The south of France has long been a storied haven for painters chasing the inspiration of golden Provence sunlight on fields of lavender, sunflowers and the Côte d’Azur. Each year, with 35 exhibitions in spaces from gothic churches to industrial warehouses, one of the world’s biggest and oldest festivals of its kind takes over the town of Arles in the name of a medium even more light-reliant: photography.

Now in its 46th year, the Rencontres d’Arles festival has a new director in Sam Stourdzé, previously of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. Stourdzé took a moment during last-minute installations to speak to Wallpaper* about what we should expect in his first edition and the future of Les Rencontres under his leadership... 

Wallpaper*: You are considered a pioneer in elevating photography to a major art form. Why is it a challenge to gain the same recognition for photography as for painting and sculpture?
Sam Stourdzé: What interests me is that photography and images are of course related to art and are as interesting as painting or sculpture. For some years, we have been doing the history of photography as we do the history of painting. We are able to approach and embrace some projects that have nothing to do with art but more with the question of popular culture or visual history. For example, this year we are doing a huge exhibition on the photography of LP covers. All of the great photographers have done some. So we are able to consider photography in this usual form, that we all have in our homes. This is the objective of the festival: to surprise the public. From an artistic perspective we are in the middle of a revolution with a society where the web is switching from textual to visual. Les Rencontres is there. I want to be sure in the next ten years that we can promote these new artistic approaches to think about the world we are living in.

Seeing and absorbing everything at Les Rencontres is impossible. What are some of the aspects or exhibitions of this year’s edition that you really don’t want visitors to miss?
I’m excited about the complete program. A festival is not a museum. In a museum you do one exhibition after another. In a festival you do an exhibition next to another. Every exhibition is related and talks about where we are in regard to images and photography. For instance, when you go from Walter Evans to Stephen Shore to Martin Parr, you have three generations of great masters that are really linked to each other. The challenge of good artistic direction is that this juxtaposition, by the end of the day, will create a kind of magic.

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the previous leadership of Les Rencontres and the new LUMA Foundation that’s under construction. What’s your response to those who say the festival is losing its spirit?
Of course there was this difficult situation the last two years. Twelve years ago, Les Rencontres opened ateliers to the public that have now been bought by the LUMA Foundation to create an art campus with a new tower by Frank Gehry. Either you think we are losing space, or the other way is to think is that it’s amazing to have so many important cultural actors in a small city. We also have the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie. But we are not in competition with each other. In fact, the real challenge in front of us these next years is to invent together an economic model based on culture – to make Arles an attractive cultural destination for tourists.