Format ’13, Derby, UK

by Jonathan Blaustein

We used to have a film festival here in Taos. It took place in early April each year. Everybody in town would get excited, as there were opportunities to see films to which residents would otherwise not have access. (Pre-Netflix, obviously.) The locals loved it, and the film-makers did too. I got to meet James Coburn, so that was cool.

I worked for the festival in 1997, as an overly confident twenty-two year old. All bluster and little experience, I was hired as the Volunteer Co-ordinator, meant to boss around dozens of older folks who were working for free. I was hired last minute, as the original VC was poorly-equipped for the position, and subsequently fired.

I was told to do whatever I saw fit with the volunteers, so my first act was to handpick an assistant. Why not make my job easier, I thought. I went through the list, and chose a middle-aged female attorney who’d recently moved to Taos. She seemed sharp, and ended up helping immeasurably.

Within a year, she’d been elevated to Executive Director of the organization. A few years later, the festival was defunct. (Not that I’m blaming her, mind you.) There was some debt accrued at the beginning that could never be dealt with properly, and the best of intentions are not always enough. Competence, across a broad swath of areas, is required to run a successful event over time.

So I was displeased, if not completely surprised, at my experience with the Format Festival in England over the last six months. It gives me no pleasure to write this article, and I’ve certainly given some consideration to why there used to be boundaries between artists and journalists. Ethically, the tale that follows seem important to share, as I know our readers look to us for helpful information about what goes on inside the industry. But I’ve spent many a moment wondering whether this will damage the “artist” portion of my career.

Here’s the breakdown.

I met the Artistic Director of the festival at FotoFest last year. She seemed nice, and I was glad when she wrote a few months later to say the submission process to Format ’13 was about to open. Cool, I thought. If she took the time to reach out, I assumed they must be interested in my work.

Like the many competitions that exist around the world, there was a fee involved in submitting work for consideration. Nothing huge, but still, it cost something. When I didn’t hear back a month beyond the original deadline for replies, I knew things were not efficient as one might hope. Still, I wanted it to work out, and was thrilled when my work was accepted. Having an international exhibition on my resumé seemed like a great career move, and I’m enamoured of the British photo community.

Foolishly, I chose to overlook the fact that the exhibition to which I was applying, “EXPOSURE,” required me to pay all the production costs for my work, as well as shipping fees in each direction. (I don’t believe that’s the case with every exhibition they put on.) The forms also claimed there would be a stipend offered, but that was the last I heard of it until I arrived in England. My inquiries into how much funding I might receive were not answered. (Nor were most of the emails I sent looking for information.)

As the festival approached, I was asked to submit a proposal for my exhibition design. I worked on it for weeks, scratching sketches and fiddling in Photoshop. Surely, I thought, someone will be impressed. They will wonder at the power of my creativity and the brilliance of my art. (They didn’t. I shipped the box off and hoped for the best.)

So by the time I headed to Derby last month, I was pretty put out by the whole thing. I’d spent almost $600, and was beginning to regret it. (Not including travel costs, or return shipping, which I also need to arrange on my own. They won’t schedule the DHL pickup, apparently.) I’m sure they’re all nice people, with so much to organize. I get that there is a lot of responsibility. I do.

At last, though, on a Saturday in early March, I caught the train North from London with my friend Hin Chua. He told me he’d participated in the 2011 version of Format, and had encountered some problems too. He chalked it up to biting off more work than they could chew, rather than malicious intent, and said that most of the people he’d spoken to had some issues as well.

Before I got to Derby, I’d been warned several times that it was a less-than-enthralling place. Basically, people laughed when I said I was showing work there, and confidently described the place grim. I assumed it was just the famous British wit, pushing my buttons and dampening my expectations. Surely, they’re exaggerating, I thought. (Alas…)

The city was bleak and gray; the air freezing cold and moist, sucking the joy from my soul. (What little was left, that is.) I’m not trying to denigrate this Post-Industrial city, which has obviously fallen on hard times, but it is what it is. Folks were surly and suspicious, and the ramifications of decline were rampant. (I saw two businesses closing down on High Street.) As we got off the train, the first two people we saw outside the station were muscle-head teenagers in rolled up T-shirts. Genius.

After that, we stopped in at the Quad theater to see the Erik Kessels exhibition. I know he’s trendy at the moment, and I loved and reviewed one of his books recently, but this exhibit was surprisingly limp. Appropriated family album photographs were everywhere, though most were not-very-interesting. They were blown up into graphics that covered the walls, and were also presented on foam core, in racks, meant to be flipped through like items at a poster shop. (Points for trying to break out of the box, I guess.) I queried some fellow visitors who were equally disappointed, and one described the show as “graphic design” and “cotton candy.”

Next was a brief visit to the “Photo Market,” a few photo related stalls mingled amongst the cheesemongers of the local indoor market. The air was stale, the mood depressing. I got to see a few cool photo books, as there were several major publishers in attendance. It was pretty quiet, though, and one participating photographer told me there was a public opening the night before, and ten people came.

From there, we headed into an industrial neighborhood to the “Chocolate Factory,” to see the exhibition in which my work was included. It was the hub of the festival, in that portfolio reviews were being held there that day. I knew of several friends who’d be in attendance, and was excited to finally have some fun. We walked in, and noticed the entryway was open to the elements. No doors at all.

Immediately, I bumped into a colleague, who asked if I’d seen my work yet. His voice trailed off at the end of the sentence, so I knew something was awry. “No,” I said, “I’ve just arrived. Is there a problem?” He paused. “Well, the pictures are in the back. Better you see for yourself.”

We headed in that direction, and I quickly stuffed my hands in my pockets. It was even colder in the Chocolate Factory that it was outside: barely above freezing. The place had been abandoned, and reclaimed by Format as an exhibition space. It was filthy, and reminded me of something out of a former Soviet republic. Given that the festival theme was “Factory,” I should add that the choice wasn’t pointless. It makes sense in theory, but was poorly executed. (If the festival took place in Summer, it would have been an entirely different story.)

My pictures were at the very far end of the venue, by the toilets. While the location would normally be considered unappealing, on that day, at least, I knew my work would be seen. People kept heading to the loo to use the electric hand dryer to warm up, because the entire venue had no heat whatsoever.

Photographers were shivering, jumping up and down to stay warm. (Except for one of the festival sponsors, who was dressed in a burly Swedish mackinaw and fur hat. He was toasty, and suggested I not take my treatment personally. They didn’t reply to his emails either, he said, because they’re always so busy.)

I was told that the reviewers were provided with hot water bottles, those rubber things that evoke the 19th Century, and hot coffee as well. The photographers, on the other side of the table, were not. One American photographer told me she hadn’t even bothered to go see her exhibition, elsewhere in town, because she was too worn down by the travel, the elements, and the expensive cab fares.

Another photographer, a friend who was also attending the reviews, ranted about it perfectly: “I’m a f-cking chump. I just spent £200 to sit in a f-cking warehouse freezing my ass off all day. Even people who work in warehouses get minimum wage.” He wrote to me thereafter to stress that he did have some very good experiences in the review meetings, so it balanced out.

Just as I was about to lose my mind and head back to the station to grab the next train South, I saw a friend from Italy, Michele Palazzi. Michele and I, along with his wingman Raphaele, started to crack each other up almost immediately. (Telling jokes about Berlusconi, arguing about who made a better spaghetti carbonara.)Then, Barry Hughes, the publisher of the excellent online magazine Super Massive Black Hole, turned the corner. We’d corresponded on social media, but had not yet met in person. Format brought us all together.

We stood there, the four of us, laughing, beginning to see the humor in the situation. The seratonin flooded back into my brain. This, I thought, is why I really came here. Nothing beats the camaraderie of hanging out with cool people from around the world. Sometimes, a little temporary suffering brings everyone closer together.

From there, too cold to go searching for more exhibitions to see, we headed up the street to the pub. My mood improved, and the strong dark beer helped me get back to myself. For hours, we laughed, talked about photography, and shared stories about our respective communities. If not for the festival, our motley crew would have been spread back around the planet.

To be clear, I’m sure the Format does good things for Derby, providing opportunities for locals to see art and and expand their understanding of the world. Its residents must benefit greatly. In a parallel universe, I had a great day in Derby, visiting the many exhibitions spread all over the city, and came away impressed by what I saw. Just the other day, a colleague wrote on Facebook that he saw lots of great work at Format, and called the city “cool.”

There are many festivals around the world, and countless opportunities to show one’s work. Frankly, I submitted to Format without having done any research, and relied upon some specious assumptions. That’s on me. If you’re reading this in the US, though, I’d probably recommend you start somewhere else on your quest for world domination.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 4 Comments On This Article.

  1. Ha ha, indeed Sam – over inflated ego and humble/honest brit festival will never go well together. I especialy like the complaint about businesses out of business and muscle head teenagers, it really is unacceptable for international artists to have to see this sort of thing – why did the organizers not put more neon up and ban anyone not wearing a neckerchief?

  2. Dear Jonathan

    Firstly I would like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing your work in Format which I personally found most inspiring and in fact voted for its inclusion.
    This Format is an exciting festival and now undoubtably the foremost UK photo festival, against the backdrop of the UK being an environment less than easy to generate enthusiasm towards “Art” photography, but what an admirable job has been done by its small festival team. They have created a platform with limited funds but with great commitment that has to be applauded, they have taken this festival onto an even higher plane with the introduction of the Chocolate Factory. Yes you can pick faults and of course the weather has not been ideal, but through enthusiasm and hard work any limitations both climatic and financial have mostly been overcome.
    Being a photographer is a fairly lonely pursuit, with Format you have a festival that prides itself on being about people and for people, delivering untold possibilities to socialise and connect, which you in your critique you rightly recognise.
    We hope you will visit us once more in two years time, and I personally look forward to the photographs that you produce in the meantime.
    Beeg.

  3. Jonathan Blaustein says:

    “I’d probably recommend you start somewhere else on your quest for world domination.”

    In response, I say:

    “Agreed. FORMAT International Photography Festival isn’t about world domination; it’s about the world meeting up to share, learn and get excited about photography. Long may it continue in that spirit.”