Ephemeral moments that have been frozen mark the San Antonio cityscape this September in a celebratory display of photographers and their art. Known as Fotoseptiembre USA — inspired by Fotoseptiembre Internacional, the photography festival that originated in Mexico City — it has become the second-largest event of its kind in the U.S. From amateurs to professionals, the photography festival features local and international artists in a variety of exhibit spaces and shows.
Yet if the festival has a face, it could be found in the work of a single man: Michael Mehl. Although Mehl's photography is well-known throughout the city, his diligence in organizing the success of the photo festival — as well as SAFOTO, which runs in the alternate years between the biannual Fotoseptiembre — marks the San Antonio Photography Festival director's contributions to the event.
Anjali Gupta: Tell me about Fotoseptiembre USA. How did the festival come about?
Michael Mehl: Fotoseptiembre Internacional is a biannual event, created by El Centro De La Imagen in Mexico City. We have been participating in this event every other year since 1996. Prior to that — and in the intervening years — we were holding the San Antonio Photography Festival (SAFOTO), which was also an international photography event. In April of this year, we were informed that due to budgetary issues stemming from the new government, El Centro would not be holding an event this year. As we already had about 20 events programmed, we decided to go ahead with the festival on our own.
AG: So Fotoseptiembre USA is no longer part of Fotoseptiembre Internacional?
MM: No. Fotoseptiembre USA is now an independent festival, associated with El Centro, but no longer under the same auspice. The San Antonio Photography Festival remains the organizing entity for the festival.
AG: How were you able to pull off a festival without support?
MM: Basically what has happened is that there is a new drive in San Antonio to lend support to existing events like Fotoseptiembre and Contemporary Art Month. That has become somewhat of a boon by virtue of the yearly success and progressive growth of these events. City support is one of the biggest philosophical quandaries in San Antonio both because funding decisions are largely beyond the pale of the general public and because people are constantly trying to reinvent the wheel. This year, we received much needed support due to the fact that we have a proven track record; but city support for the festival is still at an incipient stage. Consequently, however, this is the first year that we are not funding more than 50 percent out of our own pockets.
AG: What is the procedure for scheduling a Fotoseptiembre event? Do you approach venues or artists or both?
MM: Both. Public interest and people's awareness of the event has grown over the years. Art spaces have started automatically scheduling photography events in September. We are now up to 62 venues programming 75 events for this year's festival, which makes Fotoseptiembre USA the second largest photography festival in the country. A number of these venues are outside of San Antonio — including Boerne, the Hill Country, Kerrville, New Braunfels, Austin, Houston, Orlando, and New York. About 220 artists are participating including artists from Peru, Canada, Germany, Iran, Mexico, India, and the U.S.
AG: How closely do you deal with official venues in selecting the work that they exhibit?
MM: I personally curated eight or nine exhibits this year. I do make suggestions to venues, but for the most part, each venue chooses its own direction, which I find ideal. Basically, the whole notion of this festival encourages open participation. There are no selection requirements other than the fact that the work be photo based.
AG: Scheduling seems like it would be a logistical nightmare. Do you participate in that aspect of the event?
MM: Overcoming logistical problems with a festival event lies in creating a standardized procedure. Fortunately, everyone already knows that this event works. To simplify the scheduling process, this year we asked everyone to schedule opening events by geographical location. This makes it much easier for the public to attend multiple events. I also provided venues with a centralized mailing list, produced a calendar and an exhibitions catalog, and designed the exhibit invitations so they would have a cohesive look to them. All of that work serves to create a critical mass.
AG: Do you feel that outside of the festival context, photography as a medium is underrepresented in San Antonio?
MM: No. Not at all. I don't look at photography in the traditional sense of people taking straight photos with a camera, but in terms of photo based work. By virtue of the increase in participation in the festivals we held in the past, I'd say the sheer number of people working with photo-based media has grown exponentially in the last few years. If you look at the work exhibited during this year's Contemporary Art Month, a huge amount was based on photographic techniques. I think that there has not been perhaps an official recognition of this shift or trend, but it is definitely progressing.