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A visitor looks at photographs by Japanese artist Ninagawa Mika as part of the exhibition "I'm so happy you are here" on the opening day of "Les Rencontres d'Arles" photography festival in Arles.
A visitor looks at photographs by Japanese artist Ninagawa Mika as part of the exhibition "I'm so happy you are here" on the opening day of "Les Rencontres d'Arles" photography festival in Arles.

France’s renowned Arles photo fest goes ‘beneath the surface’

One of the world’s most renowned photo festivals, in the French town of Arles, returned this week with a timely ode to diversity at a moment when France is turning towards the far right. The Rencontres festival, which runs until September 29, is spread across 27 venues in the ancient cobbled streets of this former Roman town in Provence and has been running since 1970. This year’s theme is “Beneath the Surface”, seeking to delve into diversity without the usual caricatures around minorities. The star exhibition is a world-first retrospective for US portrait artist Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015), who worked for magazines like Life and Rolling Stone.

One of her celebrated images features an Icelandic child resting on the neck of a horse that focuses attention away from the boy’s disability. Mark “devoted a lot of time and attention to her protagonists, in a few cases returning to photograph them again and again over the course of many years, forging close relationships with many,” said co-curator Sophia Greiff.

An example is Tiny, whom Mark followed from her years on the street falling into drug use, to tender moments with her children. “What I’m trying to do is make photographs that are universally understood... that cross cultural lines,” Mark once said. Elsewhere at the festival, Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel presents documentary and dreamlike work about migrants travelling from Mexico to the US.

She ignores the usual tropes around migration, presenting the crossing as a heroic epic of courageous men and women heading towards a new life. By mixing documentary images with staged and poetic photos, “it gives each person back their personality and restores a level of humanity in their representation,” said festival director Christoph Wiesner. He said the message was particularly vital given the rise of the far right in France, which is currently leading in legislative elections. “Just because the situation is complex, we cannot just give up,” said Wiesner, highlighting the festival’s regular work on issues around feminism and anti-racism, including presentations in local schools.

Other exhibitions this year include “I’m So Happy You’re Here”, featuring the work of 20 Japanese female photographers. Another invites visitors into the “baroque of everyday life” in the Indian state of Punjab with shots of bizarre roof sculptures that locals have brought back after working abroad, including footballs, tanks, planes and lions. French artist Sophie Calle presents her images alongside responses from blind people about their understanding of visual beauty. “Green is beautiful, because every time I like something I’m told it’s green,” reads one caption alongside a shot of vivid grass. —AFP

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