The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted almost everything over the last couple of years, and The Eye, described by Magnum photographer David Hurn as “the best photography festival in the UK”, has been no exception.

Running biannually at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in even-numbered years since 2012, last year’s cancellation means for the first time The Eye will land in an odd numbered year, taking place across the weekend of October 16-17.

Founder Glenn Edwards says the idea for the festival came to him while covering the International Ceramics Festival, which is also a biennial event at the Aberystwyth venue.

“The format made perfect sense for photography, along with the same idea – bringing the world’s best to Wales.”

At first the line-up consisted of Edwards pulling in people he knew and had worked with previously, which – given the photographer’s own CV – made for an impressive roster.

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A graduate of the world-renowned documentary photography course at the former Newport School of Art, Edwards has for decades worked on foreign commissions, principally in Africa, where he has delivered more than eighty jobs across 18 countries for media outlets, charities and NGOs including The Independent, Oxfam, Concern Universal and the World Food Programme.

Edwards says “Wales has a reasonable photographic history” but also that the scene can be quite ‘cliquey’ and his aim with The Eye Festival has been to bring an eclectic mix of photographers, often representing wildly different backgrounds and styles, to Aberystwyth.

The National Wales: Women of Tahrir by Laura El TantawyWomen of Tahrir by Laura El Tantawy

Laura El Tantawy is an award-winning British-Egyptian photographer based in London and Cairo.

Her work explores notions of home and belonging through social and environmental issues pertinent to her background, and is recognised for a painterly, lyrical approach.

By contrast, Vanley Burke – often described as “the Godfather of Black British photographers” – documented the early days of the Windrush generation in the 1960s, taking photographs among the black communities in the English Midlands.

His body of work is possibly the most extensive documentation of the Caribbean diaspora in Britain.

Edwards underlines the value of such documentary photography in the most simple terms.

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Referring to the work of Burke, he says: “If you don’t record these things, they’re lost.”

He also says the importance of many of the artists he brings to Aberystwyth lies in their ability to inspire the next generation, and says learning from other photographers is vital for anybody starting out.

To this end, the festival has developed strong links with the University of South Wales, and foundation courses at colleges in Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil that give students the chance to participate in the talks that comprise The Eye.

The National Wales: John Sheridan and his son Dennis watch television together in their mobile home at Dale Farm in the months before the community was evicted Picture: Mary TurnerJohn Sheridan and his son Dennis watch television together in their mobile home at Dale Farm in the months before the community was evicted Picture: Mary Turner

Also appearing this year will be Mary Turner, a news photographer who has also made a name for herself with the Panos agency and long-term projects such as being embedded within Dale Farm in Essex – Europe’s largest traveller community until a series of well-publicised evictions in 2016.

By contrast, Nicola Muirhead, from Bermuda, takes what Edwards describes as “a more conceptual, modern approach to documentary photography”.

She teaches at the London School of Photography and self-describes as a ‘visual storyteller’.

Lalage Snow is an ex-army photographer who has previously produced longform projects such as photographing soldiers before, during and after service in Afghanistan.

Her most recent coffee table book features gardens in warzones.

Having reported from the Middle East since 2007, and having been based in Kabul for five years, she wanted to show that spaces of calm exist within places widely associated with conflict.

The National Wales: Dachshunds fighting over canapes - Iris Love and Brooke Astor with Just Desserts and Dolly Astor at a dachshund party at Barbetta in Manhattan, New York in 1990 Picture: Dafydd JonesDachshunds fighting over canapes - Iris Love and Brooke Astor with Just Desserts and Dolly Astor at a dachshund party at Barbetta in Manhattan, New York in 1990 Picture: Dafydd Jones

Finally, in another huge leap of both subject and style, Edwards describes Dafydd Jones as a ‘social life photographer’.

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Having spent his early years in Carmarthen, after Oxford Jones moved to New York City where he became the party photographer for Vanity Fair, picturing the likes of Mick Jagger and David Bowie at play.

Asked about the Welsh dimension, Edwards explains that in the festival’s early days he “was always hopeful of getting a Welsh photographer” on the bill, but that increasingly he just wants to attract the best.

“We can be guilty of being a little bit insular,” he explains.

That said, the exhibitions running alongside The Eye will certainly give attendees a chance to engage with contemporary Welsh photography.

The National Library of Wales is hosting the work of Nick Treharne, who is aiming to build a comprehensive portfolio of life in Wales.

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His work is described as seeking out “engaging moments in the streets, the countryside and the many events... that are an integral part of Welsh life”.

And The Eye will remember Llanelli-born John Downing, chief photographer at the Daily Express in its heyday and winner of the British Photographer of the Year award a record seven times. Downing died in 2020 and his widow was determined that his work be shown in his native Wales.

The National Wales: Work by Nicola MuirheadWork by Nicola Muirhead

Spread across a weekend, the range of talks, interviews and exhibitions promise a fascinating mix, and Edwards is keen to emphasise the festival’s wide appeal.

“We don’t just talk about photography,” the organiser is keen to stress. “It’s not about F-stops and speeds, it’s about the stories behind the pictures.”

The Eye Festival will be at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and online on October 16-17. For more information, visit theeyefestival.com

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