Fòcas recently interviewed Elise Foster Vander Elst, founder of Asia Arts Project and co-founder of FOCUS Photography Festival Mumbai about their exciting programme and India’s flourishing photography scene.

F: You co-founded FOCUS Photography Festival in Mumbai in 2013, I think, and you direct it now. What brought the Festival into being? What inspired you?

E: FOCUS Photography Festival Mumbai was launched in 2013. Modelled on the democratic nature of photography, the premise of the festival revolves around making its rich history freely accessible to all. Along with fellow co-founders Matthieu Foss (a photography specialist) and Nicola Antaki (an architect), we were keen to not only encourage galleries to exhibit photography (a medium that is still under represented in India), but also to extend the festival out of traditional exhibition spaces and onto the walls, shops and cafes of Mumbai as well into the very streets of the city. Mumbai is an extraordinary place with beautiful architecture, hidden buildings and surprises at every turn. Working with a variety of different spaces (public gardens, the beach front, schools etc), we aim to not only celebrate the art form through an eclectic choice of artists and new cultural collaborations, but also to reach and engage with a diverse array of visitors.

Autobiography as Memory (Sarah Fishlock), Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum © Nic Antaki / courtesy FOCUS Photography Festival Mumbai, 2017

F: The latest edition of Focus Festival Mumbai finished in March 2017. What were the highlights for you?

E: Every edition the festival continues to develop and grow in such a positive way, reaching even more people. A key difference this year was that it was more international in scope, largely because I am spending more time in the UK. We worked on our first ever co-commission with Photoworks/Brighton Photo Biennial which was incredibly rewarding. We invited Olivia Arthur (from the UK) and Bharat Sikka (from India) to collaborate to explore private and public presentation of self-image in relation to the body, gender, sexuality and fantasy. The resulting exhibition, entitled Reimagine in Brighton, and Intimation in Mumbai was extremely beautiful, sensitive and was a catalyst for important conversations around the issues. I always love our Call For Entries, as it is a unique opportunity to discover new work by practitioners from around the world. For many of them, it becomes a springboard for new professional opportunities – talent development is one of our core values at FOCUS, so this exhibition is very important to us.

Autobiography as Memory, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai © Nic Antaki / courtesy FOCUS Photography Festival Mumbai, 2017

F: India’s photography scene is developing so fast, and in such exciting ways; what do you put that down to?

E: Opportunity – when we started FOCUS we were one of two (very new) festivals. Nowadays there are five festivals in the country a year, which creates five more opportunities for photographers to show work in a non commercial setting. Technology – the Internet is such a powerful tool to share and disseminate images and information. As cables and infrastructure continue to improve in India, this sharing happens even faster. Education – Most Indian photography schools prioritise commercial orientation while art schools do not offer comprehensive photography programmes. This has created a generation of Indian photographers who are either self-taught or educated abroad. Hopefully this will change in the future with the arrival of schools such as the Indo French photography programme created by Mumbai based Ecole IntuitLab (which is being developed by one of our co-founders). The programme aims to teach the usual technical craftsmanship along with major emphasis on history of photography, ethics of image making, along with important crossovers to design, semiotics and analogue practices. This should, in time, open the doors for the next generation of practitioners, and also curators, photo editors, critics and influencers.

F: What kind of work, among India’s emerging photographers, is exciting you at the moment?

I’ve been really excited to see a new wave of young women photographers producing excellent work in South Asia. Several have been friends for a long time, and it seems they are now reaching that ‘gear changer’ moment in their careers where they have the confidence and opportunity to develop their artistic practice alongside their commercial one. Many of these photographers have been boldly exploring themes which are still considered rather taboo – feminism, sexuality, struggles around identity. Check out Poulomi Basu, Andrea Fernandes, Ashita Majumdar Ganatra, Kaamna Patel and Prarthna Singh whose work I admire.

Photographing the Female Exhibition at Sonam Studio, Mumbai © Nic Antaki / Courtesy FOCUS Photography Festival 2017

F: You work between the UK and India a great deal, creating projects and exhibitions in both countries; why is it important for you to work between places in this way?

E: As someone with a great deal of international experience, I am fascinated by points of connection and difference between cultures. Photography is one of the most democratic art forms, and can help us understand and relate to others in meaningful and immediate ways.

F: What’s next for you, Focus and AAP?

E: At AAP we recently worked on the production of the India Season at Science Museum London the related exhibitions are on view until April 2018. Alongside an important show exploring India’s contributions to science and technology, the museum is also presenting a survey show of artistic and technical developments of photography in India from 1857 to 2017. The next edition of FOCUS is scheduled for 2019. The festival may take a different format for its fourth edition with a greater focus on international exchange. It’s an exciting time for us as we explore different options. Visit our website and social media platforms for updates!

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