Photo festivals are growing in popularity throughout the world, but in the UK they are thin on the ground. Kenn Taylor talks to the director of Look/13 who says the international festival in Liverpool is filling the void with an ambitious programme

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Photographers from around the world will have their work on show in Liverpool for the second edition of the city’s Look photo festival, taking place from mid-May to mid-June.

“We’ve worked very hard on learning from our experience two years ago,” says Patrick Henry, Look/13’s director. “Look/11 was very rich and expansive, with loads of activity spread over the city. In Look/13 we’ve tried to create a tighter, more focused core programme.”

The theme for 2013 is “who do you think you are?” – a reversal of the 2011 theme, “a call to action”, explains Henry.

“Instead of asking how photography can change the world, it asks what happens when we turn the camera on ourselves and others.”

The hope is that Look will continue as a bi-annual event on the city’s art calendar, running in the alternate years to the Liverpool Biennial. Henry says he feels that Look fills a niche not just in Liverpool but in the UK as a whole.

“Photography festivals have been hugely successful all over the world – France alone has more than 60 – but they’re very thin on the ground here in the UK,” says Henry.

“Liverpool is the perfect festival city, with world-class visual arts spaces and a very strong photography culture. I see a golden opportunity to build a festival with real range, depth and ambition.”

One Look/13 exhibition that definitely fits the theme is Kurt Tong’s The Queen, the Chairman and I. Tong’s project, on display in the Victoria Gallery, explores his family history across several continents.

“The title came from the fact that their actions ultimately led to my grandfathers coming to Hong Kong,” says Tong. “My paternal great-grandfather came after the fall of the empire in 1911 and my maternal grandparents came in order to escape from Mao’s advancing army.

“We will be exhibiting my photographs, found photographs, some actual family items and a home movie form 1948.”

Tong, whose work raises questions of individuality, identity, nationality and country, adds: “The idea is that visitors will get a glimpse into my private history.”

The main focus of the exhibition however, is a storybook that Tong has produced for his daughters, and that inspired the rest of the project, which visitors can spend time with over a cup of tea in the working pop-up Chinese Tea House, also part of the exhibition.

“I have always found that the book gets people talking about their own history and their ancestors.”

Meanwhile, at the Bluecoat, Liverpool-based Adam Lee will be exhibiting Identity Documents, a project that looks at the identity of others through photographing their bookshelves.

“It came from a conversation with a friend at university about 10 or 12 years ago,” the artist elaborates. “I came to believe that while we shouldn’t define ourselves through our possessions, we define them, through our interests in the things they represent.”

The participants, and their bookshelves, in Lee’s ongoing project come from his own personal connections, though he now also has a social media campaign to try to find “self-curated” participants. But what is it about books that tells us so much about a person’s character as opposed to, say, wardrobe contents?

“I feel the sheer variety of them, in terms of genres, topics and specificity, means that they can give a very broad but also detailed picture of someone’s interests. I feel that it is this massive variety that makes them more interesting than, say, clothes, films or DVDs.”

Lee thinks that Look/13 is not only great for visitors but offers good opportunities for photographers based in Liverpool too.

“For photographers and artists who get involved, through the core programme, parallel programme, competitions, conferences and fringe activities, the festival offers an international and high profile platform to get work seen and to network.”

Look/13 – Liverpool International Photography Festival – takes place on 17 May-15 June across various venues in Liverpool ( ) 

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