Head On grew out of a strong feeling I had that the contemporary photography scene in Sydney could be so much more than what was on exhibition at the time. I also wanted to make a statement about our obsession with celebrity photographs. So in 2004 I founded the Head On Portrait Prize to showcase good work, regardless of the celebrity of either subject or photographer.
It soon became the largest photographic portrait prize in Australia, and in 2009 I expanded the event to include a seminar which attracted nearly 400 people. I felt it indicated the hunger and the need for a quality photography event in Sydney, and in 2010 the Head On Photo Festival was born.
I remember someone saying that it would be great if we could get 10 or 12 galleries involved. When I said, “let’s aim at 20 or 25 galleries”, people looked at me as if I was mad.
As it turns out, Head On is now the world’s second largest photographic festival. The 2012 festival kicked off at Sydney’s Customs House on May 4, with a buzzing 2000-strong crowd. Throughout May and June, there were more than 200 events and exhibitions at 100-plus venues and galleries across Sydney and into the Blue Mountains.
The number of portrait prize submissions has grown to the point where we can no longer take submissions on paper. We receive more than 2500 entries per year, which we judge without names to ensure we choose images based only on quality. We have yet to be allocated any state or federal funding to run the festival, so the competition is one of our main revenue streams.
The competition is judged by industry professionals – photographers, picture editors and gallerists – who change each year to keep the prize selection fresh. Emerging artists, established artists, photographers with years of working experience but limited exhibition history all submit work to us on an equal footing; if the work is good, we help make that exhibition happen.
This year, the festival had corporate support from Olympus Imaging Australia and that helped us reach every corner of Sydney; from the large public galleries in the city, such as the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art, to commercial galleries and other venues such as cafes, restaurants and outdoor exhibitions, from Centennial Park to the Blue Mountains.
This year was also the first time we brought over internationally renowned photographers: US-based Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey, who is well known for his assignments for National Geographic, Pablo Bartholomew (India) and Valeriy Klamm (Russia).
I’m very proud also of our partnership with TAFE Sydney Institute of Photography, which gives us an ideal platform and location to connect emerging photographers with the industry’s best. The festival has always been at the forefront of providing exposure for emerging photographers.
Many photographers tell us that through Head On they were able to exhibit in galleries, sold work and gained further career opportunities.
Our only criterion is, “Is it a good photo?” We don’t shy away from controversial topics, but equally we don’t do things because they are politically correct. Yet Head On has provided a forum to highlight important stories and social issues.
In 2010, we exhibited work by Afghan photographers (AINA Photo Agency), auctioned off the images and sent the revenue to the photographers. In 2011, we ran photography workshops for disadvantaged children in inner-Sydney and exhibited their work. This year, Kerry Payne displayed billboards around Sydney dealing with the subject of grief after suicide, and Ginette Snow exhibited images of same-sex parents in normal, everyday family situations. Megan Lewis lived with the Martu people, one of the last Indigenous groups in Australia’s Western Desert to come into contact with Europeans. Her intimate photographs showed the humour, beauty and friendship of the Indigenous community at odds with Western influences.
In 2013 we will be consolidating the size of the festival and refining the quality and impact of the exhibitions and work on display. Having said that, we still have a few announcements up our sleeve that will push Head On to the next level.
Moshe Rosenzveig, the founder and director of Head On Photo Festival, is a photojournalist, commercial photographer, educator and award-winning television producer/director. Keep up to date with Head On Photo Festival announcements at www.headon.com.au or www.facebook.com/HeadOnPhotoFest