Sharjah's Xposure 2022 opens: big names in photography reflect on the power of the image

A programme of exhibitions and talks by world-renowned photographers will run until February 15

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There is little doubt that images have power – to stun, to uplift, to deceive, to educate. But how far can this power go towards enacting change?

It’s a central question at this year’s Xposure International Photography Festival, which runs until February 15 at the Expo Centre Sharjah.

More than 55 photographers from around the world are taking part in the event, with many scheduled to discuss critical issues in contemporary photography and to share their knowledge and processes with fellow image-makers.

Photographer Chris Rainier, who spoke at the event’s opening on Wednesday, said the festival can be the site “to discuss and debate how we can all galvanise our efforts to use photography as a powerful tool to save the world”.

Xposure International Photography Festival will run until February 15 at the Expo Centre Sharjah. Antonie Robertson / The National

Rainier, whose work focuses on indigenous communities, highlighted various ways that images can shed light on global problems, including climate change.

“Photography is a dynamic force or tool for change,” he said, citing the late landscape photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams, for whom he worked as an assistant in the 1980s, as an example of how images can shape public opinion. Adams' stunning work on the American wilderness aided environmental movements to protect these areas.

“He used his images of beauty of nature in order to save it,” Rainier said.

Today, many wildlife photographers share a similar aim – to showcase the splendour of the natural world, as well as its fragility and ongoing destruction. At Xposure, works by Brian Skerry, Jennifer Hayes, David Doubilet and Laurent Ballesta bring to the surface the richness of marine wildlife and the world’s waters.

Skerry and Ballesta will take part in the festival’s first Conservation Summit “Saving our Oceans” on February 10.

Meanwhile, works by other wildlife photographers, such as Mogens Trolle and Joel Sartore, have been given spectacular sections, including a garden-like booth with portraits taken by Trolle of primates under threat and a large-scale screen display of curious creatures taken by Sartore.

On February 14, Rainier, along with photographers Jordan Hammond, Daniel Kordan, QT Luong and Iurie Belegurschi, will continue the topic of the power of photography in a panel discussion that will tackle issues of authenticity and how to use technology, including social media, to raise awareness.

The question of photographic power also extends to Xposure’s exhibitions by photojournalists, including heavyweights such as James Nachtwey, whose images of war, conflict and social issues since the 1980s remain the most compelling.

A section dedicated to Nachtwey features his work on the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s, the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York in 2001. Seen together, this rare, stunning display underlines the photographer’s life-long dedication to uncovering difficult realities in the hopes of moving the needle towards peace.

More than 55 photographers from around the world are taking part in the festival. Antonie Robertson / The National

Across from Nachtwey's is an exhibition of Steve McCurry’s work, from his travels across India in the 1980s and 1990s to his unforgettable portraits of people in Pakistan, Nepal, Mongolia and Yemen.

Both Nachtwey and McCurry embody the tail-end of a kind of photojournalism, just before the rise of digital photography and the advent of social media, and the photographers will reflect on these issues in two separate talks.

On February 15, Nachtwey will speak about the impact of the internet on photojournalism in a talk titled A Perspective on Visual Journalism in an era of social media and “alternative facts”, while McCurry will discuss his life and work on February 14.

Continuing in the tradition of photo reportage are Muhammed Muheisen, whose coverage of the refugee crisis in Pakistan and Jordan has earned him accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize, and Diego Ibarra Sanchez, whose series The Phoenician Collapse chronicles the increasing political crisis in Lebanon.

Elsewhere, the images of Kiran Ridley and Goncalo Fonseca bear witness to political and social turmoil in places such as Hong Kong, where Ridley captured dramatic scenes from the pro-democracy protests that began in 2019, and Portugal, where the government directed a campaign to tackle an opioid epidemic that began in the 2000s.

Collectively, these exhibitions speak to the strength of visual storytelling, or at the very least, the promise that each image contains, whether it is in building an archive of world history or, more ambitiously, a driver for action.

To return to the central question of photography’s power to change the world, Frank Fournier offers an answer. He who won the World Press Photo Award in 1985, has covered the aftermath of natural disasters, including volcano eruptions and mudslides in Colombia, and has also produced memorable street photography from 1970s New York.

“Photography should not pretend to solve issues on war, genocide and injustice,” he says. “But should only talk about the unacceptable, the conditions that perpetuate these problems.” Indeed the image is only the instigator. The rest is up to us.

Updated: February 10, 2022, 11:17 AM