changing circumstances

First Published as Fotofest and Me at, May 2016

One of the useful things about being a photographic-based artist is the tradition of producing a portfolio ad showing it in ‘reviews’. This tradition probably stems form Editorial and commercial photography but it has been adapted to the needs of artists and today artists and documentary photographers mix together (quite) happily in any one of a number of ‘portfolio review’ sessions around the world. Often these accompany large festivals, as in the case with Recontre des ArlesPhoto Espana, Fotofest International. Other times it accompanies a festival surrounding a fair, such as Paris Photo, or Photo London.

I heard about Fotofest in 2008 but it was too later to book and anyway, I was just in the middle of a masters and wasn’t sure what I’d show. In 2010 I booked a place but life had other plans and I was forced to sell my place on as IVF got in the way. In 2012 I was pregnant, in 2014 I had a very small toddler. So it was, that I eventually booked a place this year, in 2016, a full eight years since I first thought about it.

Fotofest International is one of the oldest photo biennials in the world. It was founded by Wendy Watriss and Frederick Baldwin who have built the festival up since 1983. The Biennial takes place citywide in Houston with participation from the leading art museums, art galleries, non-profit art spaces, universities and civic spaces.

This year’s theme is CHANGING CIRCUMSTANCES: focusing on the future of the Earth by examining challenges, and by proposing new ideas and solutions.

Fotofest has built up a reputation as a place where photographic artists, arts professionals, collectors, and colleagues network, collaborate, share ideas, and establish life-long connections. The 2016 Meeting Place connects 120 international decision-makers, with over 400 artists, over 16 days. The FotoFest Meeting Place is the largest event of its kind in the world.

It was a big decision to go to Fotofest. Like many artists, I resist opportunities to expose myself to criticism and most of my anxiety about going was focused on the sixteen reviewers I was scheduled to meet. But the minute I walked into the Downtown Doubletree hotel I spotted a scattering of friendly looking sorts with portfolios. I walked up to the second floor suite and realised that this was going to be fine. In all my anxiety I had missed something essential: the other photographers. As soon as I saw the room, filled with other anxious creatives I realised I’d be fine. Because this wasn’t just about showing my work. it was about making friends, making connections and (thanks to Fotofest) a sort of intensive networking programme that was hard not to enjoy….

On day one I had six reviews. Of these, three reviewers asked for more information to be sent to them. one was a gallery, one a web publisher, one a museum curator.I was on a high: the conversations I had with reviewers were of an excellent quality, despite the time restriction of twenty minutes. I knew already that this was to be a worthwhile experience. The next day was the same rate of outcomes: three more reviewers asked me to send them information, images and links.

Both days were so long, stretching far into the night and sleep was merely a punctuation before it all began again. I barely had time to write down my notes after the reviews before I raced out to the evening programme: something I had barely registered when I signed up. After the reviews, we were taken off in a coach.

What I had not expected was how much fun Fotofest was!  On day one we drove for one and a half hours to the sea. I was so disoriented I couldn’t work out where the sea could be, but it turned out to be Galveston on the Mexican Gulf. Here we saw a show and then fell into groups, walking through beautiful waterfront warehouses to find shacks selling seafood and steak.

On the coach I had chatted to Kyle Meyer, a Parsons student studying photography in New York. Together with Cecilia Mezulic, they had come to their first ever review sessions with much trepedation. They were young and passionate and I took an immediate liking to them both. When I eventually got to see their work I was astounded: they were both remarkably talented with unlimited potential. They became my Fotofest buddies along with Jessa  FairbrotherDonna Schwartz and Barbara Karant, Ryan Bush and 
Natasha Caruna. 

Getting ready for the public portfolio review on Thursday night, Jessa Fairbrother gets her stand ready.

Getting ready for the public portfolio review on Thursday night, Jessa Fairbrother gets her stand ready.

The quality of attendants at The Meeting Place reviews was extremely high. Although I am something of a ‘conceptual’ and decorative digital artist, I can appreciate that photographers such as Barbara and also Matjaz Krivic are exceptionally talented, mid career photographers who use Fotofest as a way to take time to think about their practice and check in with museums, curators and publishers.

The age of attendants was also surprising: most attendants were over forty, the mean age was probably 45.

Perhaps it is the calibre and level of experience of attendees explains why the reviewers were so comfortable spending their evenings chatting, travelling to openings and eating and drinking with participants. I have never experienced such a non-hierarchical approach to review sessions but the structure of Fotofest – an intensive four day hothouse approach, gives rise to real friendships and bonding beyond the  bounds of jobs or roles. It is an endurance test, as much for the reviewers as the attendants and by the end of it, we were all congratulating eachother on having survived.

On days three and four I found myself flagging.  Still half of my reviewers were asking for more information and several had concrete ideas of how I should progress. I met with three members of the Houston Centre of Photography. Each told me to apply to their juried exhibition in the summer. One reviewer took the trouble to write her advise down for me in my book “Ann Shafer says reach out to Elizabeth Fairman at Yale Center for British Art…” and so on. The commitment to our potential was amazing; these reviewers want the attendants they meet and like to succeed. Everyone was generous with their ideas, their contacts, their hope.

I had brought with me some slides: old work. These I had shown to nobody, ever. But somehow the format of Fotofest – the fact that over and over you are pitching your ideas, your images…you are forced to try new things. SO on day three I brought out my slides: “here is where I began”. One reviewer saw these and got cross: “Why are these not on your site?” he asked “I needed to see these when I looked at your site!” he insisted. I promised I would stop hiding my old work. I had known for years that I had never allowed anyone to see where my current work began. Now I promised myself: when I go home I will scan my archive. I will stop hiding.

Jubilation on the last day at the Texan barbeque with Jessa Fairbrother and Kyle Meyer

Jubilation on the last day at the Texan barbeque with Jessa Fairbrother and Kyle Meyer

Fotofest is more than a review session, it’s a place to meet and share ideas. It’s a little bubble where Art matters, artists are important and talent wins. It’s not like the rest of the world and for that reason I loved it. It was the antithesis of anything I’d tried before. it’s nurturing, caring and supportive. Doors open for those who are ready and willing. But more importantly, the doors we close on ourselves are propped ajar with possibility: maybe, maybe….?

On the last night we went to three exhibitions, ending at the Houston Centre for Photography where we had the most divine barbeque, washed down with iced tea and a live Blue Grass band. I had to say my goodbyes but I knew that many of these people I would see again.

I came back from Fotofest with a full head and a happy heart. I’m still acting on the advise I was given. I’m scanning my archive, making public finally, 16 years of work that I had kept hidden.

I was contacted within a couple of weeks by Caroline Docwra from Houston Centre for Photography: “don’t forget to apply to our juried competition!” she reminded me. I dutifully applied.

I am still getting back to reviewers, still discovering how significant that experience was. I’m deeply grateful to An for helping me get there and taking the sting out of the cost. Undoubtedly, it will turn out to be a small price for the wealth of contacts and opportunities that are already coming out of it…

I strongly recommend any artist working with photography to consider Fotofest. It is a deeply liberating experience, full of opportunity, hope and love.