As the Photo North Festival returns to Harrogate we talk to talk to its curator

Cock Hawker by Yousuf Tushar featured in the festival.
Cock Hawker by Yousuf Tushar featured in the festival.
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These days we are all photographers. With the advance of smart phone technology over recent years, everyone can have a go at creating a decent photographic image or even curating their own gallery space on social media, and an interest in the artform of photography has increased correspondingly.

It is this burgeoning enthusiasm for all aspects of image-making that partly led to the setting up of Photo North Festival which held its inaugural event in Harrogate last year. Next weekend sees the festival’s return to the town for three days during which art-enthusiasts, professional photographers, keen amateurs and students will have the opportunity to see a variety of exhibitions and to attend workshops and talks from established and emerging artists.

Cockle Fishing in The Wash, Norfolk, 1988, by Denis Thorpe/The Guardian.

Cockle Fishing in The Wash, Norfolk, 1988, by Denis Thorpe/The Guardian.

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Peter Dench is co-founder, with business partner Sharon Price, and curator of the festival. A photojournalist by trade, he is based in London where there is a steady stream of photographic exhibitions. “I often talk to the photographers at these shows and ask where it is going next. Often after a short time they just go into storage so I started thinking about how to try and keep these exhibitions on the road and to give them a new audience.”

Dench and Price are well-versed in curating and creative producing – together they founded and ran the acclaimed White Cloth Gallery in Leeds which hosted exhibitions, film screenings and workshops. “We were looking for something to build on what we had learned from that experience, so we thought we would try and establish a festival,” says Dench.

“We haven’t got a budget to commission new work but we can find what’s available and bring it here. Setting up the festival is also in part a response to the more ‘sniffy’ festivals and galleries that you often come across – we want to make photography inclusive, informal, buzzy and engaging. We want everyone to come away feeling positive, so as well as the exhibitions we have live music, bars, screenings, pop-up portrait studios, book stalls, food, discussions and competitions.”

The closing day of the festival will be an Education Day with special events planned and a student photography competition on the theme of ‘Family’. “We are encouraging universities and colleges from the region and beyond to bring in groups of students,” says Dench. “We have a schedule of portfolio reviews and talks that will inspire the next generation of image makers.”

Louise, Aberdeen, by Craig Easton from the Fisherwomen project.

Louise, Aberdeen, by Craig Easton from the Fisherwomen project.

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The festival team have assembled a pretty impressive roll call of internationally renowned photographers including Margaret Mitchell, Mik Critchlow, Denis Thorpe, Jim Mortram, Craig Easton and Carolyn Mendlesohn exhibiting, as well as work from emerging artists. “It’s very important for us to show up-and-coming photographers as well as established ones, to help give them a leg up,” says Dench. “And we also try and have a healthy dose of Northern interest. One of the driving forces behind the festival was our desire to get world-class work out to a northern audience.

The northern connection features in several of the exhibitions on display including Mik Critchlow’s Coal Town – a series of photographs of his home town of Ashington in Northumberland. Formerly the centre of the British coal industry, the town and its people are captured at a time of rapid social and environmental change. Also featured is distinguished photojournalist Denis Thorpe’s View from the North, photographs documenting life in the north of England from 1948 to the present day.

“There is a Bradford-based photographer called John Bolloten who is interested in people living on the margins of society and he has a series called Love Story which is about a couple called Gary and Maree. It documents their lives over an eight month period,” says Dench. “We exhibited John’s work last year and we support photographers like that – if you keep producing high quality, impactful work we will keep showing it.”

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The images are quite hard-hitting – Bolloten’s previous work has explored drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and vice in Bradford – and is one of a number of exhibitions in the festival which are highlighting social issues. Jim Mortram’s Small Town Inertia, an acclaimed piece of photo reportage which documents the lives of disadvantaged and marginalised people living near his home gives voice to seldom-heard stories. Mortram believes photographers should take direct action with their work and his exhibition fee, along with money raised by the festival, will go to Harrogate Food Bank.

Other highlights include Scottish photographer Margaret Mitchell’s In This Place which looks at social inequality and how life choices are often dependent on circumstances; Dafydd Jones’ Screen Time observes our modern obsession with smartphones and the possible long-term social consequences of a lack of human connection; Craig Easton’s Fisherwomen celebrates the traditional and contemporary role of women in the British fishing industry and Carolyn Mendelsohn’s Being Inbetween is a portrait series of girls aged 10-12 navigating the complex journey from childhood to young womanhood.

There is a selection of photographs from the Getty Images archive and We Feed the World, a series by a team of photographers compiled over three years, captures the challenges and triumphs of 50 farming and fishing communities around the world. “We want to raise questions, encourage debate and inspire,” says Dench. “The very best we can hope for is to effect change. Each of the exhibitions in the festival has been chosen to do that in their own way.”

Photo North Festival, Harrogate Convention Centre, November 30 to December 2.