BIFB takes (a new) shape

Under the leadership of a new creative director, the seventh Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB), kicking off in August, has adopted an overarching ‘socially progressive’ theme which has guided the event’s curation.

BIFB is a month-long event showcasing great local and international photography in the Victorian regional city, Ballarat. It comes to town every two years.

Fiona Sweet, the new BIFB creative director, is former head of Sweet Creative, a successful brand agency for arts organisations. She has worked with art organisations and human rights groups, and has been a board member for many art committees – and is self-described as a lifelong advocate of the arts.

BIFB in 2017 will differ from the event envisaged and nurtured by its founder, Jeff Moorfoot, who stepped down after the last biennale.

While Sweet’s involvement in the photo community is sparse compared with her predecessor, a background in public relations and experience as an arts event organiser has left BIFB in safe – albeit more politicised – hands.

Moorfoot told the ABC last time ’round the festival has no particular theme and instead celebrates diversity of the craft – ‘we pay respect to all the genres of photography’. And while the seventh program will again pay respect to all genres, through its curated Core Program and the egalitarian Fringe Program, the newly-adopted theme – ‘performance of identity’ – has given the Core Program a political edge.

There will be an emphasis on the role photography plays among groups and individuals engaged in various causes.

ProCounter spoke with Fiona Sweet about BIFB 2017.

Fiona Sweet.

What can we expect from BIFB this year? What’s the program looking like?
BIFB 2017 is incredibly exciting. We have eight core exhibitions with headline exhibition, David LaChapelle, at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. This is his first time exhibiting in Australia and we are all very chuffed to bring him to Ballarat. We also have an incredibly engaging exhibition, Tell, with 16 indigenous artists curated by indigenous curator, Jessica Clark. Jessica has been chosen as an emerging curator for the Australia Council for the Arts and is currently at the Venice Biennale for the Arts Professional Development Program 2017.

We have a fashion exhibition with four very exciting artists in our show, Reverie/Revelry, which I will announce very soon and our inaugural $15,000 acquisitive Martin Kantor Portrait prize, supported by the Dara Foundation. Portraits for the prize are to be of a significant Australian and we have received some fabulous portraits so far, if readers are quick there is still time to put in their submission. Other core exhibitions include an astronomical exhibition at the Ballarat Observatory and an exhibition at the Ballarat Synagogue, Australia’s oldest synagogue. Others will be revealed in our program launch which is in mid June.

As well as the core exhibitions, we have more than 70 fringe exhibitions dotted around central Ballarat and I am very impressed with the incredible talent on show. I expect a typical visit to the Biennale would be at least two days to manage a good smattering of all that’s on offer. Additionally, we have portfolio reviews with international and national experts for three different groups – artists, students and commercial photographers – and there are workshops, talks and a book fair sponsored by Momento. Keep an eye on our website as we release more details!

What are some of the new initiatives or directions BIFB has taken with you as the director of the festival?
Photography is such an accessible art and we have planned for this Biennale to have a breadth of exhibitions to appeal to a wide market. Our program will appeal to celebrity and fashion lovers, serious documentary viewers, LGBTIQI markets, sports lovers and many others. We are also engaging with the community at all levels with exhibitions and workshops as well as introducing entertainment into the program for the first time. For example the Colour Ball at the Mining Exchange and Deborah Conway singing at the local synagogue. For the first time we are also exhibiting astronomy photography at the Ballarat Observatory.

ProCounter’s audience is mostly professional photographers, and this year there’s portfolio reviews for professionals. I’m sure they’d be interested to know more?
On Monday August 21 we are very excited to offer professional photographers a chance to have their portfolio reviewed by respected industry experts like David Ponce de Leon, executive creative director at Ogilvy; Wendy Mace from Cummins and Partners; Narelle Brewer, art director at Studio Round; as well as renowned creative advisors and many more.

It is aimed to give practical advice for professional photographers on how to build their portfolio to help pitch for a new job. The design of this portfolio review comes out of research with commercial and professional photographers who are finding it increasingly difficult to meet the decision makers who commission photographers. This is the first of many planned programs specifically for commercial and professional photographers.

Click here for a list of portfolio reviewers.

We are also finalising our workshops for the Biennale and I am thrilled with the programming for these workshops, which are a great blend of skill-based workshops, a return to traditional techniques of pre-digital photography, and a very interesting workshop sponsored by Specular on archival photographic practice.

Michael Jackson in ‘American Jesus: Hold me, carry me boldly’, Hawaii, 2009. Photo: David LaChapelle. Source: Supplied.

Jeff Moorfoot told me BIFB runs on a fairly tight budget, with a handful of staff and a whole bunch of volunteers. It sounded like a real challenge to bring it all together. How are things going behind the scenes?
Behind the scenes, yes there is still a fairly tight budget but we have support from Government, at all levels, philanthropic trusts and private sponsors. It has been a major part of my role as director to secure funding for this Biennale and also to secure the future for the 2019 Ballarat International Foto Biennale – and beyond.

The theme is ‘performance of identity’, can you explain the meaning of this?
Our theme of ‘performance of identity’ gives the opportunity for the artists to express how the composite layers of their identity have been moulded and informed by the environment around them. For example, exhibitions such as Zenelle Muholi’s of LGBTIQ individuals in South Africa, as well as the 16 indigenous artists like Bindi Cole Chocka exploring their story in the Tell exhibition.

We have partnered with Pinarc Disability Services for people with a disability to express their identity through photography and also with the local Rebels football team to explore how their team and community inform their identity. We even have a light-hearted selfie exhibition where people can upload a selfie through our Foto Biennale app to be displayed during the festival.

David LaChapelle is big act to headline, although it’s rare for exhibitions to be ticketed – is a ticketed event a first for BIFB?
Yes for BIFB it is a first. However, we would argue that it is becoming rarer for headline exhibitions not to be ticketed. Ticketing acknowledges the huge expense in putting on major exhibitions, including costs such as artist fees. BIFB has a very strong ethos that artists should be paid for their work and we hope to influence other events to do the same. If we compare artistic and sporting endeavour we see a great disparity in what we are willing to pay to be entertained. I am not trying to pitch art against sport – we love sport – we go to a football match and spend $25 or more for an entry ticket and think we have got value for money. We see events such as BIFB having an equal and important social and cultural impact for our community, and for $18 for an adult ticket we think this represents great value. Visitors to BIFB also have the added bonus of free entry to all other core and fringe exhibitions.

Click here for tickets.

Documentary photography will explore locations and cultures by local photographers, rather than an observation from an outsider. What motivated this choice?
I was really motivated to find photographers who photographed their own region because it means they are completely immersed in the social and cultural issues that has impacted the formation of their own identity. This harkens back to our theme.

The festival appears to cater toward a narrative from left-wing political agenda, was this a deliberate decision? Will there be something for everyone?
Photography has always had the ability to tell an important story or simply expose the viewer to exquisite beauty and in some instances, exquisite pain. The medium records a moment where time stands still and those attracted to telling a story through photography ask the audience to open their minds to the story being told, whether that be from a left-wing stance or not. I think we have a great balance in our program from terrific fun and whimsy to thought-provoking social commentary.

– The Ballarat International Foto Biennale will run from August 19 – September 17.

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