Looking glass: head to head with Photo London founders Michael Benson and Fariba Farshad

Looking glass: head to head with Photo London founders Michael Benson and Fariba Farshad

The indefatigable husband and wife team behind Candlestar art and education consultancy, Michael Benson and Fariba Farshad, are particularly busy in the spring. It’s when Photo London, one of their most ambitious projects, launches in the grounds of Somerset House and in participating spaces across the city. But this year, it just so happens that the duo’s other flagship project, the international photography and sustainability award Prix Pictet, fell in the same month. On 4 May, this prestigious prize was awarded to Richard Mosse, whose pioneering ‘Heat Maps’ series can be seen at the V&A until the end of the month.

In the run-up to Photo London, Benson and Farshad took time out of their frankly terrifying schedule to talk to us...

Wallpaper*: Logistically, how do you pull something like Photo London together?
Fariba Farshad: It helps that we have a long, long history in the photography world.
Michael Benson: The planning starts almost as the last photographs leave the site in May. We take a short break – five days maybe – and even then we're thinking about what we might do for next year. It takes a year to plan everything. People tease us when they see us sending out a ‘save the date’ in September for the following May.

W*: Sounds exhausting!
MB: In a way its kind of exhilarating. Hopefully we've had a good fair and the exhibitors have gone away happy. You begin to think: ‘what do we do now?’ At the end of each fair, our emails just fall off a cliff. Suddenly, the caravans have moved on and you’re left with an empty inbox!

Helliniko Olympic Arena, by Richard Mosse, 2016, from the series ‘Heat Maps’, 2016-17. © Richard Mosse, Prix Pictet 2017

W*: During the busy planning stage, how do you manage the needs of the public, the exhibitors, the dealers and the collectors?
MB: It’s quite the balancing act. We’re trying to make London an international hub of photography, so the dealers and the collectors are a strong priority for us. We held a big event at the ICA in New York, which was designed to encourage New Yorkers come to London, and we visited Art Dubai in March. These large scale connections with collectors are important. As for the dealers, it’s more about having one-on-one conversations with them. Also, during the course of the year, we have talks for the public. Our job is to engage and educate the public over a 12-month period rather than just the five-day fair.

W*: How does London react to the fair each year?
FF: When we started Photo London in 2015, local dealers told us there were no collectors in town. They said Paris was the place to go. So we took nothing for granted. We started an education programme that brought a whole new group of people to photography. We had 33 talks last year during the fair, and more than 3,000 people attended. This year, we started thinking, ‘Where are the gaps? Where are the areas we haven’t touched in the last two years?’ So this year we are going to see a different, extended approach.

W*: Do you think having an international photography fair in London is particularly important, during these times of political upheaval?
MB: For starters, London is the international capital of culture, so if we didn’t have an international photography fair, it would be lacking something.
FF: In certain countries at certain times, art has been the only boundary-crossing thing that’s kept us open. It’s precious and important to keep these channels open. Which is one of the reasons we chose this year’s Prix Pictet theme: ‘Space’.

Protestor running from tear gas during riots in the Palestinian village of Nilin in the West Bank, by Pavel Wolberg, 2010, from the series ‘Barricades’, 2009–14. © Pavel Wolberg, Prix Pictet 2017

W*: It does seem like a prevalent theme. How did you come up with it?
MB: It was a group effort, including out partners. Each year, we make a list of suggestions and ask ourselves, ‘Does that work? Does that have the breadth?’ The theme can’t be narrow, or it precludes potential submissions, but it shouldn’t be too broad to encompass anything. Saying that, ‘Space’ is a pretty broad theme – it allows for all kinds of different interpretations.

W*: The entries were incredibly diverse. Did you have any personal favourites?
FF: Honestly, they were all great. We had over 600 submissions this year, and had to whittle this in half before sending to the judges to make the final shortlist of 12.

W*: That in itself is a huge amont of work. How was it balancing both Prix Pictet and Photo London falling in the same month?
MB: It’s just been great fun. Excitement drives us. Plus we have a phenomenal team – they are key to our success.