A world divided: Brighton Photo Biennial gets to grips with poverty, protest and politics

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

Brighton's extraordinary Photo Biennial is in its fifth season, and this year it is edgier than ever. With every archive or photographer they select, the curators needle away at the question, what is the point of photography today? What sort of truth can it tell? What function can it have beyond mere wallpaper?

A century ago, these questions were easy to answer. The value of a figure such as Eugène Atget, lugging his tripod and plate camera around the lanes of Montmartre to capture his images of the city, was beyond doubt. Fifty years ago, Don McCullin and Larry Burrows, dodging enemy fire in Vietnam, were doing something whose significance was equally easy to understand. But today? We are saturated with images every conscious moment of our lives. Photography has become ubiquitous and inescapable, and as a result the professional photographer is an endangered species: who needs him when we all carry amazing cameras in our pockets? More to the point, we no longer appreciate what the professionals can do that we can't. The very idea of a beautiful photograph risks losing all meaning.

So what's the point? Which images have value beyond dispute?

Seventeen years ago, three professional photographers approached several dozen children and teenagers sleeping rough in the Brazilian town of Belo Horizonte and offered them "point and click" cameras. "We would supply the cameras, process the films and talk with them about the images and experiences," one of the three recalls. "We simply wanted to make this possible, to see what would happen."

The project, still underway, has had its casualties. "Most of the original 55 participants have died, disappeared or been sent to prison," they say. "Several have died from Aids-related illnesses or been run over by traffic. Some have been killed in fights, or may have been murdered." The professionals are hazy about the identities of the photographers and believe many gave them false names. They are hazy, too, about the fates of the ones who disappear, as the kids are cagey with details. We are left with images that in some cases are all that remain of unknown individuals who have since vanished. Their snaps – whether interesting or boring, emotional or flat – have value beyond doubt, as the only proof that they ever lived.

But what other value can today's photography aspire to?

The theme of this year's Biennial is "the politics of space". We live in an age both k of unique freedom and unique constriction. Technology has given us unprecedented capacities, but it also constrains us, confining us within a digital panopticon, a virtual equivalent of those cunningly designed circular colonial prisons where all the inmates were visible to the authorities all the time. The smartphones in our pockets shackle us ever more firmly to the organs of control. As Bradley Garrett, one of the contributors to the Brighton Biennial, puts it, looking forward a year or two, "drones will dominate the skyline, CCTV cameras will recognise our faces, wirelessly pinging the data from the time-saving Oyster card in our pocket, triangulating our position with the convenient smartphone also in our pocket, a phone built by the same corporations that own our government, the same corporations that are building a new city we have no right to access."

The intrepid photographers of the past brought back strange images from far horizons. But now the whole world has been zoned "commercial", nothing is exotic any more. Everywhere is constrained by the same rules. Where do we go to see those rules put into force? Where can the photographer thrust his lens to shoot what's really going on?

Taking its cue from the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, Brighton this year focuses on the question, "How is public space constructed, controlled and contested?" In a recent talk, the philosopher George Caffentzis said, "The truly subversive intent of the Occupy sites is to transform public space into commons. A public space is ultimately a space owned... by the state. A common space, in contrast, is opened by those who occupy it." The idea of commons – an idea embodied both in the occupation of the London Stock Exchange and the occupation of Tahrir Square – is a rejection of the property principle on which the system controlling our world depends.

You cannot create commons by pointing a lens at something. But the camera can reveal the reverse process: how the commons of a desert, say, is slashed by highways, hijacked for advertising imagery, and progressively walled off for new suburbs or a surreally green golf course. It can witness the spasmodic but inspiring attempts to roll back the tide, from the long tradition of Brighton street protest to the occupiers of "Goldman Sucks". And it can bestow immortality on street kids whose lives meant nothing to practically anyone else while they still lived.

The Brighton Photography Biennial runs from 6 October to 4 November, see bpb.org.uk for further details

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn