WISH U WERE HERE: Reporting from Photography Festival Les Rencontres d’Arles

Wish U Were Here is a feature in which a correspondent sends us an email postcard from somewhere in the world, answering Who? What? When? Where? How? And Why? In this edition, author and creative director of DOMUS Academy GIANLUIGI RICUPERATI visits Provence to take in the annual photography festival at Arles. 


Maja Hoffmann, an art-patron, activist and philanthropist, whose foundation established LUMA-Arles, a 20-acre campus in Provence which once housed a train-repair factory. Its board counts Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno, Liam Gillick, Tom Eccles and Beatrix Ruf as members, and the grounds – complete with a mid-construction Frank Gehry tower – are home to the annual photo festival Les Rencontres d’Arles.


Dedicated to new work, the 46-year-old Les Rencontres d’Arles is arguably the most important photography festival in the world. But is a discipline-specific gathering still a promising venture in a wildly cross-disciplinary world?

Short answer: yes. After all these years, the annual Les Rencontres d’Arles is still the ultimate microbiennale for photography lovers, interpreters and professionals. Each July, Arles transforms itself into a parade of exhibitions, collateral programs, talks, and meetings. The word rencontres itself means somewhere between a symposium and a chance meeting, which is what happens all the time in the narrow streets of Arles. These chance meetings are with curators and directors coming here to see this old yet radically transformed medium. 

The impossible-to-miss Gerhy Tower.

The impossible-to-miss Gerhy Tower.


Specifically, Les Rencontres took place last week. More generally, these years will be remembered as the LUMA-Arles years: the new institution aims to act as a catalyst for the world of art and ideas, as well as social and environmental preoccupations. But the future of the world of ideas doesn’t end in disciplinary walls of photography, as evident to many curators and photographers in first place. 


Arles itself – a Unesco-protected Roman outpost which saw a decline of its industrial fortunes in the last 30 years – is a small town eager to re-establish itself as a cultural tourism destination. Beautiful and crowded in the summer but almost dead in the winter, it’s a town not exactly easy to reach and still weak in terms of local productions and jobs creation, yet graced by the high-cultured blockbuster of Van Gogh Museum and a world-class animation school. The only construction cranes in the area are those of the new Frank Gehry-designed tower at the heart of the LUMA campus. 


Les Rencontres d’Arles 2016
Salt in Atelier Luma, a project curated by Belgian wonder Jan Boelen. The Atelier is a workshop aimed at connecting local energies and global worries: the purple background is an reference to the presence of mosquitos in the Arles area, as mosquito eyes are repelled by the color.
Les Rencontres d’Arles 2016
Toilet Paper's installation, by Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari.
Les Rencontres d’Arles 2016
One of the ritual highlights of Arles is the projections at the Roman amphitheater, bigger than life images screened for an attentive audience in the architectural context of a Roman masterpiece. One of the best talks was by British war photography legend Don McCullin, who told the audience "at a certain point I learned that the camera is not a weapon but a voice."
Les Rencontres d’Arles 2016
A homage to the French porno-comic magazine Hara-Kiri, made in words and pictures.
Piero Martinelli's Radicalia. He won the price for best portfolio last year, and this year he presented a beautiful exhibition of people living radically different lives, depicted as Saint-like figures.
Les Rencontres d’Arles 2016
Pictures by French portraitist Charles Fréger.


The iPhone shutter-sound is rapidly substituting the ticking of slowly disappearing clocks: photography has never faced more time-related issues than now. The endless potential of photomaking is altering the very structure of the human phenomenon, on every angle possible. This is the state of the art now, and this is the major basic challenge that thinkers and practitioners of the medium face on a minute-by.minute basis. And it will grow, and glow, like the reflections of the impossible sun on the plateaux of flowers of the Camargue to the south of Arles. A light made of salt, a light that kills time. 

Gianluigi Ricuperati is an author and the creative director of Domus Academy. He discussed the self-driving car in 032c Issue 28.