Seeing the Elephant - Diffusion Festival 2015

In the word of the immortal Keanu Reeves:


Well - this is a big one so go grab yourself a snack, or something. Also, for my regular readers my apologies for the short absence, just read on and you’ll know why. But to begin with, some outmoded slang … 

There was a popular phrase a long time ago, called ‘Seeing the Elephant’. It meant to undergo a profound experience, to witness or be part of a momentous event. I’ve just had a very strange six weeks or so, full of new experiences and promise; sometimes fraught, sometimes funny and for a delirious three days very inspirational. I guess it has left me wondering if I have indeed seen the elephant. Why the odd phrase? You’ll find out shortly.

On October the 1st the city of Cardiff hosted the Diffusion Festival, magnificently organised by ffotogallery, the national development agency for photography in Wales. The theme was ‘Looking for America’, and spread throughout the city were some pretty incisive and compelling exhibitions by such great photographers and artists as Jeff Brouws, Serge Clément Dépaysé, Jona Frank, Hillerbrand+Magsamen, Stacy Kranitz and the masterful Dave Jordano. The festival ran for a month and closed with a symposium, a series of talks and some rather fun parties where you got to mingle with some great international photographers. The entire affair was something of a triumph and you can find out a lot more about the festival and the photographers involved through the Diffusion website

But being a witness to great work – although richly fulfilling – wasn’t what knocked me for six. 

It was that I had an exhibition as part of it, my first true solo exhibition in fact... 

You see, close to a year before I had a portfolio review by the director of ffotogallery, David Drake. I showed him work from my project documenting British re-enactors of the American Civil War, all of whom sought to bring to life the battlefields of Antietam, Shiloh and Gettysburg in various country parks and festival grounds around the UK. It was something I had embarked upon a couple of years ago, and it was initiated upon the worthy advice of a friend at the Third Floor Gallery that I start trying my hand at my own project, whilst the subject matter was suggested by another friend of mine who was part of that world. The review went well, if slightly drowned out by the rattling noise of coffee baristas, but it was to my immense surprise that in closing I was asked if I would consider having it shown as part of his upcoming Diffusion Festival. He liked the angle, the way it fit into the theme of Looking for America, with these outsiders looking in on the history of another nation, adopting it as their own. He took my portfolio from me and explained he would have to show it to his gallery partners, and that he would get back to me. 

Next thing I knew I was invited to exhibit as part of a major photography festival. This was something of a shock as I had not consciously set out to achieve such a goal, or follow such a path. Up to that point my photography had really been a creative exercise for myself, and born of a sort of quiet, curious awe as to how people, landscapes and objects look in the world. I shared a lot of photographs online, sure. It’s fun to share and to have a record of one’s own journey through a blog. But photography for me really didn’t have a conscious objective, I just really wanted to take photographs to find out how things look. Also, I had no formal training. I'd never studied photography; everything I had learned had been gleaned from seeing other photographers work through visiting exhibitions, scouring online websites such as Flickr and in spending far too much money on photographer’s monographs. I'd gone into the meeting with the anticipation of getting some good criticism that I could build on in trying to make my images better, I never imagined that I’d be asked to have them shown as part of a pretty damn prestigious exhibition. 

To be honest I was quietly terrified, not only because I was also putting in a lot of time helping organise the showing of Dave Jordano’s stunning Detroit: Unbroken Down at the Third Floor Gallery. Fortunately I had friends to help me and a wonderful exhibition space in the form of Cardiff M.A.D.E, a gallery in the Roath area of Cardiff run by beautiful, warm and helpful people who do their utmost to promote local artists and who also make very nice soup. But I also felt a measure of confidence in the actual work itself.

For over a year of bank holidays and random weekends I had camped out with the men and women of the Southern Skirmish Association, dressed as a gentleman reporter of the 1860’s, embedded with a company of the 18th Missouri in the Union army, a mere short hop, skip and jump from the rival confederate encampment. I befriended a close knit and affable community of people who found a welcome respite from the modern world by projecting themselves back to the 1860’s and all its trappings. It was a rich experience, and although they took the accuracy seriously there was nothing remotely odd in the men and women themselves, who found a lot of humour in the situation as they slept under the stars, ate bacon and beans around the camp-fire and blasted away at each other every afternoon – sometimes under pouring rain – with muzzle loading rifles. They each sought a shared experience of a feeling called ‘period rush’, the sensation that occurs when the modern world slips entirely out of sight and mind and, surrounded purely by the trappings of another time, you experience the eerie feeling of existing in a different present – one that happened a long time ago in a place far away. And I have to admit it was an experience that I felt on one particular night as I sat beside a camp-fire as everyone fell silent as a fiddle played a slow, sad song.

I wanted to reflect that experience. No irony, no winking at camera. I wanted to capture their personal feeling of being some place else, in a different time. I decided to name the project and exhibition, ‘Seeing the Elephant’.

The exhibition ran for a little over two weeks and I was very happy to have my parents down for the opening, along with a friend in Union blue who brought with him issues of Harper’s Weekly, hard-tack and the 34 star American flag - so a quick thank-you here to the mighty Phil Alderton - without whom this project and exhibition would not exist. Naturally opening night left me a little drunk.

It really is a rush when it all comes together. When people walk up and down a wall of your prints, asking questions about the people and situations within. It was a rush that continued as I wandered Cardiff experiencing the rest of Diffusion, with amazing photographs by great photographers scattered around the city. 

At the Third Floor Gallery we had the honour of showing Dave Jordano’s work documenting grass-roots recovery amongst communities in Detroit in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy, which struck a quietly hopeful note and revealed the strength of its inhabitants, despite the sometimes tragic stories of those involved. It was one highlight among many.

Stacy Kranitz had an immersive exhibition revolving around her experiences exploring the culture of the hollows of Appalachia, documenting her reactions, entanglements, and the challenging of common prejudices alongside the reality on the ground. 'The Hollows' remains a deeply fascinating place, a land raped, feared and neglected by the rest of America.

Serge Clément Dépaysé offered up a dreamy, monochrome study of his native Montreal featuring work from as far back as the early seventies. Rich, beautiful, giant prints of glistening rain slicked streets, snow-choked doorways and reflections creating surreal moments in the depths of winter. The richness of the inky blacks and glistening reflections really was something.

Jona Frank twinned portraits of students at an American High School with her work documenting the students of a Republican Christian college. Her work strove to be objective yet with a playful curiosity, and it led to a very fascinating talk at the symposium as to expectations of photographer bias and misrepresentation versus reality. I also found myself completely entranced by the work of Hillerbrand+Magsamen; a Texan couple who make wonderful adventures in art out of their suburban family unit. This one detailed their trip to the moon and back as they constructed a giant rocket out of household materials in the back garden, complete with moon rover. Quite heroic and there’s something just kind of beautiful in knowing that they’re out there, making glorious adventures out of stuff picked up from Wal-Mart, pushing the boundaries of imagination on a shoe-string budget. 

Another fascinating experience was had wandering the old Customs House building down in Cardiff Bay. Ordinarily closed to the public, this decaying yet still beautiful building had been taken over by Diffusion in order to show Julian Germain & Eva Sajovic's Hidden Presence, and America by Dephine Diallo. The space still bore marks of having recently been used in an episode of Doctor Who, with creepy little touches left here and there... 

Then there was 'And Now It's Dark' at the Turner House Gallery in Penarth, home of ffotogallery - a title inspired by the sinister whispered words of the David Lynch universe. This exhibition featured the three photographers Jeff Brouws, Todd Hido and Will Steacy. Special props go to Jeff Brouws for being delightful company over the festival, and for teaching me so, so much.

And gosh, there's more - in fact there are too many more to mention! Most of them I experienced in a wild final three days tearing around the city, drinking everything in at the myriad venues. But the best experience of all was when I had a series of portfolio reviews by a half dozen of the photographers, among whom were Will Stacey, Jona Frank, Hillerbrand and Jeff Brouws. It was a very positive, empowering experience and has left me thinking of ways of taking my photography even further, of really trying to strive to make something special, to take it beyond a hobby into trying to create something meaningful. I’ve been reassured that I do have some sort of eye, and while the big questions as to what I want to say, and how, still vex and puzzle me I feel that I’ve been nudged in a good direction by their feedback and advice on how to document. The story of small town America is still a driving passion for me, so I have no doubt that I will be sooner or later exploring deeper into that world. But the experience has also re-fired my passion for the American Civil War project, so I shall be returning to that. Before I had used my Nikon gear, this time it’ll be with the Fuji cameras and wider lenses. I’ll be very interested to see if the slightly shifted process changes the style of images I get out of it. One thing I know for sure, it's photography festivals like these that are really firing my creativity. Here's a smattering of things I saw as I wandered through the different venues and exhibitions... 

A final thing - one point Jeff Brouws raised in the portfolio reviews was how he found my black and white photography stronger than the colour. But I still feel torn. I feel my black and white work can and sometimes does have the stronger impact. But I also feel that my angle on colour sets me apart from many others, and that I feel I could develop something special out of finding something unique and painterly in this digital age.  Plus, y'know, Fuji colours. How could I be ever asked to turn my back on Classic Chrome? It's a tough question I'll have to address one day for sake of consistency and honing my vision. As you can see from the images on this page, I'm still pulled both ways.  

Well, phew. That’s all from me for now, I just had to empty my head of all this incredible stuff that's going on. Blogging should pick up speed again somewhat now that the craziness has abated a little. Thank you for sticking around through my waffle and this embarrassingly hefty number of images. But if you yourself take pictures and want to get something out of this – please think about getting yourself a project about something you feel passion for. You never know where it might take you.

Take care and thanks for reading.