Caption (image above): untitled, Sofia Silva.

From time to time I go back to this issue. It’s inevitable. With no surprise, the modern art world (at least what is made visible) has always been contaminated by the capitalist relationships that structure our societal living. This month, I came across some events, news and debates about specific situations  – happening within the field of photography  – that made me wonder about the way artists keep feeding their own precarious working conditions. Everyone plays a part, so it’s everyone’s responsibility to promote change, be radical and say No!

Ci.CLO is a portuguese platform for photography, based in Oporto. In their website, they describe themselves as “an independent organization focusing photography and its interaction with other artistic, environmental and social platforms. Ci.CLO provides a forum for testing and experimentation, and is committed to creativity through artistic residencies, workshops, seminars, publishing books, staging exhibitions with curatorial support, dissemination and debate.” They recently launched an open call for a project called Sustentar, offering 6 grants to 6 artists. Although I’m not interested in participating in this sort of projects, the theme appealed to my latest experimentation with more sustainable ways of creating photographic works and that lead me to read their open call in detail: they partnered with different enterprises in order “to support the production of a series of projects that focus on experimental initiatives currently being implemented in Portugal that respond to the ecological and social challenges we now face.” The artists selected will be working throughout the year (from March to September) and will participate in two workshops, two residencies and be provided mentoring. The process will end with a travelling exhibition.

I don’t doubt Ci.CLO will receive a lot of applications. When I saw the grant value I though there must have been a mistake, but of course the only thing wrong here is me. They will award each artist 800€ to produce the work and add 100€ for travelling expenses. Furthermore, they will pay half the grant in May and the rest (the remaining 400€) in September, when the artists deliver the work for exhibition. Given this ridiculous value, I’m assuming that Ci-CLO will then cover all costs regarding printing, framing and displaying, but the regulation isn’t clear about that. It does state that the artists keep ownership of the works exhibited, which will be on loan to Ci-CLO for two years. It’s confusing. The regulation is also unclear about circumstances regarding the sale of the artworks. Anyway, given the facts at hand, let’s just assume that 800€ is the stipend given to the artist working from March to September, so about 130€ per month.

I don’t doubt Ci.CLO will receive a lot of applications and the exhibition will be a success, but that’s exactly the problem. Why are artists working under such conditions? Why not employ 6 artists, with a decent paycheck, to work with these enterprises? Why profit from cheap artist work? I’m sure some artists will be glad to do this. They’ll see it as an opportunity: the workshops, the residencies, the mentoring, the exhibition… in sum, to further their experience, to learn and share and make their work visible. I’m sure some artists will see this as an opportunity to collaborate with different institutions and people, to challenge themselves and “promote change”. However, having an historical consciousness would do us all good.

Isn’t it ironic that a project called Sustentar (to sustain) ends up promoting the sort of business relations that led us all here, to a non-sustainable way of living? See, I suffer from a mild case of historical consciousness and I wonder how do people with acute historical consciousness manage their daily living. Is it even possible? What can one do with 130€ for month? Eat? 

From time to time, Brad Feuerhelm‘s facebook page turns into a forum about artists’ working conditions. It happened again this month regarding Unseen Amsterdam. The history goes way back, but I’ll sum it up. As it turns out, Unseen has been managing their “artistic platform” by abusing the artists that make it possible. Because artist Felicity Hammond called them on their bullshit, publishing an open letter, the issue came out and revived a debate that is fairly common in the art space, namely the corrupt business relationships between promoters and artists. In the aforementioned letter, Hammond tells about the work left unpaid and states:

You are not helping artists. You are merely using the language of support. Your brand adopts the rhetoric of the foundation whilst propping up commercial entities who do not have the best interests of artists at heart. This is deceitful. Unseen as a project has failed, and the only appropriate course of action is to cease operation.

Because of one individual’s attitude, this particular situation reached a good outcome. Unseen has recently changed directors and the people now in charge – Fons Hof and Johan de Bruijn – responded to Hammond’s complaint and committed to paying all of the artists who Unseen had previously treated in a similar manner, stating the following: 

This Saturday we received a list of 26 outstanding artist payments owed by the bankrupt entities. We herewith offer to take over these 26 claims of the artists to the bankrupt estate. This means we are going to pay you in full out of our own resources – and then we will try to collect whatever of your claims can be paid out of the bankrupt estate for ourselves.

Naturally, I imagine I was one of many who, after reading these two letters, wondered why wasn’t this situation made public before. Why don’t artists speak out more often? We know the answer is complex, but I have little respect for one of the arguments usually evoked, namely: that artists, by speaking out, risk their reputation. Again, it’s about historical consciousness an respect for colleagues: if we want better working conditions, there’s no other option then exposing those who promote corrupt business relationships, in order to prevent history from repeating itself. 

In the context of this letter exchange, Feuerhelm started a debate about the way portfolio reviewers get payed, in the context of art events – festivals, fairs, competitions, etc. It landed on America Suburb X, as a letter that BF himself wrote as a response to a recent invitation to participate in a portfolio review in Europe. He chose not to name the institution in question (arguing it’s not his intention to promote “shame culture”), but I’d say the act of exposing those who perpetuate undignified working relationships should be made public. As I was reading the debate that first started in his fb page, again I kept wondering why did the portfolio reviewers participating in the debate agreed to, at some point, do that work for free, in exchange for a stipend for travel and accommodation (for instances). I confess I had no clue about this reality. It sounds unreal to do that work for free. It’s understandable though: that job was an opportunity to travel and meet different places, but as Feuerhelm now acknowledges, that is not the right way to go about it and, I’ll add, it again betrays our historical consciousness and the respect we should all have for those who fought and still do for better working conditions. BF does put a name to the problem:

If your festival cannot cover an honorarium at the least for a professional to do your portfolio reviews, then the festival should consider either charging for the reviews to pay the professional or abandoning them altogether. My feeling is that “free labor” is part of the problem with our culture-specific jobs. We are expected to do these things “for the good” and to pretend that nobody else is benefiting from our unpaid labor within the hierarchy of such an event. This is unfair at best and if I am frank, I think it lacks ethical considerations. For example, though you may be giving reviewees free entrance to the reviews through application or other (if you are not charging) means, these acts still work in the interest of the festival and in the eyes of the public and grant-providing governmental agencies/sponsors who will look over annual reports for your festival to see the inclusion/visibility of public service as part of the overall good will of said festival. This means that the agency may release grant money, which is used to support the festival and the staff who work tirelessly to promote it all year round based on these results. This at its very base suggests that someone is being paid, but not the professionals whom you have enlisted to add value to your festival through their reviews and years of paid for professional experience. 

Because of this debate about portfolio reviews, I was reminded of the most well known Portuguese Photo-Festival, namely: Encontros da Imagem de Braga and I’ll mention it now in order to illustrate one particular problem that I would like to add to the context of portfolio readings and the culture they’re promoting. I participated in this festival’s portfolio review back in 2008 or 2009. I can’t recall exactly, but I think I payed 20€ to apply. It was the first and only time I payed for an application, so I learned my lesson. I spent the day in Braga, got to show my work to some reviewers and received some feedback. There was nothing memorable from the reviewing itself and the only thing that made it really worth it was the time spent with those who were there under the same circumstances. We engaged in good conversations, got to dinner and drinks and it was a fun night. I met some great people there who I still keep in contact with.

In recent years, in my job as a teacher, I’ve been receiving the festival’s press releases to promote near students. Regarding their calling for 2019 Emergentes – International Photography Award, which is both a competition and a portfolio review, it grabbed my attention the amount of money being asked for each application: 100€ or 120€ (I can’t find the regulation anywhere to confirm it). In BF aforementioned letter, he suggests the reviewee should pay the reviewer, in order to avoid unpaid work – either charging for the reviews to pay the professional or abandoning them altogether – but as the rest of his letter suggests, there are other ways to go around it, for most of these festivals have several funding sources. What I’d like to add is that asking for an entree fee of 100€ immediately discriminates against authors with lower incomes and that not only shows in the kind of work presented (where quality is already being subjected to a discriminating factor) but also promotes an elitist environment, which in itself is already ultra-prevailing in photography. In Encontros da Imagem de Braga, there was a winner from the portfolio reviews section, awarded 5000€ and I have no clue if the festival pays its reviewers. Surely hope it does. 

Last, but not least, the latest episode from the Sony World Photography Awards‘ saga and everything that comes with it. So this year the drama results from the institution being accused of censorship, after removing three photographic series from its page. All three evoke situations or momenta involving Hong Kong Protests. Two of the series, namely Ko Chung-ming‘s Wounds of Hong Kong and Adam Ferguson‘s Hong Kong Protesters, were first taken down and some time after got back online, though Ko Chung-ming’s not in its original form (reduced from 10 to 4 photographs). The third series – David Butow‘s Battleground Hong Kong – was taken down for good, because the author, confronted with the organization’s attitude towards the nature of his work, decided to pull out of the competition. The organization has published a statement regarding the events. In it it claims all and nothing at the same time, clearly suggesting that the decision is politically driven. First, it states that all photographs must comply with their terms and conditions, though they never specify which terms or conditions were in violation; second it argues that they care deeply for their audience, as if those photographs offended the audience and that was reason enough to remove them; finally it adds that they feel it’s more valuable to promote the photographer, even if the series cannot be published in full, adding that they respect if the author does not “accept the curation to fit the terms of the competition” and decides to “withdraw their application to the Awards”

This is syuch a messy buisiness I don’t even know where to start. Of course brands and all powerful enterprises are politically engaged and everyone who is given access to information can act according to their own beliefs. However, individual change won’t be enough to break the cicle. In cases such as this, historical consciousness could make a difference. If fellow photographers or image-makers were to unite and boycott the festival, then something would change, but this is mere utopia, for the problem is deeply rooted in the same capitalist way of being that makes these competitions possible. In their response statement, World Photography Organisation said “the aim of the Awards is to acknowledge artists on the quality of their photographs and the technical excellence of their photography as well as providing photographers with a platform which assists in furthering their careers.” Authors who enter this sort of competitions are looking for a ladder towards recognition. What else? Isn’t that a problem per se? Could we expect this community to unite against censorship? Hell no! Ultra-liberalism, with its rhetorics of individualism and meritocracy, paved the way for a world with little compassion and solidarity.

Lack of historical consciousness is like chronic pain. In the beginning, the pain had an origin that could have been fixed, but with time it spreads everywhere and its origin dissipates. In becomes almost unmanageable. Like with the issue of chronic pain, someone benefits tremendously with the industry it generates, with opioid painkillers coming in to save the day. What industries are then profiting from artists’ lack of historical consciousness?


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