~ Posted by Simon Willis, July 9th 2012
On Friday evening in Arles, Provence, orange numbers began appearing across town. They were projected onto walls and apartments blocks, bell towers and churches. Next to each number was a big screen, and in front of each screen were rows of blue chairs. I was with friends at Les Rencontres d'Arles, one of Europe's largest photography festivals, and this was "Nuit de l'Année" or "The Night of the Year". The big screens around Arles were shared by magazines, newspapers and photo agencies displaying what their photographers have been doing over the last year. At 10pm, once it was dark and the mosquitoes were ravenous, we joined the crowd strolling from screen to screen. At 3am, the orange numbers disappeared.
Arles is the kind of picturesque town that people propose in—all cobbled squares and winding medieval streets, with the odd Roman ruin thrown in—so it was refreshing to find the trail of orange digits drawing us towards less familiar corners. Number 3 led us down a drab little road, through a gate marked interdit aux chiens to a patch of grass by a block of flats. The screen was showing photographs of Muscovites in 1991, 2001 and 2011, 20 years' worth of ordinary Russians—old women with flowers, young women in denim jackets, soldiers in their cartoonishly large peaked hats. Then came a montage of pictures about the Republican caucuses in Iowa, a smiling Mitt Romney glad-handing Midwesterners, all to a hip-hop soundtrack, courtesy of Mos Def's "Quiet Dog" (somebody hadn't read the sign on the gate). Incongruous, yes, but that's what this was about, familiar subjects in unexpected locations.
Number 5 was a screen in the playground of a primary school, Ecole Maternelle, complete with climbing frames. It made an improbable setting for a series of pictures of Afghan refugees and a moving one for Jon Lowenstein's photographs of America's only female chain gang. We saw them in prison in Arizona, in the exercise yard, and by a grave, where a little white coffin containing the body of a baby was being buried—the chain gang helps out with burials.
At 1am, we joined a queue on the bank of the Rhone, with two rows of candles stretching for about 150 yards in front of us. We had no idea what the queue was for, but eventually it began to move, and we walked towards two giant stone plinths, with lions crouched on top. We sat down, expecting more photos, but we heard animal noises instead, and a commentary which compared French politicians to animals in a zoo. At the end someone at the back slapped a mosquito on their leg. It sounded like a clap, and sparked a round of applause—a serendipitous moment in tune with the whole evening.