MEET: An Experimental Initiative for Photography

MEET is an online initiative and platform for photographers looking to connect with photography and contemporary image-based art professionals around the world. Arteez interviewed Holly Roussell and Alma Cecilia Suarez, the co-founders of MEET to learn more about their concept and how they aim to help the photo-world keep working.

ARTEEZ : By creating the MEET Platform, you have set up a new way for photographers and professionals to collaborate. Can you explain the concept and your goals?

Alma Cecilia Suarez (« ACS ») : While key events to meet, such as fairs and festivals, are cancelled, we wanted to create a new way for photographers to showcase their work and new ways for professionals to continue connecting with artists. 

MEET can be seen from two perspectives. As a professional photographer, MEET allows one to present an ongoing project to trained experts, and to define the goal that one seeks to achieve. For example, a photographer might seek help on making a final selection of photographs. Someone else, at a later stage, may need advice on creating a sequence of images for a future book. MEET is not a portfolio review, the aim for photographers is not to generally present their work for critique, but rather to specifically focus on their most developed project of the moment with a view towards future collaboration. MEET is open to all professional photographers. We value a new talent out of university who is yet to be revealed, as well as fostering the growth of photographers at a later stage in their careers.

Holly Roussell (« HR ») : For experts, MEET is aimed at facilitating the discovery of new and interesting photographic projects. Experts select their professional interests and expertise, as well as the types of photographic work they would like to see. Once the MEET open call submissions have closed, we create, using an algorithm, a selection of submitted works for each expert, based on their criteria of interest. 

Our goal, in developing this digital structure, is to emphasise the personal interests and skills of participating experts as we connect them with artists. In our photography ecosystem, we often use general terms to describe someone’s “role”; for example, the terms “curator” and “editor” can serve as umbrella titles that, in 2020, encompass a diversity of skills. This has often seemed to me in conflict with reality. We each have a diversity of skills and interest areas. Cecilia is an iconographer and an artist particularly skilled in sequencing related to photobooks. I am an independent curator, passionate about collaborating with artists and developing, for instance, the edit of a series, or deciding collaboratively how to install works in a given space. Also, I have a few project ideas in the back of my mind that influence how I am looking at work this year. The structure of MEET aims to take into account these elements by asking experts to describe themselves more comprehensively. 

A final and crucial aspect of our mission was to make MEET inclusive. We have addressed this in a number of different ways. Firstly, to assure equal opportunity to artists from different geographical and financial situations, we have made the open call free of any fees. Secondly, we have worked to connect with experts from different geographic and ethnic backgrounds to assure a diversity of voices on both sides of the platform. 

« Alone on the Moon (Iceland space agency mission), Iceland, 2019 © Benjamin Pothier

MEET would have not been possible without the support and technical infrastructure of Picter.com, the visual-first collaborative content review software, and the number one infrastructure for professional image-based contests and submissions. When we came to them with this idea in May, they shared our enthusiasm to build something that would support our community, in particular, those who are often marginalised by existing structures. We look forward to continuing to improve MEET following this first, pilot edition. 

« Reincarnation », unknown location, 2018 © Nazli Abbaspour

Can you introduce yourself, how you met and your background?

HR: We met at the Musée de l’Elysee in 2014, when Cecilia joined the museum just after having graduated from ECAL. At the time, I was coordinating the worldwide travelling exhibitions programme and photography prize called the Prix Elysée. Alongside this work at the museum, I was collaborating independently with William Ewing on various curatorial projects. William and I worked together and produced – as co-curators – the exhibitions Works in Progress: Photography in China 2015, which was presented at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, and our ongoing travelling exhibition, Civilization: The Way We Live Now. In 2017, I officially left the Musée de l’Elysée to become an independent curator full time. Now, I am based between China and Switzerland (due to the pandemic!). My time is primarily dedicated to research and exhibitions about contemporary photography in post-Mao Chinese art and in the Chinese avant-garde.

ACS: I was born in Fribourg, Switzerland, and I am a Swiss artist and iconographer currently based in London. I have studied at both Cambridge University, with an MPhil. in Sociology of Media and Culture, and at ECAL, with a BA in Photography. Prior to my current role at Artsy, I worked at different major cultural institutions in Europe and abroad such as: Fabrica, Musée de l’Elysée, Montreux Jazz Festival, and the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art. My artistic projects have been nominated as a finalist for the Swiss Photo Award and the Swiss Design Awards 2017, and the Human Rights Photography Prize in Geneva, Switzerland in 2015.

Holly Roussell and Alma Cecilia Suarez hosting MEET on zoom, November 5th. The MEET-ing days lasted three days, during which 138 artists connected with 50 experts.

The MEET Platform aims to build real exchange through virtuality. Have you ever had this kind of experience before?

ACS: 2020 was all about virtual exchange! The pandemic has fostered the aspect of our lives happening online. I believe that exchange can happen at any level, as much digitally as physically. The matter about real exchange is whether there are common interests, or ideas to share between people. I believe that with MEET’s system of objectives and photography typologies, there is room for meaningful conversations and exchanges, because the exchange happens for the right reasons.

HR: Until earlier this year, I was living in Suzhou, China. I used to travel extensively for exhibitions, to meet artists, and to do studio visits. Each year, I would come back at least once to Europe for events and meetings. In today’s world, exchanges are happening virtually, and travel is currently just not an option. It is up to us to make this time meaningful, and I think it offers us occasion for reflection and growth to challenge our presuppositions and processes. 

I have regularly collaborated with colleagues around the world virtually, but can the serendipitous encounter of running into an artist in Arles or at Photo Shanghai be replicated? I am not sure. This is, however, not the ambition of MEET. Through MEET, we want to offer a framework for peer-to-peer, non-hierarchical conversation and exchange, the kinds of conversations that are adapted to the needs of our cultural ecosystem and which do not rely on the competitive dynamics of prizes and awards. 

« Hope / KAUFU 舅父 », Hong Kong, 2020 © Michelle Chan

How do you approach curators to participate in the project?

HR: We started this experiment by making a list of individuals who we knew would share our passion for working with artists and who hunger for discovery. The list definitely began from our own personal networks – which, fortunately, were very different! It grew in later stages to include individuals we identified online, or in conversation with Picter (the visual-first collaborative content review software and the #1 infrastructure for professional image-based contests and submissions.), or other experts, all of whom we felt would make a meaningful contribution to the project for participating artists. It was important to all of us that the list of experts represent professionals from a variety of career stages, with diverse photographic interests, professional capabilities, nationalities, genders and geographies. 

ACS: The approach was simple (haha)!  Like the logistics of a photographic project or an exhibition, launching MEET involves a lot of emails, and the use of Whatsapp, FaceTime and WeChat.

« Llewellyn, The Quingdom ~ In Transition », Johannesburg, South Africa, 2019 © DeLovie Kwagala

You launched the applications at the end of September 2020. How have photography experts and artists welcomed this initiative?

ACS: We underestimated the number of experts accepting to join MEET! Quite quickly, we realised that photography professionals were truly seeking out alternatives to connect with artists. Cancelled events have left a huge gap to fill. This initiative is attempting to see what can be done, and how to keep connecting and collaborating in this changing world. The open call has been extremely well received by the artists, and we have received more than 1175 applications from more than 92 different countries. Feeling that we are supporting our field feels really good. 

MEET-ing on November 6, between Joanna Wierzbicka, based in Lausanne, and Shane Lavalette, based in Syracuse, United States. Photographers and experts look at photographs and write comments on them on Picter Workspace. Picter is the official partner of MEET.

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The first edition of MEET concluded on November 7, 2020. You can follow MEET on Instagram to discover the experts and artists that participated in the first edition here (@meet_for_photo) or subscribe to their newsletter to stay informed about their next edition on the MEET website : www.meet-photo.com

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