As the opening week of the 45th Rencontres de la Photographie gets under way in Arles, I am sitting here slightly frustrated at not being able to go and instead reflecting on my visit last year, with a consolatory glass of vin rosé. This southern French city which lies at the edge of the Camargue, a rugged region known for its cowboys, or guardiens, wild horses and bulls plays host each summer to one of Europe’s most vibrant photography festivals.
Arles has a gutsy feel - in the high summer heat the air is frequently heavy with the scent of paella or the spice market and every so often the strains of a native Gypsy Kings song carry down the backstreets, where equally you could find yourself caught up in a bull chase. The tough side of Arles is accentuated by the uncompromising dominance of the Roman amphitheatre at its centre but a few minutes’ walk away the sublime Romanesque facade of the church of Sainte Trophime and its cloisters act as an architectural foil and a sense of calm and culture is restored. It’s against this historical backdrop that the city, briefly home to the painter Van Gogh, accommodates a wide-ranging collection of the world’s best photography each year. Churches and railway sheds alike get turned over to exhibition spaces and the bars of the Place du Forum buzz with gossip and debate about the arts.
A theme which struck me last year was the popularity of “found” or anonymous photographs, photographies trouvées, little family snapshots plucked from back in time, presumably from abandoned albums, attics, flea markets. You could rummage through boxes full of other people’s lost memories, little windows on to past lives available to purchase for a few euros. Often, it was children who were most captivated by the images - was it the tactile quality of the prints or the stories they held? One enterprising dealer had filled one of the fountains with photographs, which floated around waiting to be picked out by curious onlookers - a kind of metaphor for lives adrift on the currents of the world.
These photographs feel displaced outside of the context of family home - is the fact they were lost a result of the people in them being displaced themselves, either through migration or conflict? Or were they just abandoned by subsequent generations, unable or unwilling to carry on being custodians of these little archives? Earlier in the year I had had the privilege of a brief meeting with Tom Stoddart, whose black and white documentary photography is among the most compellingly powerful I know. His coverage of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999 contains images of found or abandoned photographs, the fate of whose owners one can only contemplate with a sense of dread. The images are gentle, domestic, mundane and so totally at odds with the calamitous circumstances in which they’re found and recorded by Stoddart.
We cast little glimpses of ourselves on to online media all the time now and no doubt these images will be carried around the currents and backwaters of the internet for years to come. Over time, how likely is it that they will become detached from identity, like the prints floating around the fountain in Arles?