Belfast Photo Festival Returns from June 6 – 30

After a two-year hiatus, the city-wide celebration of photography returns with some intriguing exhibitions and talks

Having skimmed the contents of the packed festival brochure, I ask Michael Weir, director of the Belfast Photo Festival, how many events are actually taking place. After making an immediate and definite distinction between events and exhibitions, he then goes through the entire brochure, itemising the contents of the programme before triumphantly emerging with the definitive figure: 52.

It’s this pernickety attention to detail that runs through the programming of this, the second Belfast Photo Festival, an extraordinary, city-wide extravaganza that includes work by major international photographers as well as Northern Ireland’s finest photographic talent. There are set to be workshops, interactive events, master classes, talks by the exhibiting artists, walks and an interactive dark room.

The first festival, which took place in 2011, saw 30,000 visitors flood through the varied venues and exhibitions in and around the city, and received widespread acclaim from the international world of photography. After an exhaustive two year’s planning, this year’s festival is set to be grander still. 'We’re trying to reach quite a wide audience,' Weir explains.

Belfast Photo Festival

 

'When the festival has only happened once before,' he continues, 'you don’t really know how it happens. Next year we’re doing a children’s photography festival, where we actually want to reach younger people because it’s about the future, you know? But we’ve also been doing workshops with older people in east Belfast, so we’re very much aware of the older community. It’s about being as inclusive as possible.'

One way of tapping into a rich seam of populism in Belfast at the moment is to pay tribute to the mighty Game of Thrones – the HBO fantasy series which is mainly filmed in Northern Ireland – and the Belfast Photo Festival doesn’t disappoint with Helen Sloan’s On-Set photographs, peering behind the grunting men and unencumbered women, to the construction environments of the show – not behind the scenes, behind the scenery.

Another impressive aspect of the programme is the way in which international artists have been attracted to come to Belfast to discuss their work. This year, for instance, South Africa’s Roger Ballen brings his unnerving blank and whites, monochromatic only in terms of palette, and France’s Cedric Delsaux, whose Dark Lens images sees Star Wars characters, looming like Goya’s giants, over dystopian Parisian landscapes. Both will be speaking at length about their work.

'I think it’s important to have the artists here,' adds Weir. 'It becomes a lot more personal, and maybe you understand the work a bit better. It changes the way the exhibition is perceived, as to whether people will go or not. Equally I think the work should be able to stand by itself without the artist being there, but I think it will make you love the work even more and you’ll be able to go and view it with fresh eyes.

'It’s the theme of "spectacle”. With this theme we have an opportunity to get some really eye-catching imagery. It’s not just the colour, the layout or the lights. This year we’re building a structure on the lawn of City Hall. It's going to be five metres high and seven metres wide and will feature pictures of that size, so it’s going to be enormous.

Belfast Photo Festival

 

'We want it to feel as if we’re taking over the city for a short time. Literally, in fact, as we are going to have a large number of Storm Trooper and Imperial Guards patrolling Queen’s University. We’re trying to make the launches more than just walking around with a glass of wine. It ties in again with the theme.'

Perhaps the show that exemplifies the theme of this year's festival is Shen Chao-Liang’s Stage, exhibited on the concourse of the Waterfront Hall. An enormous and ornate Box-puzzle, unfolding onto several multi-hued platforms, each swathed in dramatic lighting that pitches long shadows, and wired for floor-shaking sound, this seems, for Weir, the pivotal part of the festival.

'It was really the first piece of work that I saw that I decided I wanted to be a part of the festival. In a sense it is the essence of the theme. The stages have been specifically designed to bring people together, to attract them. It folds up into a box like a Transformer, the lighting and the sound are all built in. And these stages can play host to all sorts of performances, creating a form of visual spectacle wherever they go.'

The Messianic gleam is back in Weir’s eye. 'We’re the only visual arts festival in Northern Ireland, and one of the biggest festivals in the country,' he claims, 'and this is only our second year. Eventually I hope we’re going to be the premiere visual arts festival in the UK and Ireland, and why not? Northern Ireland deserves it, and Belfast is a great festival city.' Why not indeed?

2013 Belfast Photo Festival runs in various venues until June 30. View the full festival programme.