to learn from them - the way in which they interact with, and react to, the works that we show.

For us, there will never be a standard way of doing things - we will not work to a set format or template. We are a travelling visual media festival and we embrace this mandate in the widest sense. At present, we show the work as slideshows but we will be reactive to our audiences, changing and adapting so that we are showcasing the best in global photography in the best and most accessible way for them. From the very first edition, in 2015, we incorporated 360° elements into the festival having created a 360° ready website with an additional Virtual Reality mode to showcase the locations where we are working - this new format will become an increasingly important component of the festival. Inspired by new modes of storytelling, we are seeking to create a festival that reflects new digital forms and mirrors the interconnectivity of contemporary life. We think this is what sets JAPF apart.

The mission of JAPF is to take photography to the people. Can you give examples of the impact the festival has had on its audience? Who have been these people so far and how will you continue to increase your audience and improve their experience?

So far we have shown to a diverse audience, from slum and blue collar communities, to universities, outside mosques, women’s centres, dalit villages, and everywhere in between. We simply want to show to people and communities that do not have regular access to such work. As for reaction and impact, we are always mindful to speak to the audience after; to understand their reactions to the work, and that's how we can gauge our impact.

For instance, after the project we held outside the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, we asked a young boy what his favourite work was. He replied not with words but with gestures - emulating the yogic pose of the two girls in Tanya Habjouqa's work Occupied Pleasures; that is a young Muslim boy emulating a Hindu pose copied from two young Muslim girls. Such layers, cross cultural dialogue, and widening perceptions: that's what it is all about.

Or, the reaction of a teenage girl to Evgenia Arbugaeva's work Tiksi, who said she loved how children lived in a 'snow world' and how this was the first time in her life she had seen snow and, previously, the closest thing to snow she had seen was ice cream! 

Another example: the perceptions of America which were changed through the projection of Daniella Zalcman’s Signs of Your Identity project. They didn’t know about the lives of the Native Americans and were shocked to hear about their trauma and difficulties. On another evening the audience watched with rapt attention and shared glory the story of a black female Olympic boxing champion from Flint in Zackary Canepari's work Clarissa. For that film we didn't have time to put Hindi subtitles on it, not that it seemed to matter: the visuals were enough, the audience got the message about the struggle and the poverty. 

All these examples only affirm the belief in the power of visual media to cut across continents, borders and language.

How do you select the works for the festival when taking into consideration a mass audience which has different characteristics in itself? What, to you, is powerful and inspiring work?

Any work that comes from inside, from a deep emotional connection to a subject or story and that is told with intelligence and verve will always stand apart and make itself noticed to an audience.

We never prejudge our audience and have shown a diverse range of work from high art and fashion through to conceptual and reportage. We are constantly surprised by an audience reaction, which draws a mesmerised response. For instance, Chiara Nonino, the picture editor of Vogue Italia, curated a selection of outstanding fashion work, in some sense about as far removed from the everyday reality of our audience as possible, and the response was fantastic. People watch with astute interest, reacting positively and strongly.

We also showed the Jamie XX and Romain Gavras' music video for the song ‘Gosh’ - not something that you would normally expect to see in a photo festival but it is good to break the mould and embrace visual media in the widest sense. The audience were astounded... Probably the first time a Jamie XX video has been screened on the banks of the Ganges.

We have found that the audience is interested in a great variety of subjects, and especially subjects from beyond their direct experience or knowledge; work not just beyond India but work that is beyond their existence; that is to say, for example, slum dwellers do not need to see an essay on how hard life can be in a slum, they already know this. Rather they want to be taken on a journey to another place that inspires and informs.

We have had some very young photographers reach out to us because they know we can take work to a completely new audience, very much another world. For example, Souvid Datta’s work on the trafficking of women in West Bengal - he got in touch with us as he knew we would be able to take it to grassroot organisations that work on such issues in the type of communities from where the girls often vanish. That the younger folks trust our vision means a lot. We must look forward.

The work of the winners of the PHM 2017 Grant will be projected during the upcoming edition of the festival. Why is JAPF a great platform for photographers to show their work?

In the main, as photographers or visual storytellers, we aspire to reach the widest possible audience. Plus, in this new media age, just printing your photographs in a magazine is no longer enough. Rather, we should all find new methods of distribution that can connect with a geographic and socially diverse audience - knowledge is power and can only strengthen the societies in which we live. JAPF is one small effort in this regard. The work will be shown to a new audience who have never seen such work. It has a huge impact in terms of education and awareness; mass media in the rawest sense - if we touch one person and inspire them to reach further then it is all worth it. Where better place to be if you are a young photographer? The photography industry is very small really and it is good to look beyond!

You are also among this edition's New Generation Prize judges. What will you be valuing in the works and more broadly what are you expecting from the new generation of photographers?

Most of my own inspiration in my own work comes from sources outside of photography, primarily cinema, music and dance. In photography I have always been inspired by my contemporaries and drawn maximum force from the work I see around me. It is important and essential we look ahead. The landscape of media has changed so much and our voice today is very important, especially given the troubled times we are living in. A true visionary sees the future. I want to see that in the works I will be judging. I will also be keeping a look-out for work from underrepresented communities and demographics.

I am open to documentary or fiction as long as the work displays a great level of engagement. A powerful and engaging work with a storytelling narrative combined with a deeply emotional and transcendent voice. We are living in electrifying times where photography has finally liberated itself, postmodernism has happened. I look forward to seeing works that challenge our perceptions!

JAPF is a very young and contemporary creature. How do you take advantage of current technologies and what role do you think photo festivals will play in the near future? How do you see them evolving?

What we are doing is very simple. Essentially a projector and a screen. It is nothing complex but technology allows us to do this, cheaply and logistically, relatively easily. But, as I say, it is important that we reflect the interconnectivity of modern life, the pace of change is terrific and new developments in technologies and methods of distribution will change the way we, and others, go about our business. In the future maybe a projection is no longer the best way to connect with an audience - we need to be aware of new technologies and willing to change, we must be nimble, flexible and responsive. Photo and other media festivals will continue to have relevance but only so long as they work hard to forge new audiences and keep pace with the times.

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Video of the first edition of the festival (2015)

All winners of the PHM 2017 Grant will be projected during the upcoming edition of JAPF. Apply before 15 February at phmuseum.com/grant.

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