Terry Grimley spends the day at Hereford's photography festival.


If asked to name the city which hosts the UK's only annual photography festival, I'm not sure how many people would correctly identify Hereford.

In fact, the event in this supposedly sleepy cathedral city has been sustained for an impressive 18 years, though evidently not with-out some difficulty and soul-searching. Apparently some local critics have accused it of being "elitist" - which to outsiders and potential visitors might simply mean that it is showing interesting work which is worth travelling some distance to see.

That was certainly the case in 2004, the only previous festival I managed to see. This year it has moved from October to May and, sad to report, it has been significantly scaled-down in size and ambition.

Four years ago the headline star was Chinese photographer Wang Qinsong with two huge tableaux satirically reflecting China's embrace of the West.

Qinsong has subsequently reappeared among the wave of Chinese artists who have attracted international attention, and I have also seen more of Dutch photographer Annet van der Voort, whose work I also encountered for the first time in Hereford that year.

This time there are about half as many exhibitions as there were four years ago, and the mix is less wide-ranging. It completes the two-part South African focus launched at last October's festival.

The difficulty here is that South Africa has been so exhaustively documented by photo-journalists since Mandela's release that you wonder whether there is really anything fresh left to say about it. Certainly Beyond the Rainbow, Birmingham photographer Andrew Jackson's series of portraits of the younger generation in a country where half the population is under 21 does not demand very prolonged study.

In fact, much the most interesting exhibition in the festival can be found at the top of those stairs. Roger Ballen was born in New York nearly 60 years ago but has lived in Johannesburg for 30 years, having originally gone there as a geologist.

His exhibition Shadow Chamber reveals a private world, edgily balanced between the quirky and the downright sinister, so that you don't quite know whether to laugh or shiver.

These black-and-white images show human beings and animals in shabby rooms with graffitied walls and with a bizarre assortment of props, which the figures are often wearing. The titles frequently provide a final off-kilter touch.

One example is called Bitten. On the right a spindly bare-legged figure clad in an anorak crouches on a chair, while on the left a snake crawls off into the corner.

Elsewhere, dogs and cats play their parts in these bizarre pantomimes and while I doubt actual animal cruelty took place the possible exploitation of the human actors would be bound to animate any debate about Ballen's work.

The exhibition which shares the main gallery space with Ballen, Black Empowerment by Swedish photographer Per-Anders Pettersson, is far more conventional. However, it does actually succeed in adding something to our picture of South Africa by focusing on a simple theme: members of the black community who are enjoying a new affluence. They are shown, fashionably clad, in colour, at a wedding, at the seaside or splashing around in a domestic swimming pool.

The other side of this particular coin is Jodi Bieber's exhibition Between Dogs and Wolves, showing at the Courtyard Arts Centre. The theme here is young people - white as well as black - on the fringes of South African society.

These extremely bleak black-and-white photographs show rough sleepers including one boy who appears to be sleeping in a drain. The most shocking image, however, is of a dead baby found abandoned in a bucket. In a special caption Bieber describes how this grim discovery was made when she was travelling with the Child Protection Unit.

She writes: "I chose to photograph and exhibit the picture as I knew you would be angry and stop in your tracks."

Black-and-white features more heavily than four years ago, with Israeli photographer Guy Raivitz's large and distinctly arid desertscapes at the Courtyard and an exhibition of vintage photographs of Hereford's cattle market contributed by local residents at the Cider Museum.

However, the last substantial exhibition is very much about colour. Petros Village,byJohannesburg-born Guy Tillim, is a study of life in a village in Central Malawi where people evidently scratch a perilous, borderline existence out of the dry soil.

Tillim achieves baroque lighting effects in his indoor portraits, where brown skin and brightly-dyed clothing glow richly out of the darkness.

Tillim conveys the dignity of these people, but it is still impossible to escape an uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism in contemplating the difficulty of their lives - something which is only accentuated by the photographs of an altogether more comfortable existence in a Herefordshire village, Moreton-on-Lugg, taken by staff and students of Hereford College of Arts as a counterpoint to Tillim's work.

At the college itself, Ilam Godfrey's Paramount Place, recording the decline of the once-prosperous Johannesburg district of Hillbrow, gives another, not particularly comforting, per-spective on contemporary South Africa.

Finally, My Life juxtaposes photographs taken by schoolchildren from Greyton, South Africa, and Fairfield High School, Hereford.

The festival is about to advertise for a director. Richard Heatly, principal of Hereford College of Arts and chair of the festival, says: "We will be looking for someone with the artistic vision and enthusiasm to take the festival forward, connect with and expand local and regional audiences and rise to the challenge of bringing in funding to support future plans.

"They will not necessarily have to have a background directly in photography exhibition or curating, but they should be enthusiastic and knowledgeable about contemporary art and media with an interest in the many ways photography can be used as a means of communication."

* The Hereford Photography Festival is on view throughout May and June. For details of exhibitions and venues visitphotofest.org