The CONTACT Photography Festival runs from May 1 to May 31. We’ll be profiling selected artists and shows throughout the month.
It’s not exactly that Catherine Farquharson’s lush portraits of girls and women in South Asia and Africa suffer from exoticism. The photos are incredibly intimate. Stripped of almost all context, the faces of Farquharson’s subjects take on extra resonance. In groups, the women are often in motion, caught in a moment of unadulterated exuberance. Being, pure and simple, shines through, making it hard to interpret them as symbols of otherness.
The big but is that the lack of context also works against the intention of the exhibition. The photos have a quality of timelessness, but in rapidly evolving countries like India the role and lives of women are anything but static. A photo titled “Determination,” of an older Indian woman with a tape measure around her neck, doesn’t begin to hint at the depth of feminine experience in a country where women travel abroad as part of entrepreneurial delegations, participate in SlutWalk, and are told to bleach their vaginas. Without any allusion to the complicated world they live in, the women in Farquarson’s photos don’t seem to be agents of their own change. They’re defined by stasis.
The problem becomes more apparent in a photo of girls running down a dirt road entitled “Freedom.” The girls are likely not politically free, and are certainly not economically free. In this case, simplification in the hopes of forging a connection between viewer and subject does a disservice to the reality of the situation.
It’s a mighty conundrum. And it’s made even more muddled by the fact that proceeds for the exhibition’s opening evening, on May 1, went to PLAN Canada, which is a wonderful organization. This would all have been great, except the event was hosted in the Birks diamond store on Bloor Street. While Birks’ official policy is to eschew conflict diamonds, and they’ve been generous in their prior support of the charity, the sight of women of limited means juxtaposed with glittering cases of diamonds was a bit hard to stomach. Perhaps if the message of these photographs weren’t so sweet and simple, it would have been easier to take.