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(Fragment.) Marcelo Brodsky, Paris, 1968. 1968 series: The Fire of Ideas. ©the artist, Henrique Faria Fine Art & Rolf Art Gallery

50 minus 1! 0

The Identity Equation of the Les Rencontres d’Arles Festival

Asnāte Sīmane

During the first week of July – the opening week of the festival – for the 49th time the small but historically rich Provençal city of Arles experienced a real ‘vibration’: 18000 people came together in order to ‘celebrate’ photography. You read that correctly – even though the festival was not yet a full-fledged 50th anniversary, ‘celebration’ is the word that would best describe the first event-packed week of Les Rencontres d’Arles.

Arles itself is a place that appears to contain all of the most important ‘ingredients for happiness’ – while here, you want to smile, eat a slow and satisfying lunch, and enjoy a chilled rosé. And since 1970, during the summer months (this year, from July 2 to September 23), this wonderful town is also the most important place for everyone either involved in or appreciative of the photography world – for a whole three months, the city manages to perform the almost acrobatic feat of displaying and exhibiting in the most unusual venues the works of both internationally notable and just-emerging photographers.

This assemblage of conducive factors, as well as the festival’s administrative team’s persevering determination to set, and then achieve, ever higher artistic goals, is the most probable reason for the yearly increase in visitor numbers. An especially large rise has been seen over the last three years – about 35%. In 2017, approximately 125 000 people from all over the world came to Les Rencontres d’Arles.

The following events, locations and projects are good indicators of the festival’s identity and reasons for success.

The festival’s themes

Raymond Depardon, Sioux City, Iowa, 1968. Courtesy of Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos.

Every year the festival provides several contextual themes as guidelines for that year. Each theme has a number of exhibitions that pertain to it and which are either directly or indirectly linked with one another. The thematic subjects are both broad and specific enough to speak to diverse audiences, and the exhibitions delve into the subject matter to a satisfyingly sufficient degree.

Many of the themes have both truly ‘artistically ambitious’ exhibitions and shows that contain elements of humour or are entertaining in nature.

This year’s themes are:

America Great Again !
Run comrade, the Old World is behind you (with several exhibitions covering the events of 1968)

Augmented Humanity
The World as it is
Platforms of the visible
Stylistic figures
New Discovery Award


William Wegman, Casual, 2002. Courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater Gallery

See the festival’s complete programme here.

Ever since Sam Stourdzé has been the festival’s director (from 2014), a second important feature of the yearly themes is that there is always at least one exhibition, if not more, directly linked to Arles, the surrounding area, and its inhabitants – sincere validation that the festival belongs to this place and region.

This year, for instance, one of the exhibitions features the portraits of people serving time in the Arles penitentiary. The exhibition is displayed in two venues: in the prison itself, where all of the inmates can see it (as well as visitor groups who have made an appointment in advance and have gone through a security screening); and at one of the festival’s central exhibition venues – Croisière. Titled The Right to the Image, by photographer Christophe Loiseau, the exhibition located in the prison building also involves the subjects of the portraits – they have been given the opportunity to speak to the exhibition’s visitors about their experiences while creating the project.

Big names in the photography world are also always exhibited (Robert Frank and Raymond Depardon are just two of this year’s ‘star’ lineup), but just as big a focus is placed on new and emerging photographers whose works compete for both the public’s and the judges’ recognition in exhibitions such as that for the New Discovery Award.

Festival venues

Photo: Ana Lefaux

Although Arles is not a large city, every year Les Rencontres d’Arles uses venues that even the city’s long-term inhabitants may have been unaware of. Exhibitions are held in places of historical and cultural significance such as former churches, as well as industrial parks and buildings that had long been neglected or abandoned up to that point. The transformation and ‘rebirth’ of these places is remarkable. They may not always be ideally suited for exhibitions and are certainly incomparable to the standards set by classical galleries and museums, but Les Rencontres d’Arles offers something even better – the element of surprise.

Photo: Ana Lefaux

This year’s ‘surprise’ is the exhibitions located in the second-storey storage spaces of a MONOPRIX, a French grocery/department store chain in France. Situated not far from the Arles train station, the building itself starkly stands apart from the older part of the city and is listed as an important landmark of 20th-century architecture. It is quite the adventure to first have to go through the clothing department crammed full of seasonal mark-downs before entering a photography exhibition!

The winner of this year’s relatively new Madame Figaro Award (which the top-notch panel of judges awards to a female photographer, and just given out for the third time ever) was announced at the Arles Roman Theatre by the jury’s chair, Marion Cotillard, who explained that the MONOPRIX exhibition’s panel of judges deliberated in the produce department because that was the coolest spot in the building.

Festival projects

Photo: Romain Protin

Undeniably, Les Rencontres d’Arles is an event that brings the greatest of artists to Arles and offers the most unique projects. This year’s special highlight is a bamboo ‘castle’ designed by the Colombian architect Simon Vélez, and which contains photographs by the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. Both the venue and the exhibition are titled Contemplation, and I must admit that upon entering this castle of reflection, one really is overcome by a sense of peace and harmony.

Photo: Ana Lefaux

The temporary structure is located on the bank of the river Rhône, lying across from the city’s older and main part. On the scale of Arles, this is relatively ‘far’ from the city centre (although nothing is really far way in Arles since everywhere can be reached by foot), and accordingly, a rather brave choice in terms of taking over yet another part of the city and making festival-goers cross the city bridge, thereby giving them the chance to see the city from another viewpoint.

Photo: Ana Lefaux

This particular project is a good example of how, over the last few years, the festival’s executive team has taken upon itself to position photography next to other art forms and even draw parallels with them, e.g. with contemporary literature (the evening programme Photography and Literature) and virtual reality (the VR Arles Festival, in its third year now), as well as collaborating with other notable art institutions (Palais de Tokyo and the Paris Opera). For example, the Contemplation building and exhibition bring together photography and architecture, of course.

As part of the Contemplation project, evenings of ‘conversations, performances and projections’ will take place at the Arles Roman Theatre on July 28 and 29. Taking the audience on this spiritual journey/meditation will be Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires, playing preludes and fugues by Bach, in dialogue with readings done by the exhibition’s featured artist, Matthieu Ricard.  

The festival’s atmosphere

Photo: Romain Protin

Les Rencontres d’Arles is not only exhibitions. It is places, happenings, and people, and above all of them, the festival’s unique atmosphere rules. It is the enjoyment of art while on holiday – not within the four white walls of a museum, but throughout a whole city in the bloom of summer; not deadly serious and heavy, but light and joyful; not with a goal of seeing as much as possible, but with the goal of enjoying at one’s leisure.

One often hears of Provence’s famous festivals (Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Arles) referred to as ‘holiday’ or ‘nature’ art trips. And truth be told, no matter how wonderful or exceptional Paris may be, the modestly sized Arles can produce a surprise-filled journey into the world of photography while also relaxing one’s mind/body and savouring the carefree joy that can be had only in Provence. It cannot be put into words – you must experience it yourself.

The place that best exemplifies this unique festival atmosphere is Croisière. For the second year now it has become the festival’s de facto centre. Several of the festival’s exhibitions are located here, not to mention the fact that you can: browse the summer bookshop Actes Sud, buy a vinyl record at the pop-up booth PIAS, have your picture taken in a traditional Arles photo booth, enjoy a summery lunch at the stylish festival restaurant Chiringuito, or simply take a siesta in one of the grass club chairs set up by one of the festival’s partners, the Swiss firm 99. You should definitely not miss it!

Festival nights

Photo: Romain Protin

During opening week, the whole festival ‘organism’ pulsates – it lives and works for seven days and nights straight. The week is truly overflowing with events both during the day (exhibition openings, public discussions, conferences, art book signings, etc.) and night.

Photo: Romain Protin

If its a celebration, as I mentioned at the very beginning of this article, then there must be parties, too. The very first party takes place on Monday – opening night. It is held in a different place every year, with lights, sounds and food trucks enlivening a new part of the city (this year it took place next to the bamboo structure Contemplation). These moments are the best embodiment of the festival’s name (Les Recontres d’Arles = Arles’ meetings), as famous photographers dance and relax side by side with the regular citizens of Arles, bringing together the festival’s main characters, their audience, and even those who don’t go to any other festival events. It’s a magical night that takes place in a new and magical place every year !

*The festival’s app

A new feature of this year’s festival is the Les Rencontres d’Arles mobile app. It compiles all of the festival’s important and helpful information: the festival’s programme, locations, and online ticket purchasing. You can create your own exhibition-visiting itinerary – it’s like an interactive city map in your pocket.

Make sure to purchase your tickets to festival exhibitions online – the prices available on the website/app are much cheaper than buying them at the door.