The Best of Times, The Worst of Times puts Breda in the spotlight

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In the south of The Netherlands, close to the Belgium border, lies the city of Breda. Though less famous than Holland’s three largest cities - Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague - this place has its own unique character and a rich and remarkable history of national importance. The capital city Amsterdam is, as many of us know, famous for its 17
th century canal area, the Van Gogh Museum & Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank House and the 200+ legal coffeeshops (not for coffee). Rotterdam is the largest seaport in Europe and once the world’s busiest (until it was overtaken by Singapore and Shanghai in 2004). The Hague is famously known as the International City of Peace of Justice, and the city’s name is almost synonymous with International Law. So, what about Breda? You will be surprised to learn that Breda is the city of Nassau, the ancestors of the Dutch royal family. From 1403 till 1568 it was the center of political and social life in The Netherlands. This mid-sized Dutch city, locally known as "De Parel van het Zuiden" (The Pearl of the South), is famed for its jovial Burgundian atmosphere. “Bredanaars”, as the locals are called, love food, beer, bars, parties, carnival and… photography.

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Once in every two years Breda will be in the spotlight of the international photography world, when a major event turns the city into a photographic feast: the BredaPhoto Dutch International Biennial, the largest of its kind in the Benelux area. For seven weeks, from 9 September till 25 October, local and international visitors can enjoy the work of artists of national and international fame, as well photographs of young talent. Their work are showcased at numerous indoor and outside locations throughout the city.

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Theme
The theme of this years’s 9th edition photo festival is taken from the opening lines of Charles Dickens's 'A tale of two cities' - published in 1859 around the time of the French Revolution. The curators of the the festival thought that this quote summarized the many changes taking place in today’s world: social equality, racism, homosexuality, feminism, economic and political changes, global warming, climate change etc. These changes can be positive or negative, but what is perceived as positive or negative depends on your point of view. This theme was chosen in 2019, long before the coronavirus outbreak. For 2020 it was almost prescient.

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From local photo exhibition to leading international photo festival
Since its founding in 2003 by a group of photography enthusiasts things have developed in a rapid pace. BredaPhoto is not just an exhibition anymore, it is a full scale photo event that offers workshops, masterclasses, webinars, children education programs, photo tours, talkshows, artist-exchange program, new-talent program and more. Since its first edition BredaPhoto has showcased work of hundreds of photographers of national and international fame, like Luis Cobelo, Andrew Esiebo, Ed Kashi, Erik Kessels and Carl De Keyzer. Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic some activitities had to be cancelled for this year’s edition, but all the artwork that had originally been planned for display are exhibited at numerous locations in Breda.

Not just another photo exhibition
What is it that makes this festival so special? BredaPhoto’s lead curator Geert van Eyck explains:

“BredaPhoto exhibits the state of the art of contemporary photography, based on an internationally relevant social theme: current, stimulating and presented in an original way. BredaPhoto shows stories that are inspiring, moving, confrontational, that raise new questions and demonstrate that photography is the artistic medium that stands at the heart of society”.

Indeed, the photos at the exhibition tell inspiring stories of social issues happening in the world this very moment. It is this visual storytelling that dominates the exibition and makes this event so inspiring and interesting.

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"Shroud" by Simon Norfolk & Klaus Thymann. In an attempt to preserve an ice-grotto tourist attraction at the Rhône Glacier, local Swiss entrepreneurs wrapped a significant section of the ice-body in a thermal blanket. After a few years, the blanket begins to fall apart, a sign that humanity is losing the fight against nature. At the same time, the entire glacier packing project is a desperate move against climate change.

Wu Guoyong
“No Place to Place” by Wu Guoyong. Driven by blind capital expansion Chinese entrepreneurs invested billions in bike sharing. Things then went out of control and in a few years time this led to an oversupply of bikes, expecially in big cities. The oversupply and lack of maintenance created tremendous wastes and millions of bicycles ending up in bicycle graveyards.

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“There are no homosexuals in Iran” by Laurence Rasti. Former Iranian president Ahmadinejad once proclaimed that there are no homosexuals in Iran. In Iran few openly admit they are homosexual because by law it is punishable by death. In Denizli, a town in Turkey, hundreds of gay Iranians are stuck in a transit zone, their lives on hold, waiting to join a host country where they can freely live their sexualities.

The Dutch Mind
The Netherlands is well-known as one of the world’s most liberal, progressive and multicultural country. From a young age, the Dutch are taught to value and tolerate people who are different from oneself, think differently or have different preferences. It involves respecting people's freedom of choice in their attitudes, beliefs and individuality. This attitude of tolerance has led to social policies that some may consider quite permissive. Indeed, many Dutch are proud of the country’s progressive stances on social and ethical issues such as LGBTQI+ rights, euthanasia, soft drugs and freedom of speech. Perhaps more than before this year’s exhibition reflects the culture, values and (tolerant) mentality of the Dutch people.

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The pictures at the exhibition of homosexuals, transsexuals, exhibitionists, human rights activists, environmental activists, political corruption, identity crisis and self-acceptance, these topics interest and fascinate the Dutch audience. To people from more traditional societies many displays at the exhibition may come as shocking, confrontational or even provocative. The most extreme case being a collection of personal snapshots - with male and female genitals clearly visible - displayed inside a church. Quite daring, perhaps even to Dutch standards.

Nation of volunteers
Volunteering is an important part of Dutch culture. According to data from CBS, the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics, about 50 percent of people aged 15 and older have engaged in some kind of volunteering. Examples of volunteer jobs are: teacher, footbal trainer/coach, hostess, nurse, cook, driver, handyman, swim instructor, fitness coach, daycare, dogwalker, gardener, social worker, librarian, writers, translator, website maintenance, administrator, lawyer, photographer, waiter/waitress, club director and more. Holland is truly a nation of volunteers. At this year’s BredaPhoto festival over two hundred enthusiastic men and women, young and old, work hard to display the state of the art of contemporary photography to the world. According to BredaPhoto general director Fleur van Muiswinkel, having so many people volunteering at a photo festival is very unique to the Netherlands. She admits that “even in neighbouring Belgium, where I live, you won’t see such a large number of volunteers”. Van Muiswinkel stresses the importance of volunteers: “Without them it would be impossible to run this biannual event. We are really happy and grateful they are part of the festival”.

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One important questions at this point is: what drives these people to dedicate themselves to an unpaid job? Surely it is not the free meals or coffee. Interviews taken from volunteers at the BredaPhoto festival show that many find it rewarding to work on a great product as a team. “It’s something to be proud of and I enjoy working in a team” says volunteer installation worker Tjeerd Knoop who also worked as festival guide during the previous edition. Indeed, Holland is not only a country of tulips, cheese and wooden shoes but also a nation of proud volunteers.

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Exhibition spaces
This year the festival has been scaled-down due to COVID-19 concerns but the organizers still managed to dedicate ten locations in central Breda to the festival, each with its own characteristics and some are an attraction in its own right. Especially noteworthy are the following locations:

Grote Kerk - Church of Our Lady
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Skatepark Pier 15
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Abandoned former post office building
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Chassé Car Park
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Chassé Residential Area
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Windows of residences and local businesses
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Below are some unique locations from previous editions of BredaPhoto:


Former prison
43325223030_222fde4a5d_oDe Koepelgevangenis in Breda is a former panopticon prison built in 1886. It is best known as the prison where convicted World War II collaborators were held captive. It was operational until it closed its door in 2016.

Man-made beach
BredaPhotoBeachbBelcrum Beach is a man-made beach in Breda’s Belcrum district popular with the locals

Under bridges
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In 2014 images of Spanish photographer Oscar Monzon were installed under seven bridges in Breda

Not only are the photos at the exhibition worth a visit, the exhibition spaces are worthwhile as well and an attraction in itself.

Creativity and Innovation

People at BredaPhoto not only come up with original and surprising exhibition venues, they also choose their artists carefully, screening for creativity and innovative content. Two artists stand out for their unique way of displaying photographic art.

Power to the models by Jan Hoek
Power to the Models is an installation of eleven models initiated by Dutch artist and curator Jan Hoek. Hoek hands over the power to the models and let them determine how they want to be portrayed. In this way he overturns the balance of power between photographer and model and hopes to inpire people to reconsider the notion of power: should it lie with the photographer or the model?

HCC_5967h5_xsBruin Parry has Down syndrome but also many talents: he is an artist who loves to draw black and white geometric patterns, he is a model, a dancer, a photographer, an influencer and a huge fan of Michael Jackson.

HCC_5979NEW7_xsJyoti Westrate tells her story of adoption and corruption. She travelled back to India to dig into her past and piece together what exactly happened before and during her adoption, eventually hoping to find out who her parents are. Through her personal story Jyoti wants to increase awareness of corruption in het adoption process. It's not about herself anymore, it's about many people like her - all around the globe.

DSCF8322f3_xsFor years Lotte van Eijk was ashamed of her body until she decided to take matter into her own hands. Now she has accepted who she is: fat, proud and damn sexy. She works as a model but more important to her as an influencer and inspirer.

HCC_5948BW99999_xsMohan Verstegen, a soldier in the Dutch army and queer activist, wants to show an “alternative” to the stereotypical image of a white masculine soldier.

Destroy my face by Erik Kessels
Artist Erik Kessels has great ideas but these ideas are not always without controversy. For this year’s edition of BredaPhoto he came up with an “interactive work”, consisting of 60 composite portraits created by an algorithm based on hundreds of images on the internet of people who have undergone cosmetic surgery, male and female. These images were affixed to the floor of the skatepark for people to skate over and gradually destroy the faces.

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Cancel culture has reached Breda
Kessels’ interactive installation was met with widespread criticism on social media of misogyny. The artist is accused of inciting violence against women and disrespecting people who have undergone cosmetic surgery. Within a few days after the opening of BredaPhoto on 9 September, 2020, a group of artists, designers, photographers, and other creatives penned their complaints in an open letter to the festival organizers and skatepark. The group had collected more than 2000 signature within a few days, forcing the skatepark to remove the artwork.

Kessels himself stated the following:
“Cosmetic surgery has become something pretty normal in today’s society. However, when taken overboard, these surgeries can result in deformations. The representation of oneself and what is real seem to blur more and more. The same can be said for how we present the image of ourselves online. Being insta-perfect can become the norm instead of the exception and we can manipulate our image in several seconds. The deformation that once started with cosmetic surgery will continue in this installation while skaters create another uncontrolled reality. Machine learning, as another artificial intervention, was used to generate the selection after entering all, male and female, available online plastic surgery portraits.
 The intention of this work is ironic and intends to evoke a dialogue about self-acceptance. Of course it doesn’t mean to encourage violence against women. With this work I never wanted to offend anyone, but when reading recent comments online, I understand I’ve done so and I apologise for that. In my opinion the function of art in society is to start dialogues and I continue to believe in that”.


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What happened here, call it cancel culture or not, it’s another example of polarization in today’s society – it is the best of times and the worst of times.

BredaPhoto and COVID-19
The coronavirus has turned to world upside down and affected everyone in one way or another. BredaPhoto too felt the impact of the pandemic but after much debate, decided to proceed with a scaled-down, coronaproof version of the festival. Following government regulations and guidelines the organizers had to take new measures to create a safe exhibition environment for both visitors and staff.

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"Modern Mummy" by Joshua Irwandi. A corpse lies stiffly on a hospital bed, wrapped in plastic.The room is dark, sterile, impersonal. No one sits with the body to mourn the life that was lost. A suspected victim of COVID-19, the person died in an Indonesian hospital. Nurses, fearful of infection, wound plastic around the body and sprayed it with disinfectant. Now it’s utterly anonymous—physical characteristics shrouded, name and gender unknown, an object waiting to be discarded.

The number of people visiting an exhibition site had to be limited and controlled but nonetheless BredaPhoto has already proven – even in the worst of times – to be a successful event. Perhaps it came at a time when many people needed it, to come out of isolation and bring back a bit of normalcy in these abnormal times. In a way photography works like medicine - a dose “joie de vivre” to cope with the reality of COVID-19.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness,
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair"

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859