Behind the lense with Sam Stourdzé, director of Rencontres de la Photographie d'Arles photography festival

Sam Stourdzé has been the director of the Rencontres de la photographie d'Arles for five years—the highly successful photography festival will celebrate its 50th anniversary this summer between July 1 and September 22. Follow along to discover its rich history and projects.

The Rencontres d'Arles were first conceived in 1970. What was the festival like at the time?

Sam Stourdzé: The festival was created by three visionaries: Lucien Clergue, an Arlesian photographer; Michel Tournier, a writer; and Jean-Maurice Rouquette, an historian. At the time, photographs were not exhibited anywhere, not in museums, not in exhibit rooms, let alone in festivals. For its first edition, there were only three exhibits and one opening ceremony, held in the Hall of Honor of the Arles City Hall. The organizers were delighted to have a full house by bringing together 200 people. One could say that the Rencontres have grown quite a bit ever since!

This picture is very different from the one we see today!

Sam Stourdzé: At the beginning, the Rencontres d'Arles attracted specialists, photography fans, who came with their camera hanging across their shoulder. Now, the festival aims to attract a large audience. Last year, it received more 140,000 visitors and featured 35 exhibits, distributed along different venues across the city. This year, we will go even further. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, we have programmed 50 exhibitions. We are also preparing quite an exceptional opening night on Monday July 1st—a large traveling carnival with free admission in downtown Arles, featuring screenings, live music, stands, and inventions related with photography.

Ever since your arrival five years ago, you have sought to open up to different disciplines in the festival. Can you walk us through that?

Sam Stourdzé: The Rencontres have always been built upon disruptions, giving way to heated debates every single time. At the end of the 70s, the festival began including color photography, at a time where black and white seemed like the only guarantee of artistic work. More recently, it became interested in video and digital. In 2016, we also launched the VR Arles Festival to offer visitors fiction works, documentaries and artistic creations that were created using virtual reality. The Rencontres d'Arles must provide a space for reflection around images in all shapes and formats, all within a playful, relaxed environment.

''This year, we invested in a wild garden, a sort of 5,000 m2 (53819 ft2) jungle right next to the train station''.

Today it seems that the festival and the city work as one single entity. Would you agree?

SS: This is so true, to the point where today we refer to ''Arles'' in the same way we speak about ''Cannes.'' We no longer need to clarify that the former city hosts a photography festival, or that the latter is home to a film festival. Every year, our goal is to surprise the audience, proposing new venues, always accessible by foot: churches, museums, industrial wastelands, houses. Last year, we included a new space on the first floor of Monoprix supermarket. And this year, we invested in a wild garden, a sort of 5,000 m2 (53819 ft2) jungle right next to the train station.

Is it possible to imagine the Rencontres outside the Arles city limits?

Sam Stourdzé: This is happening already. Four years ago, we launched the Grand Arles Express, a program outside the traditional scope of the Rencontres d'Arles. This involves certifying other exhibits in nearby towns, with free admission for visitors with a ticket. If you come to Arles this year, you can travel around the entire region to discover artists in Avignon, Nîmes, Marseille, Toulon, Cavaillon or Port-de-Bouc. We harbor an ambition to turn the Grand Sud into a photography destination.