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BIFB rights a petty wrong

Inside Imaging is delighted to announce that Jeff Moorfoot (OAM), founder and retired creative director of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB), is finally being acknowledged on the BIFB website as the founder and inaugural creative director of the event.

BIFB, a two-month festival celebrating local and international photography in the regional Victorian city, concluded on October 20

It ain’t much, but BIFB’s About Us section has a new sentence, which says: ‘Its Founding Director, Jeff Moorfoot OAM received an Order of Australia Medal for services to photography’. Jeff’s instrumental role in creating the Ballarat Foto Biennale has gone curiously unacknowledged under the control of new BIFB creative director Fiona Sweet.

Inside Imaging is going to claim this as a small victory. We went out on a limb and brought the omission forward in newsletter editorials,  opinion pieces, and a Readers Poll which had 87 percent of respondents say ‘it’s wrong’ that Jeff receives no mention by BIFB.

Jeff, a fine art photographer from Lyonville, founded the festival in 2005, retiring as creative director in 2016. Fiona Sweet was appointed to the position. While it is her first major exposure to the photographic community, she has an illustrious background in the arts – founder of successful Melbourne design agency, Sweet Creative, and serving as a board member for Melbourne Fringe and Chamber Made Opera.

To quote a legendary photographer, who spoke with Inside Imaging, ‘the baton was not handed, but thrown from one director to the other’. What’s clear is that Jeff’s BIFB and Fiona’s BIFB are vastly different beasts.

Jeff’s BIFB was an underfunded grassroots organisation that relied on a dedicated team of photographers and keen locals volunteering their time, as well as leveraging contacts and building relationships within the photo industry. Despite the outwards appearance of a polished and well-oiled machine, financially it ran on the ‘fumes of an oily rag‘. Behind the scenes there was just enough money to keep the cogs turning, and volunteers who thrived on the organised chaos required to put on the show. Jeff worked on the show for virtually no remuneration for years.

To Fiona’s credit, her ability to secure government grants, astounding levels of (anonymous) philanthropy, and engage the corporate sector for sponsorship has potentially secured BIFB’s financial viability. BIFB’s 2018 Annual Report shows $635,000 in anonymous donations and half-a-mil in profi. In 2016 the festival pulled in just $14,000 of donations, and Jeff left the organisation with ‘a reasonable sum in the bank’. Fiona’s BIFB even purchased an old Ballarat bank building to be a permanent National Centre of Photography.

The 2017 David LaChapelle blockbuster exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, was spectacular.

Yet Fiona also steered the festival away from the original crew of volunteers, and the broader photo industry. She appointed a totally new team and board, and those who had hung around for the last decade weren’t exactly welcomed to come along for the ride. While the original foundation and frame of BIFB remained intact, the interior was torn apart like a Robbie Rowland’s ‘sculptural intervention’ and promptly refurnished with new folk. The centrality of photography has been diminished, and more emphasis has been placed on other visual arts such as sculpture and performance art, and progressive issues for their own sake.

After we published a review with a few critical observations, several photographers who had been with the festival since the early days emerged to privately confirm the hunch was accurate. There’s a concern that it’s a matter of time before BIFB becomes an arts biennale, dropping the ‘Foto’ from the name. Many were also disappointed at what happened to the community they built – they no longer feel a part of it. While the term ‘erased from history’ may be too strong, it’s unfortunately felt by the founding volunteers, who are no longer invited to the opening party. No one is willing to speak on the record.

We felt the outright disrespect to BIFB’s legacy was best represented by Jeff Moorfoot receiving no recognition on the BIFB website or catalogue. You don’t make that kind of omission by mistake. Yet without Jeff’s work, there would be no foundation on which Fiona could build. No National Centre of Photography could be created, and forget about Liu Bolin or David LaChapelle blockbusters, or a Wax’O Paradiso tropical disco closing party.

The 2019 blockbuster, Liu Bolin Camouflage, at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Jeff finally addressed the matter in a comment following our review.

Here is Jeff’s full comment:

‘As I keep getting mentions regarding my legacy, I feel a timely response is warranted. Let me start by saying that it worries me little that recognition for my achievements as founder and festival director of the BIFB is not front and centre. I’m proud of what I did in my 12-odd years in the hot seat and with what I managed to achieve in what was mainly an uphill struggle from almost day one. The guiding purpose was always to show the diversity of photographic genres, and to introduce Australian audiences to interesting international artist and to break Australian talent both here and abroad.

Unfortunately the archive of that slow build from the original DFB in 2005 to the highly respected and successful BIFB’15 when I handed over the reins has disappeared, along with most of the infrastructure we accumulated those 12 years. I still have dribs and drabs of files from all of those events on various hard drives, and copies of most festival programmes and Core Program Catalogues, but unfortunately all seem to have disappeared from the public record.

The festival now has a potentially marvellous headquarters ( let’s hope it doesn’t become a millstone around the neck of the organisation into the future) and branding far in advance of anything I was able to achieve on my meagre budget. Nonetheless, I have found the focus the BIFB has taken since, quite disappointing. In my opinion, independent curators have done nothing to enhance the reputation of the event. A case in point is the Martin Kantor Portrait Prize, notwithstanding the judges pick for the winner, but once again the prize was poorly lit, and what curator worth their salt would place print labels so that viewers were required almost to get on their knees to view the information? I enjoyed the Adi Ness show at the Post Office Gallery as well as the Liu Bolin blockbuster at the art gallery, but didn’t think it was worth the $18 ticket price (luckily one of the volunteers from back in the day gave me their complimentary pass – thanks John!).

I didn’t get to see everything in the open program – only 70 odd shows this year as against 120+ in 2015 – but there was some good photography to be seen and a healthy smattering of red dots amongst the shows that I visited. One has to question the decision to expand the month-long festival into two months. On my three visits, apart from opening Saturday, there seemed to be empty volunteer chairs in many venues. I have the feeling in my bones that Photo 2020, which should be a major shot in the arm for photography and photographers, will be much the same as BIFB’19.

Anyhow, I have long moved on, and now am no more than an interested observer, happy to call it as I see it, to have my life back, and to continue to promote interesting and diverse photography through BETA developments in photography, and as an independent curator on the international stage, promoting Australian photographers to the rest of the world, free from the stultification of administrators and bureaucrats.

We politely disagree with Jeff. It’s not just about his legacy, but recognising the grassroots foundation of BIFB, was built by a dedicated team who simply did it for the love of photography. We feel Jeff symbolises this. And by BIFB now recognising him, it’s putting differences aside and paying due respect to the community of volunteers who helped over the years. So we feel it’s the righting of a petty wrong that his name appears – albeit fleetingly – on the BIFB website.

– Will Shipton

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