LensCulture’s co-founder and editor-in-chief talks to us about being on a jury panel, getting the best out of a portfolio review and the collaboration with Cortona On The Move, which enters its second year with the New Visions call for entries.
Let’s start from the beginning: the origins of LensCulture. Why did you start the platform and which values were you inspired by?
Photography has always fascinated me, and I’ve grown to believe that photography is perhaps the most common and universal language on the planet. When I started LensCulture in 2004, I was founder and president of a branding company, and we were working with some of the best photographers at that time to create campaigns for our clients. But I was also interested in the many other ways people were using photography for different purposes around the world — in politics, media, propaganda, journalism, personal expression, fine art, and popular culture. So I started an online magazine to give me a platform to start to explore and learn about the various uses of photography. I wanted to discover the people who were doing the most interesting things with photography. At first, it was all about meeting smart people and learning from them. It gave me an excuse to call some of my heroes and say “Hey! I would like to interview you for my online magazine”. That same level of curiosity is what continues to drive us at LensCulture today.
Through your extensive experience as a portfolio reviewer and competition judge, you have earned the reputation of a truly skilled professional in the sector. What do you look for in a photo project? Is there something that makes you think “This could be interesting, let’s look at it” as soon as you see it?
I love the fact that there are so many different kinds of photography and so many different kinds of projects. I like to be surprised and delighted no matter what genre of photography I’m seeing, so it helps when every detail of a project is presented with clarity and intelligence. Of course, the photographs must be excellent — and they must attract the reader’s attention immediately, starting with a strong attention-getting first image. But the other details of the project are vitally important as well as the pictures. The title should be smart and make me want to see more. The introductory text should capture my attention the way a good magazine article does. If there are captions for the photos, each caption should help to move the narrative of the story forward.
When people have given a lot of thought about what they are doing, they present their work in a thoughtful way. So if it’s a group of 10 pictures, every one of those pictures is good and every one of those pictures works well with each of the other ones, so that they become something more than just 10 pictures…It then becomes a body of work that holds its own logic and references. I look for interesting photography but also the way that it is presented. So people who have some fluency in the language of photography usually also have a gift for storytelling: how do you put really good pictures together to make something even bigger and more complex and interesting.
What about the text? How important is it in the narrative of the project?
Good text really helps the audience appreciate and understand what the author is trying to say. Without text, it becomes a guessing game and you risk missing out on a lot of nuance. A good text can direct the viewer to think about things in a very specific way, it gives a context to the story, and captions move the story from one image to the next. Good text can truly help to create and sustain a mood, and convey emotions, and help people to understand a complex idea.
Are there any common mistakes photographers make when showing their work?
Photographers should only show their very best work. It might sound like a cliché, but less is more: if you have eight great photographs and two others that are almost (but not quite) great, keep your edit to the eight great photos, don’t show ten. It is better for the viewer to be amazed at the eight great images — and they will respect your ability to select and edit for excellence. If you show some so-so images, the viewer may think that you don’t know the difference between great and just-okay.
Second, you need to have a verbal “pitch” that either creates a narrative (that is what your story is about), or helps guide the viewer to a sense of discovery or emotion. So, be clear and make sure you give people a context so they can understand the idea you are trying to present. Don’t make your project a mystery or a guessing game.
Is it is really useful for photographers to attend portfolio reviews?
Portfolio reviews can be very helpful, both creatively and professionally. You can make valuable personal contacts during a portfolio review: you are going to meet people who might be able to do something with you and your work (for example, a curator might include your work in an exhibition, or a magazine editor might want to publish your work) and can help you to advance your career.
If your work is in progress, you can get really valuable feedback. That being said, it does not mean that advice is always correct. If you talk with ten people there is quite a good chance that you will get ten completely different points of view. That’s when the photographer has to start to think: “Okay, I will listen to all of this feedback and advice carefully, but in the end, I am the one who makes the final decisions about my own work.”
Documentary photography is likely one of the most radical-evolving genres, both from a visual and a narrative perspective. In light of this and in your opinion, when can we say a documentary project is truly “original”?
Let’s start with what makes a good documentary project: it’s that feeling that you are looking through someone else’s eyes and you are thinking through their mind and you are able to understand the way they think and see.
We have a long history of photography already and it’s not necessarily important to make something completely original. But you do need a voice, you need a point of view and you want to generate some excitement and understanding through your work. I am not so sure there is a new language evolving, but I believe that some artists are developing a more personal approach to telling stories, and that personal approach is what really sets them apart. I look at hundreds of photographs everyday yet I don’t see truly personal storytelling everyday — it’s a big challenge, and an important goal to make your work feel genuine, authentic, real.
What is the peculiarity of New Visions and why should a photographer apply?
I am happy to be on the jury for the New Visions area of Cortona on the Move. Last year I was inspired and impressed by so much of the work; it’s an honour and a privilege to see all that.
For a talented photographer, even the process of submitting work to an open call is good, as it makes you get more clarity about your own project. You have to make a selection, you have to come up with a good short statement about the work, you have to write captions for each image…All that helps achieve a richer project.
When it comes to what makes New Visions special, I’d say it’s a focus on projects that mix strong photography and storytelling, trying to push it beyond where it’s been before. The work we saw last year and certainly the work that we selected felt very fresh and different and alive.
And for me, as editor of LensCulture, I am always eager to discover exciting new work — so, when I’m on the jury for New Visions, I’m always thinking about possibilities for the festival and possibilities for sharing exciting work with the international audience of LensCulture, too.
Think about Cortona On The Move… What is your dearest memory about the festival?
Just one?? Ok, I’ll tell you one. Last year I walked into an exhibition at the old hospital, where Luis Cobelo’s Zurumbático was shown. The space itself already had some particular energy to it. I was struck by how the work was presented: giant wallpaper murals, other smaller photographs in frames on top of the wallpapers, changing scales of the photographs, and very clever juxtapositions… So you had a giant portrait of a man staring at you with blind eyes, and an accordion player, and a picture of a chicken all presented in a magical way that was quite appropriate to the photo project… I thought that I was walking in a parallel universe; I was lost in this crazy world of Zurumbático and that felt wonderful. Art can transform the way you think and feel — and the festival in Cortona creates the right atmosphere to allow that kind of magic to happen again and again.
New Visions aims to discover the best documentary projects worldwide. Selected by Jim among others, the three winners will be exhibited at the eight edition of the festival running from 12 July to 30 September 2018.
Jim Casper is the editor-in-chief of LensCulture, one of the leading online destinations to discover contemporary photography from around the world. As an active member in the contemporary photography world, Casper organizes annual international photography events, travels around the world to meet with photographers and review their portfolios, curates art exhibitions, writes about photography and culture, lectures, conducts workshops, serves as an international juror and nominator for key awards, and is an advisor to arts and education organizations.
Interviewed by kublaiklan