What does it take to stage a great photo festival? An interview with MaryAnn Camilleri of Flash Forward Festival Boston.

Staging a photo festival is a lot harder than people realize. You have to design a series of exhibitions that are individually compelling yet somehow all relate to the concept of the festival. Make sure the seminars are well conceived, so that people leave feeling that they actually learned something (this is not always a given—without a clear thematic thread or an agile moderator, even panel discussions/lecture with sharp people can fall apart). Persuade important industry players to take part, because their participation attracts registrants. Find a great location. And be very clear about why you’re staging this festival and who it’s for, which informs all of the above.

Two big photo festivals are almost upon us: the New York Photo Festival, which is entering its fourth year this month (May 11–15), and Flash Forward Festival, a Toronto-born fest making its stateside debut in Boston in June. If you follow the photo blogs, you know that the still-evolving NYPH has experienced some bumps along the road—at his blog, What’s the Jackanory?, Andrew Hetherington posted a notice about this year’s NYPH, commenting, “Not sure if anyone really cares anymore….” So it will be interesting to see how Flash Forward Boston fares its first time out. I interviewed MaryAnn Camilleri, the founder and executive director of the Magenta Foundation, the group behind Flash Forward, about what FFFB has in store for us.

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The homepage for Flash Forward Festival Boston. Click image to visit the site.

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Stockland Martel Blog: Is there a theme to Flash Forward Boston?
MaryAnn Camilleri: There is no specific theme—what we do is celebrate fresh new photography while allowing the exhibition curators to tell a story, or give their impression of what’s happening in the zeitgeist.

One of our broader Flash Forward goals is to provide a fresh perspective on our ever-changing industry. It’s important for emerging photographers to know that they aren’t working in a vacuum; it’s essential that they see the work that their peers are creating around the world—Flash Forward gives them a sense of place.

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SMB: Tell us a bit about the people involved in the festival—jurors, curators, etc.
MC: We were approached by Matthew Sterne, General Manager of the Fairmont Battery Wharf, to bring what he saw in Toronto last October to his property in Boston. I quickly learned that his instincts about how our programming could fit into what’s going on in the Battery Wharf area were bang-on and signed up wholeheartedly. The setting of the Battery Wharf and the Fairmont properties sets the scene for an amazing arts destination. Obviously, in this first year we can only do so much but in future installments there are numerous possibilities and I truly feel that Boston is primed for a world-class photography festival.

With regards to the community and the people curating, Boston was interesting. I had a few contacts: Paula Tognarelli from the Griffin Museum of Photography, David Katz and Blake Fitch from NESOP, and George Slade from the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, that I engaged with very early in the planning of this festival. From there, they introduced me to other key community contacts that helped me become more acquainted with the photography scene in Boston. What struck me as most encouraging was how accessible people made themselves to me. People I had never met, like Shane Lavalette, Chris Churchilll and Alison Zavos, and so many others, really helped put that special touch on the programming for Boston. Because of their enthusiasm, it made things very clear to me that people wanted an event like ours to happen and people were willing to roll up their sleeves to help. I feel incredibly privileged and honored for all the assistance I received.

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SMB: Which panel discussions and lectures do you think will attract the most attention?
MC: It’s hard to say which presentation will get the most attention when it isn’t possible to know what to expect. I hope they all get a lot of attention. My focus on the programming was to offer an interesting and diverse vibe; guest lecturers and topics that will appeal not only to Bostonians, but to an international crowd, as well. I think we’ve made some fun, informative and thought-provoking choices.

For Boston, we pulled some of the best attended/talked-about highlights from the Toronto event: Susan Bright, Stephen Mayes, and the photobook discussion with Andy Adams, along with a lot of new programming and new faces specific for the Boston crowd. We really relied on the advice of our local advisory committee to bring the Boston programming together.

One key person I was thrilled to sign up as a presenter was Todd Hido. He hasn’t been back to Boston since completing his schooling, and he was at the top of my list for the inaugural festival. Todd’s an interesting guy and I thought his presentation would be the sort of programming that I would want to hear as an attendee. And what better way to inspire people then to bring back someone who had gone off and done very well for himself?

The thing that I find most exciting about this programming process is when I can open up my address book to ask friends and contacts working in different sub-disciplines within this industry to participate. After many years in this business, and literally countless portfolio reviews and years of networking, the connections between artmakers, publishers, curators, academics and other culture workers are finally being brought to one place to share knowledge with the next generation of talent. I can only imagine what will happen in the future and I am very thrilled that my colleagues have invested their trust and faith in this new Flash Forward Festival concept.

In a way, I’m programming the kinds of lecture topics that I wish I could have been exposed to when I was getting my start in this industry. I didn’t even know what kinds of questions to ask when I was beginning my career and I hope that bringing all of these smart, articulate people to one event to talk about their experiences will help attendees feel inspired and better equipped as they move forward.

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MaryAnn Camilleri. Photo courtesy flashforwardfestival.com.

SMB: What does it cost to attend? I notice that all panel discussions and guest lectures are free and open to the public.
MC: That’s the thing, it doesn’t cost a penny to attend any of the exhibitions, lectures or panel discussions at Flash Forward Festival Boston! TOTALLY FREE TO THE PUBLIC! The point of this whole enterprise is to bring more art to Boston and to engage anybody that is curious about photography. Having said that, you’ll have to buy your own food and drinks, of course, but the art programming is all completely free.

If you have a family, or are on a date, and want to have a quality experience or even just a walk, then come visit the harborwalk where it starts at the Fairmont Battery Wharf. If you have not seen this part of the city, there are no excuses; come and explore.

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SMB: How would you describe the photography scene in Boston, and how did the scene there inform the way you designed the festival?
MC: I am learning more and more about the scene in Boston with every visit. I’m spending a lot of time here and really love the energy of the local photography community. What is appealing to me is the idea that there was nothing like what we do servicing Boston and suddenly we had this prime location available to us. Boston fits our vision as a home for an emerging festival like ours—we’ve been here with the touring Flash Forward Group Show these past four years and could see the void ready to be filled. Moving forward was a no-brainer and I’m really excited about growing this idea in Boston from year to year.

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SMB: What was the biggest coup for you in putting together this festival?
MC: That’s easy: being embraced by its community and opening up my organization to another city.

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SMB: What was the biggest obstacle?
MC: Fundraising in a new city is our main obstacle—I’m not even going to beat around the bush about that reality. Second biggest obstacle would be city permissions, which we are in the process of hurdling with assistance from our local advisory committee. Programming has been very easy to pull together, thankfully.

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SMB: The New York Photo Festival takes place just weeks before FFFB. Weren’t you concerned about overlapping with them or perhaps risking people having festival fatigue?
MC: My team doesn’t consider this to be a problem, to be honest. Our festivals complement each other and offer different programming experiences. We don’t feel that we are in competition with anybody. In fact, the more events like these, the better it is for working artists and their very interested audiences.

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SMB: You founded the Magenta Foundation in 2004 to, in the official language, “organize promotional opportunities for Canadian artists in the international arts community through circulated exhibitions and publications.” What are some of Magenta’s accomplishments over the past seven years?
MC: I’m proud of all of our projects. We don’t solicit submissions; my board brings ideas to the table and we choose everything ourselves. It guarantees a positive result. Some standout book projects that I am particularly proud of include the Carte Blanche volumes in Photography and Painting; Phantom Shanghai, by Greg Girard; The Dead, by Jack Burman; and of course the entire collection and expansion of Flash Forward. Also, thanks to my team at Magenta Magazine Online, Bill Clarke and Craig D’Arville, what started as a little online magazine project is kicking some serious butt and getting us lots of attention. Check it out at magentamagazine.com.

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A screenshot of the Magenta Magazine Online website.

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SMB: Tell me more about Magenta Magazine. How often is it published, what is its editorial mission, and who’s the target audience?
MC: Magenta Magazine Online is a quarterly publication; Bill Clarke is the Executive Editor and Craig D’Arville, one of my board members, is Publisher. Each issue has an informal editorial theme that is presented through a couple of feature articles, some portfolios, international exhibition reviews and other interesting things we call Editors’ Picks, and more. We’re on our sixth issue now and readership is growing and growing. Thousands of people from around the world read MMO—we’ve logged ISPs from Canada, the U.S., across the U.K. and Europe, Asia, South America and Australia. We are frankly amazed at the amount of attention the magazine is getting.

It’s weird, but I really don’t have anything to do with MMO—this is Bill and Craig’s baby—so I get to read each issue as it comes out. It’s exciting to be hands-off on such an important aspect of what Magenta does but I have complete faith in what Bill and Craig are doing and have been consistently impressed.

Based on feedback, our target audience is right what we’d hoped: other artists, collectors, students, culture workers, arts enthusiasts and tastemakers; curious minds, really. It helps that we have content in every issue from around the world.

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SMB: Last question: You will consider FFFB a success if…?
MC: Holy cow, I am an overachiever. I tend to not measure success by a tangible yardstick, but with an event like this, we’ll be able to measure attendance levels and participant feedback. We survey attendees and ask our presenters to complete questionnaires that help us to fine-tune things moving forward. It’s a constant learning curve. Any criticism we receive we take very seriously and try to identify how improvements can be made. But let me also say that nobody can be as hard on us as we are on ourselves. We set the highest standards and work very hard to meet them.

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Thank you, MaryAnn!

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