On September 6, 2019, during the inauguration days of the 16th KAUNAS PHOTO festival, five parts of the exhibition “KAUNAS PHOTO STAR 2019 Finalists” were opened one after another in Kaunas old town. The exhibition openings were attended by the authors who presented their exhibited works and talked about their ideas and creative processes. At the end of the itinerary, the Winner of KAUNAS PHOTO STAR Award was disclosed – Belgian visual artist and photographer Maxime Matthys. His series “2091: The Ministry of Privacy” is exploring the mechanism of facial recognition technologies used by the Chinese government to monitor and oppress the inhabitants of the Xinjiang region. This series reveals the intrusiveness and the danger of this invisible technology, while documenting and paying tribute to what remains of these communities’ vibrant culture, before its planned disappearance. The resulting photographs blur the borders between reality and virtuality, but also embody, in the same picture, a glimpse of the future and the ruins of the past. The Winner of KAUNAS PHOTO STAR competition received a solo exhibition at Kaunas Photography Gallery and a 2500 EUR monetary prize.
During the opening of the exhibition, Maxime Matthys expressed gratitude to the festival for the opportunity to present this little-discussed topic, shared his ideas behind the project “2091: The Ministry of Privacy” and related some of his experiences while developing it. While traveling and photographing in China, the author said that he was constantly tracked, arrested a total of 7 times, and his photographs were being inspected.
According to the author, for the past 2 years, China has been conducting a massive crackdown against Muslim-minority communities in its vast western Xinjiang region. Some of the most advanced surveillance technologies, such as facial recognition and DNA collection are being massively deployed in the region so as to monitor every aspect of the inhabitant’s life.
M. Matthys travelled to Kashgar, one of the last bastions of the Uyghur culture in Xinjiang, and probably the most monitored city of the region, to try to document the way the government turned technologies into tools of repression.
Prior to his departure, he developed a facial recognition software in collaboration with William Attache, a French IT engineer. The software they developed is similar to that used by the Chinese government, particularly in the Xinjiang region to track its inhabitants. They programmed the software to recognize the people in a photograph and to directly draw the biometric information about the faces of the people that appear in the photographs, exactly as it is happening inside the surveillance cameras. Depending on the technology, some are displayed using red dots — called facial landmarks — others using Delaunay diagrams, an efficient alternative for mapping faces.
M. Matthys then began to photograph the daily lives of the Uyghurs and the other minorities under threat, without having to focus on the surveillance system itself. Back in his hotel room, he uploaded the pictures into the facial recognition software, which automatically recognized and drew the respective biometric facial information of the citizens in the photographs.
Thanks to the sponsor Hikvision.lt, the exhibition “2091: The Ministry of Privacy” in Kaunas Photography Gallery features an installation similar to the surveillance system used by the Chinese government, and live footage can be seen on a big screen set up right among the photographs.
Maxime Matthys was born in 1995 in Brussels, Belgium. He studied photography at the Toulouse school of photography and design in 2015 and photojournalism in Paris in 2017. After working for the press industry, he realized he was more interested in including the viewer into a thinking process and allowing him to recreate his own story. His work focuses on the way technologies are affecting our daily life and are shifting our perception of reality. While exploring new forms of narrative in photography, he keeps documenting the important issues that are shaping our future. Winner of international awards, his work has notably been showcased at the European House of Photography (Paris), Camando Design school (Paris), at international festivals in Canada, Indonesia and France and published in Le Monde, Médiapart, Libération, Fisheye Magazine, amongst others.
KAUNAS PHOTO STAR tradition started in 2010, awarding the best participant of portfolio reviews with a solo exhibition at Kaunas Photography Gallery and paying respect to a potential future star of photography. In 2018 KAUNAS PHOTO STAR Award gained a new tradition of staging an exhibition of all Finalists, after selecting them by the votes of an international Jury panel. The works of the highest-ranked finalists are exhibited in a joint exhibition, and the winner – at Kaunas Photography Gallery. The winner also receives a cash prize.
Following the votes of an international Jury panel, 8 Finalists have been selected in KAUNAS PHOTO STAR 2019 competition. Although KAUNAS PHOTO STAR Award competition is open to a variety of themes, styles, genres and approaches to photography, most of the entries featured this year’s festival theme “Digital-Virtual-Real”. The prevailing documentary photography genre invites to focus on processes, consequences of digitized lifestyle, data flow, communication, cyber-crime and -security, machine learning, surveillance, automation, dangers and fragile borders.
The works of the 8 finalists can be visited until October 6 in the exhibition “KAUNAS PHOTO STAR 2019 Finalists” distributed across five venues in Kaunas old town:
- Kaunas Photography Gallery (Vilniaus St. 2) – Maxime Matthys (Belgium) “2091 : The Ministry of Privacy”;
- Gallery „Meno Parkas“ (Rotušės Sq. 27) – Kai Löffelbein (Germany) “Ctrl-X, a topography of e-waste”, Agata Wieczorek (Poland) “Simulation Centers” and Samuel W. J. Fordham (UK) “C-R92/BY”;
- Kaunas City Museum Folk Music Branch (L. Zamenhofo St. 12) – John Angerson (UK) “On this Day” and Paulo Simão (Portugal) “Goodbye Pyongyang”;
- Kaunas Public Library of Vincas Kudirka – Department of Youth, Art and Music (A. Mapu St. 18) – Marko Zink (Austria) “Mauthausen – The Eradication of Memories”;
- Kaunas Cultural Centre of Various Nations (Šv. Gertrūdos St. 58) – Christopher Sims (USA) “Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan”.
KAUNAS PHOTO is the longest-running annual photographic festival in Lithuania and the Baltic States. Maintaining its strong international character, KAUNAS PHOTO is a platform of priemieres of emerging talents. Since its first edition in 2004, it’s been organized by the NGO „Šviesos raštas“ and is regarded to be one of the most important continuous art events in the country. KAUNAS PHOTO is a member of „Festivals of Light“ organization. The founder and the director of the festival is Mindaugas Kavaliauskas.