In conversation with UPF’s Creative Director Paul Halliday

UrbanPhotoFest 2016 started today. We got there and sat down with Creative Director Paul Halliday to get his thoughts on setting up the world’s first urban photography festival, the multidisciplinary nature of urbanism and the global network he is establishing.

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To anyone who is unfamiliar with UrbanPhotoFest, what’s it about?
UrbanPhotoFest is an international event that was set up to explore the nature of contemporary urban photography, in relation to urban research and urban studies. It’s a multi-layered event, in the sense that we have an annual conference running in collaboration with Tate. We also have an artist’s keynote this year and exhibitions, seminars, workshops and walks. We’ve always traditionally had a couple of exhibitions, but this year we’ve established the Urban Photo Village — ten exhibitions within walking distance of each other in New Cross, Deptford and Greenwich. The response from people has been incredible.

What’s your background?
I originally trained in photojournalism and fine art film at LCC, Central Saint Martins. Then, I went on to study social anthropology at Goldsmiths, and art history and archeology at Oxford and Cambridge. It’s a mixture of hands-on training with fairly hardcore training in urbanism. Everything I’ve studied, whether anthropology or archeology or art history has been connected to thinking about the city, people, objects, buildings and art practices. I was also a documentary filmmaker for Channel 4. For the last 15 years I’ve been running the MA at Goldsmiths in photography and urban cultures.

You’ve also done some interesting projects, i.e. a 20 year project on London’s streets…
…Yes, that’s done now — it was done about 10 years ago. I was given a sabbatical last year so the aim is to get that out. The other thing is it’s sort of developed into some other projects. The original London work was in black and white. I’ve been working in colour with large format cameras as well. I gave a talk at the ICA on this latest project, which is called Democracy Wall — it’s about the nature of democracy within urban spaces. It’s about urban change and how voice isn’t achieved at local and regional levels. I’m really interested in what happens when people take to the streets when they campaign, demonstrate or make their presence known. I’m interested in how that sense of noise translates across to photography as well. That project is visually done — it’s not just about London, but a number of cities around southern England. We launched it at the ICA a couple of weeks ago — some of that work is going to be Urban Photographers Association show, which is part of the overall festival.

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What’s the central principle of urban photography?
It’s an interesting thing because the kind of definitions we work with within UPA is that we see it as being a multi-genre constellation of practices. We’re less concerned with it being one particular thing, and we’re more concerned with it being a number of areas of practice that have an ongoing and very lively conversation. The beauty of urban photography is you’ve got architectural photographers, landscape photographers, portraitists, street-based photographers, fine-art and documentary photographers. They work with a different range of practices. It’s very different to the way in which a more traditional, for instance, street photography might see itself. There’s an ongoing conversation now. It’s difficult actually with street photography because it’s contested — a lot of different people want to impose their definition of what it is. Whereas, right from the get go urban photography has been very open-minded and inclusive. If there’s an urban photography event it will be quite normal for a fine art photographer to be doing work with a documentary photographer. It’s wonderful. It’s a very liberating practice, and it’s partly because urbanism is interdisciplinary. If you’re looking at the city most urbanists are interested in a multiplicity of vision. They’re interested in how an architectural historian or anthropologist or sociologist would look at a city or that space. It’s quite normal for there to be different knowledge traditions to have these conversations. Often, within the more closed down confines of, for instance, street photography there’s a lot of resistance to that. People get really invested in the particularity perspective, which is ‘this is how it’s supposed to be done and this is the traditional way to do it’. Anything that is outside of that paradigm is considered useless.

How do you think urban photography has changed over the years? Has it always been liberating?
I think it’s true to say that what we’ve been doing at Goldsmiths is absolutely essential to that. What’s come out of the MA programme, but also what’s come out the department generally has sort of defined what contemporary urban photography is. The Tate conference is the longest running conference in the world. It’s the first urban photography festival in the world. It’s come from the first degree in urban photography in the world. There are now 300 of our graduates who are out teaching photography. Some of them are very influential and important players now in the world of art. It’s changed in the sense that the people who are training in urban photography take these things seriously. They take knowledge seriously. The difference that seems to be happening within street photography is it’s about following this misguided idea that you just get rid of all thought and you just follow intuition. Whereas, an urban photographer when they step onto the street they’re asking questions about the urban landscape, planning, regeneration, gentrification, power, relationships that people have on the street, cultural history, globalisation — these are all things that feed into the way in which they make sense of the visual practice and visual search. What we like to think is that urban photographers are actually intellectually engaged.

Perhaps this applies more to street photography. How does a photographer stay relevant in a field that’s been so vastly covered? How does someone avoid repeating what’s already been done?
Well, this is the problem isn’t it. If you think about traditional street photography that’s the whole point. What it does is repeat itself, so I kind of think of traditional street photography as a form of institutional ground-hog day — people just go out with their rangefinder cameras and bang out the same old stuff over and over again. It’s a very strange phenomenon to see now because you see herds of street photographers wandering around and you can see they’ve taken on this idea of switch your brain off. They’re not really analysing, but they’re looking for images that have already been made, so it becomes a self-referential practice. This is the problem with the idea of street photography masters, I’m what you would describe as someone that’s very well established in my practice, but I would struggle with the idea of there being a master of the street simply because the street is never mastered. Anything can happen in the street and many things you can’t anticipate. You can’t legislate. A lot of what you have to do with working on the street is very much about being aware and actually trying to think about the street differently, so when I made the early work around the London project there just weren’t street photographers on the street — there were maybe three or four people working on the street —and now there are hundreds.

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This year’s theme at UFP is Photography, Memory and Archive. What expectations do you have with that and how do you think people will interpret it?
This year there are quite a few events on, so some people will be coming to the conference and some people will be going to the Tate. Hopefully, people will be coming along to the exhibitions as well. I’d like to think that people really engage with it at different levels in terms of thinking about how photography contributes towards an archive, whether it’s a personal archive or formal archive where you’re getting work into the local museum. I’d like to think people will start to think about how the personal becomes the historic as well. We’re working with The Guardian as well on encouraging people to upload their personal images.

How do you decide what institutions to collaborate with? How do you go about your curation?
There’s a long-standing collaboration with the Tate. You’ve got what I would call very forward-looking curators. Many of them are interested in urbanism anyway. It’s a very important scene for art history and architecture and people who are involved in cultural history. We look carefully at what people are doing and what their backgrounds are. What we try to do is build up a collaboration with people over time, so most of the people we collaborate with we’ve been collaborating with for years and they seem to come back with other ideas. We are very much an organisation that likes to work with people, although there is a core who are connected to urban studies and urban research. Then, we have partners who are literally coming from all over the world. We’re looking to do a large event in Bogota and Shanghai and Berlin.We collaborated on an event in Paris this year, which is very successful. What we try to do is have networks, and they seem to be made up of people who are mixing visual practice with urban theory. We tend not to think in the short-term, once it works with partners we tend to keep the dialogue.

Lastly, what lies ahead in the next year or two?
Next year is our 10th anniversary with Tate — we’re going to be doing a big splash event with them, so there’s going to be a lot of work coming out of that. The focus is going to be on cartographies, so it’s really looking at mapping urban spaces. We have a very big urban photographer who is coming in to keynote for that. There’s a whole bunch of well-known international academics coming in as well. We’re expanding the village, and we’ve got people flying in this year to see how we’re running it. We even started planning for 2018 as well, which is likely to be in Columbia. We’ll be seeing UrbanPhotoFest events around the world. We’ve got some amazing partners in some incredible cities. As a field of practice I think it’s one of those fields that is directly connected to centres for urban studies and Goldsmiths is one of the most renowned centres for that.

To book the November 5+6 photography weekend Masterclass with Dario Mitidieri or for more information on UrbanPhotoFest click here