'Grab your camera and focus on things you can’t buy with money.' In the spring of 2013, well-known Danish photographer Stephen Freiheit gave this mission to young artists in Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. After having spread his message through the Myanmar Times, Burma’s largest weekly, the Nepalese newspaper República, television channel NTV and the youth organisation Today’s Youth Asia, Stephen received photographs from hundreds of young people exploring their growing democracies from within. Today almost 100 art pieces portraying everyday life in the midst of material poverty and political instability are exhibited in Denmark, a country where one of the most prominent political economic debates during the financial crisis concerned whether or not they should lower the price on candy.
The 'things you can’t buy with money' photography exhibition is part of Images Festival, a Danish art festival which displays contemporary art from developing countries. By showing the art of strong-voiced rappers, photographs, movie-makers, musicians and many more, the festival seeks to create a space for immersion, dialogue, celebration and artistic meetings, and to open the eyes of the Danes to life in developing countries. However, its focus is not typical.
'Death, violence and poverty tend to be common themes when people talk about developing countries. In Images Festival, however, we also want to show all the other sides of the developing countries. People aren’t just sad and miserable all the time. They are normal people who have an everyday life with many different experiences and feelings – just like everybody else,' says Jakob Myschetzky, international director at Centre for Culture and Development, the organisation behind Images.
Stephen Freiheit, who has spent many years travelling in the southeast Asian countries in which his photos are taken, has been careful to let his photographs depict more than just the misery the evening news is already determined to drown us in.
'People are so much more than just empty stomachs and bad health. Of course the problems are there, but they’re not all-encompassing. This was important to keep in mind when we selected the photos for 'things you can’t buy with money'. The man in one of the pictures might have broken and brown teeth, but the teeth are only showing because he's smiling. Humour is also important. It’s funny when a mother and her child are running through the rain covering their heads with pots so big that the child's head disappears into it,' says Stephen Freiheit.
Images Festival 2013 is the eighth of its kind. Every festival has a new theme and this year’s theme was Occupy Utopia.
'For many of the artists participating in the festival Denmark is a kind of utopia in both a material and a political sense. By showing art from developing countries we let the artists occupy Denmark and the Danes’ minds. Their art creates debate: what is the perfect place?' says Jakob Myschetzky.
The Occupy Utopia theme has also found its way to 'things you can’t buy with money'. But instead of letting the viewers of the exhibition rest and interpret the obvious, Stephen Freiheit and the young participating photographers force the audience to think by turning the theme upside down.
'The utopian works both ways. In Denmark everything twinkles and flashes. We have a material wealth which people from the countries which contributed to this exhibition can never buy with money – because they don’t have any. In the western world we tend to believe that we have it all. But many inhabitants of developing countries have things we can't buy with money. In the exhibition we therefore let them occupy us with their spirituality, understanding of the nature and mental awareness,' says Stephen Freitheit.
Because youngsters both are and create the future
'They have the will. They are aware. And most importantly they have the engagement.' In the 'things you can’t buy with money' project there’s a strong focus on young people. Both before and behind the cameras, it is the work of young hands that makes this exhibition. And why? Stephen Freiheit explains that the wish for change and engagement in the fight for development is particularly strong amongst the younger part of the population in developing countries. That also counts for the young photographers from Images Festival.
'Young artists from developing countries don’t have good opportunities to exhibit their art, and they are not encouraged to pursue a career in photography. In spite of that, we received pictures from hundreds of youngsters, and they all showed a great engagement. They want to spread education, ensure better working conditions, change something. A 14-year-old girl from Myanmar sent me a relatively small picture, and I know that it must have been almost impossible and have taken her forever to upload the file even though it wasn’t that big. To experience that kind of commitment is amazing, and of course her picture became a part of the exhibition,' says Stephen Freiheit.