Houston's FotoFest Explores the Dynamics of Change as We Look at the Future of the Planet

We've all met them: those parasitic human beings who only understand the words “what's yours is mine” and view the planet as both their personal buffet and their refuse-strewn dumping ground. Thankfully, we've also got some wonderful people and organizations who pay it forward, do unto others and find ways to volunteer, donate or leave the world a better place.

Houston-based FotoFest is one of the good guys, with its biennial photographic festival – the longest-running international photographic festival in the United States – regularly touching on important social and aesthetic issues. For this year's biennial, the topic is "CHANGING CIRCUMSTANCES: Looking at the Future of the Planet."

“There's a background to this. FotoFest has done a number of exhibitions over the years that have focused on the environment,” says Steven Evans, executive director of FotoFest and one of the co-curators of the 16th International Biennial of Photography and Mixed Media Arts, along with co-curators and FotoFest co-founders Wendy Watriss and Frederick Baldwin. In 1994, the biennial focused on the global environment; a decade later, FotoFest celebrated water and explored the global water crisis, and the theme for 2006's biennial was “The Earth.”

For this year's core event, 34 photographers from nine countries are exploring our relationship with the environment, but with different approaches. “Their work shows the beauty and the wonder of the planet Earth and also shows humanity's impact on the environment, and some of the things that are being done to either educate people about their relationship to the earth or propose positive action that can be taken,” says Evans.

For example, works by U.S. photographer Amy Balkin focus on climate models, auroras and air pollution, and she's producing a poster for the event that visitors can take home. “We look up into the air and see space, and we don't think about it as an occupied part of the earth,” says Evans, who says Balkin gained information about the atmosphere from some of the scientists participating in the March 24-26 Marfa Dialogues/Houston event, one of the biennial offerings.

Mandy Barker, from the United Kingdom, takes a different approach, using the discarded plastics from our trash to create cosmic compositions against dark backgrounds. “It's about all the human waste that gets put into the oceans,” says Evans. “A lot of this [scenes from her images] is plastics, stuff that doesn't break down. Her work is showing the little plastic toys, pellets, little plastic objects, food containers.”

Several of the photographers use airplanes and helicopters, including Daniel Beltrá from Spain. “It's about the fragile ice that's there in Greenland; it's beautiful but extremely fragile,” says Evans about the icy blue and white aerial photography. Canada's Edward Burtynsky also captures aerial images, including Mexico's Colorado River tributaries, as well as muddy, dark and fiery landscapes from around the world.

For those not familiar with FotoFest, it's actually an enormous regional event that spans beyond the three core exhibition venues in the Washington Avenue Arts District: Silver Street Studios (home of the FotoFest headquarters), Spring Street Studios and the Silos at Sawyer Yards, plus the gallery at Williams Tower (in The Galleria area). The six-week festival also includes 120 other venues (galleries, museums, universities and schools) across Houston and surrounding areas.

It's also going to be the first opportunity for the public to view the front part of the Silos at Sawyer Yards building, which is in the process of being built out as a mixed-use space for artists, professionals, yoga studios and a theater.
Associated programming includes forums and dialogues, artist talks and video presentations, film programs, concerts, artist-curator exhibition tours and a special school curriculum. There's a new website for this biennial, which provides photographers' images, schedules and additional information about the fine print auction, portfolio reviews, professional development seminars and publications. FotoFest also publishes a biennial map that lists participating venues.

Highlights include the opening-night party from 7 p.m. until midnight on Friday, March 11 (Washington Avenue Arts District), as well as two “Bike Scramble” tours scheduled for Saturday, April 9 at 10:30 a.m. (beginning at Silos at Sawyer Yards, 1502 Sawyer) and Saturday, April 23 at 10:30 a.m. (beginning at Silver Street Studios, 2000 Edwards). There's also a FotoFun Family Day designed to further engage youth and families; that's scheduled for Sunday, April 12 from noon to 4 p.m. at Silver Street Studios.

"CHANGING CIRCUMSTANCES: Looking at the Future of the Planet" is March 12 through April 24. Regular viewing hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (March 12-31) and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays to Sundays (April 1-24). For information, call 713-223-5522 or visit