A new festival aiming to make us see photography differently is coming to Oxford this autumn. Hannah Hiles finds out more.

Photography Festival

By Hannah Hiles (Lady Margaret Hall, 1997)

How can charities move us to give when we are so used to seeing pictures of starving children? Are we more interested in recording experiences than living them? And in the end, what is the point of photography?

Organisers of a major international photography festival taking place in Oxford this autumn hope to explore all these questions and more with an ambitious programme of exhibitions, talks, debates, workshops, films and competitions. More than 100,000 visitors are expected to flock to the three-week Photography Oxford Festival to be challenged, moved and inspired by the ideas and artwork on display.

Photographers from the United States, Germany, New Zealand, France, Finland, Egypt, Italy and the United Kingdom will be showing work from all genres in more than 20 venues across the city. A number of colleges will be involved, including Lady Margaret Hall, Magdalen and Wadham, as well as Oxford institutions like the Phoenix Picturehouse, Pitt Rivers Museum and the Old Fire Station.

The theme — “What good is photography?” — permeates the festival as if running through a stick of rock, but audiences shouldn’t expect to be handed the answer on a plate. Festival director Robin Laurance – an acclaimed photojournalist in his own right – wants visitors to come to their own conclusion about the value of photography as an art form and the importance of its place in society.

“I hope that the festival will stimulate real intellectual debate,” he said. “Camera phones and other devices have democratised photography. However, there’s a danger that we are starting to think it is just about communication and sending selfies to friends, and we are losing sight of it as an art form. Photography is moving ahead so fast without any real consideration of its importance.”

Talks include the role of photography in the Northern Ireland peace process – the high-powered panel features Lord Trimble and former permanent secretary Sir Jonathan Phillips, now Warden of Keble – and the BBC’s science and environment editor David Shukman will chair a debate on how photography can focus our attention on climate change.

The festival, which will be opened by Ed Vaizey (Merton, 1986), Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, has been very deliberately located in Oxford. Photography pioneer Henry Fox-Talbot took many early pictures in the city, so “it seemed right to bring photography back to the place where it kicked off”.

“I personally wanted to make the best photography available in the regions,” said Robin. “I wanted to bring it out of London. Oxford has some wonderful venues so we can stage exhibitions in some fantastic buildings. It’s an attractive and walkable city, which makes it ideal for a visual arts festival, and it’s easy to get to from places like Birmingham, Bristol, Bath, Winchester and London.”

The festival’s team is made up of photographers, curators, academics and journalists, including lecturer and former magazine picture editor Colin Jacobson (Worcester, 1960). They’re working hard to create a festival with something for everyone and plan to hold one every two years, with occasional talks and exhibitions in between.

But for now, they are focused on bringing some of the world’s best photography to as many people as possible this autumn. “It’s going to be hugely entertaining, challenging and emotional,” said Robin, who moved to Oxford 10 years ago. “That’s what photography is good at – pulling the heart strings.”

The Photography Oxford Festival will take place in venues across the city from September 14 to October 5. The team would be interested to hear from anyone would like to support the festival financially or as a volunteer.  For more information, visit its website.

Top image: Permagorye 27th August 2009. © Richard Davies. All rights reserved.