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La Gacilly Turns Twenty: Nature at the Heart of the Commune

Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, this free open-air photography festival continues to focus on nature in all its forms, from the climate crisis to human relations, with a tinge of hope and poetry. This anniversary edition of the festival, like many other cultural events, must also confront economic realities.

Twentieth birthday celebrations mean inviting your close friends, reuniting your followers and family members, and corralling your fellow travelers who always end up coming back. This year, the La Gacilly Photo Festival celebrates its second decade with the unwavering desire to bring photography into the spotlight, welcoming everyone into the open air, free of charge. From June 1 to October 1, the walls, streets, and gardens of this small Morbihan town of 4,000 will once again narrate the world through images.

Tina Bakasek's home on newly acquired land following Camp Fire. "This is where I met and married my first love. It's where I started my family and raised my children. I feel extremely lucky to have survived Camp Fire, I wouldn't leave Paradise for anything in the world." - August 2021
Tina Bakasek’s home on newly acquired land following Camp Fire. “This is where I met and married my first love. It’s where I started my family and raised my children. I feel extremely lucky to have survived Camp Fire, I wouldn’t leave Paradise for anything in the world.” August 2021. © Maxime Riche

This year’s theme, Nature as Heritage, reminds us that using photography to raise awareness of the need to safeguard our shared home has always been at the core of La Gacilly’s identity. “We’ve treaded this path for twenty years, trying to show a positive ecology, to show nature as a heritage that we must pass on to our children and grandchildren,” explains Cyril Drouhet, curator of the festival’s exhibitions and director of photography and reporting at Figaro Magazine

Since it was launched in 2004, the festival exhibited nearly 330 photographers: Doisneau, Lartigue, Abbas, Koudelka, Horvat… have all been there. Once again this year, the work of some of the best-known photographers will be on view in oversized format, under the trees and along the water’s edge. 

Man & Earth

Visitors are greeted at the entrance by a group of penguins perched on an Antarctic ice floe. The photo—a huge canvas mounted on the wall of a house—is by American David Doubilet, a living legend in underwater photography. Aged 77, the author of a dozen books and over seventy National Geographic articles reminds us that our knowledge of the deep sea is limited to the tip of the iceberg: “We see and know only a fraction of the oceans. … Shooting underwater is so technical that getting a good underwater photo is its own reward. But the real prize is raising awareness.”

A Circle of Barracuda surround diver Dinah Halstead in the clears waters of Papaua New Guinea © David Doubilet
A Circle of Barracuda surround diver Dinah Halstead in the clears waters of Papaua New Guinea © David Doubilet
Gentoo and chinstrap penguins on an ice floe near danko island antarctica © David Doubilet
Gentoo and chinstrap penguins on an ice floe near danko island antarctica © David Doubilet

Sebastião Salgado, another of Mother Nature’s ambassadors, madly in love with the Amazon, shares his stunning black-and-white images which come to life in the shade of the foliage. At La Gacilly, photography lives and breathes, and expresses itself beneath the blue sky. Attentive to the photographers’ demands, the festival knows how to honor their work. The oversize, high-quality prints—made, in the case of the largest images, using ultrasonic welding technology—respect the work and enhance it. 

Beth Moon’s trees have never looked so majestic. Brent Stirton’s jaguars, their jaws wide open, are larger than life. Thanks to the support of the Yves Rocher Foundation, the South African photographer, one of the festival’s most loyal companions, traveled to the Pantanal region, the world’s largest wetland in Brazil. “If the Amazon is the lungs of the planet, the Pantanal is its heart,” we are reminded by the journalist Vincent Jolly, who accompanied the photographer on this assignment. In 2020, a wave of devastating fires destroyed almost 30% of this treasure trove of biodiversity, killing 17 million animals. 

Bela Yawanawá with headdress and painted face. Rio Gregório indigenous territory, Acre state, Brazil, 2016.
Bela Yawanawá with headdress and painted face. Rio Gregório indigenous territory, Acre state, Brazil, 2016. © Sebastião Salgado
Heart of the Dragon © Beth Moon
Heart of the Dragon © Beth Moon
© Brent Stirton
© Brent Stirton

This tragedy resonates with Maxime Riché’s series. On November 8, 2018, the town of Paradise, California, was transformed into an inferno. In less than four hours, homes turned to ash, ravaged by the deadliest fire in US history, which claimed nearly 90 victims in this town of 90,000. In a process explicitly reminiscent of Richard Mosse’s work, the French photographer used color infrared film formerly used for military aerial spotting.

The forest blazes bright red, the hills suffocate in yellow. “I wanted to convey the anguish and the mental state of people who have lost everything in less than four hours,” explains Riché. In 2021, another megafire in California—active for three and a half months—burned the equivalent of three times the surface area of San Francisco. Paradise was spared on that occasion. 

Skyway road. A new sign erected after Camp Fire indicates the rebuilding of the town. Camp Fire devastated 620 sq km of forest, destroying 18,800 houses with a death toll of 86 people, with another 3 injured and 11 still missing. The population of the town of Paradise was estimated at 26,000 inhabitants at the time of the fire. © Maxime Riche
Skyway road. A new sign erected after Camp Fire indicates the rebuilding of the town. Camp Fire devastated 620 sq km of forest, destroying 18,800 houses with a death toll of 86 people, with another 3 injured and 11 still missing. The population of the town of Paradise was estimated at 26,000 inhabitants at the time of the fire. © Maxime Riche

Meanwhile, city dwellers continue to multiply. According to the United Nations, two out of every three human beings will inhabit an urban area by 2050, and there will be 43 cities with populations over 10 million, that is twice as many as today. A good friend of the festival—and even its ambassador, since he helped set up the festival’s Austrian branch in Baden—Pascal Maitre has seen the world’s cities metamorphose. “I think Kinshasa’s expansion has been the most spectacular and chaotic,” he observes.

A color photographer and an Africanist, the photojournalist delivers in Metropolis an impressively staged panorama of twelve of the world’s major cities: Kinshasa (14 million inhabitants) in the DRC; Cairo in Egypt (over 22 million); Norilsk in Russia’s far north (183,000); La Rinconada in Peru, with its 50,000 inhabitants perched at an altitude of nearly 17,000 feet… Like his colleagues Cassio Vasconcellos and Luca Locatelli, Maitre exposes social and environmental issues at stake in this exploding, anarchic urbanization. 

The Kimbanseke district is called China because it's so densely populated. Kinshasa has a population of 15 million.
The Kimbanseke district is called China because it’s so densely populated. Kinshasa has a population of 15 million.© Pascal Maitre
In Antananarivo, Manarintsoa is a poor neighborhood with no street lighting. Here a street vendor is selling hot dishes. It is difficult to survive in the capital which is one of the poorest cities in the world. © Pascal Maitre
In Antananarivo, Manarintsoa is a poor neighborhood with no street lighting. Here a street vendor is selling hot dishes. It is difficult to survive in the capital which is one of the poorest cities in the world. © Pascal Maitre
© Cassio Vasconcellos
© Cassio Vasconcellos
© Luca Locatelli
© Luca Locatelli

Where do we stand in all that? For an answer, we must turn to the work of American twins Peter and David Turnley who look back at half a century of human history. The Turnleys are a pair of renowned photojournalists who, with great sensitivity, recount the history of the past fifty years of photography, covering everything from the twentieth century’s wars and major crises to a French kiss at a Parisian café terrace.

David Turley, “the most Parisian of all Americans,” as Cyril Drouhet calls him, in love, like his brother, with the French capital, is present in La Gacilly to tell us about one of his first stories. In 1978, the young photographer met a farming couple, Anna and Flander, outside Detroit, Michigan. Moved by “the harmony between Man and Earth” the couple exuded, Turnley spent two years visiting them like his second family. “I wanted to understand how two people could love each other for sixty years, and how all their farm work could be in such harmony.” The result is a series of infinitely tender, everyday moments, ranging from work, to meals, to smiles and discreet kindness, to prayer.

Anna and Flander Hamlin climb up to the hayloft in their barn. © David Turnley / Corbis / VCG via Getty
Anna and Flander Hamlin climb up to the hayloft in their barn. © David Turnley / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images)

A breath of fresh air

On its anniversary, La Gacilly also reminds us that twenty is the age of possibilities, of daring to think outside the box. The festival took a number of bold, well-considered side-steps. Even some UFOs came to disturb the peace of this beautiful village! The idea came from Sacha Goldberger, represented by Valérie-Anne Giscard d’Estaing’s Galerie XII—which also exhibits Vee Speers and her dreamlike, feminine universe. Goldberger’s Alien Love is original, funny, and profound.

“This is not AI,” signals the former art director. “Thirty-five people participated in this shoot, which took place in an outdoor studio just outside Los Angeles.” Featuring kitschy 1950s’ settings, where aliens read Playboy quietly stretched in bed, the project raises a vital question: What are we doing to our planet? In the end, the little alien finds himself all alone on Earth he has destroyed and made inhospitable. 

© Sacha Goldberger
© Sacha Goldberger
© Sacha Goldberger
© Sacha Goldberger

The festival offers a breath of fresh air by welcoming new forms of photography. In addition to Evgenia Arbugaeva’s enchanting, yet very real, faraway world of the Russian Arctic, there is a superb exhibition of embroidered photographs by Ivorian Joana Choumali, and in particular her series, Ça va aller [It’ll Be Alright], which won the Pictet Award in 2019.

“The project stems from my need to express myself in the wake of the Grand-Bassam terrorist attack,” says the artist. [Perpetrated on March 13, 2016, in a tourist district of the Ivorian seaside resort of Grand-Bassam, the attack killed 19 people. –Ed.] “When I returned to the scene, I felt how sad my beloved town had become, how battered it was.” Choumali then began to embroider the photos taken with her cell phone to create an imaginary world, straddling dream and reality.

“I was dealing with health issues at the time. It was a pretty difficult period, and this work offered me self-therapy,” admits the artist who is presenting a second series, Alba’hian, which means “the break of day” in Agni, the language spoken in her father’s native village. The project is dedicated to the contemplation of the first light of day.

© Joana Choumali
© Joana Choumali

“For all its beauty, it’s still a fragile event”

“It’ll Be Alright” could also be the festival’s motto. Six months ago, festival president Auguste Coudray sounded the alarm. With a budget of 1 million, including 20% public funds, 60% private funds—40% of which are provided by Yves Rocher—and the remainder generated by festival’s own earnings (merchandise, rental of exhibits to the Baden edition…), the 2024 festival was at risk.

“I realized that I was 200,000 euros short. So, I grabbed my pilgrim’s staff and went on a tour of local companies and other players. Like many other cultural events, the festival is in turmoil due to inflation and skyrocketing costs of living. I appealed to the circular economy, telling people, ‘If you want this event to go on, you need to support it, you need to look after the goose that lays golden eggs’.”

In this region, the rain is so dense that it makes this mountain in the Imeri range look like a volcano. Municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Yanomami indigenous territory. State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2018.
In this region, the rain is so dense that it makes this mountain in the Imeri range look like a volcano. Municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Yanomami indigenous territory. State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2018. © Sebastião Salgado

For several years now, La Gacilly has had a remarkable turnover. According to a 2017–2018 study, it helped generate 7 million euros in sales in the area. Every summer, the festival welcomes 300,000 visitors—compared to 3,000 to 4,000 in the early years—and is said to bring around 100 full-time-equivalent jobs.

“For all its beauty, it’s still a fragile event,” lucidly notes the president, and his festival is not the only event to bear the brunt of the current crisis. “But I am confident that we have it covered for the next three years. I am a firm believer in this event, and I can’t imagine it ever coming to an end.”

La Gacilly Photo Festival, June 1 to October 1 2023.

© Vee Speers
© Vee Speers
© Vee Speers
© Vee Speers
The Great Western, Red Cedar of Gelli Aur © Beth Moon
The Great Western, Red Cedar of Gelli Aur © Beth Moon

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