“Democracy is being challenged everywhere — not just in places that rank poorly on surveys of democratic values, but also in established democracies like the United States and the European Union” – Professor Daniel Kelemen, Georgetown University

In 2024, democracy will be tested like never before. According to the Atlantic Council, there will be 83 national elections in 78 countries worldwide, including India, Indonesia, Mexico, Senegal, South Africa, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States. As the council has noted (using an increasingly common American sporting metaphor):

The world will likely not see the same volume of global elections until 2048. This ‘superbowl’ of an election year presents unique challenges to the global community that works on everything from election administration to information integrity.

There will also be many challenges facing photographers, journalists, artists, and critics who depend upon having the cultural space to think, create, and work freely. We know that space is best secured by democratic structures, where our governments are derived from free and fair elections, the rule of law governs all citizens equally, and the right to assemble and express ourselves freely is guaranteed. While these principles do not account for all forms of power constraining our lives–especially economic power–they are the best political framework for individual and collective enrichment.

We also know that throughout human history, most societies have not been democratic, even in the formal sense of having periodic elections. Liberal democracies–those societies with established rights safeguarding assembly, expression, and justice in addition to elections–make up only a small portion of the world’s countries. Moreover, according to Our World in Data, the number of democracies has recently declined from an all-time high in 2012, with 97 electoral democracies. A decade later, their number fell to 89 countries. The same is true of liberal democracies: their number has fallen from 42 countries in 2012 to 34 in 2021.

We are now facing the fact that elections do not, by themselves, secure democratic culture. The autocracies of Iran and Russia will be holding national votes in March 2024, but they will be bogus given the restrictions on independent media and opposition candidates in those countries. Even liberal democracies such as the Netherlands–where the 2023 success of Geert Wilder’s “Party for Freedom” showed how the Identity and Democracy group is gaining ground in Europe–are subject to the potential erosion of universal rights through the polls.

Democratic culture needs to be sustained. Given that the cultural space necessary for journalists, photographers, artists, and critics to work freely is being squeezed by political actors and their media enablers, we have to ask some tough questions. For creatives who want to document contemporary issues, how should you respond? What stories should you be telling? What can and should you do?

Join us for a special event on 17 January with presentations to address these urgent questions. Moderated by Bahram Sadeghi, this event will have a varied programme of interviews, discussions, and visual presentations for an in-person audience, as well as a livestream for those who cannot attend in person.

More about the event

Looking again at January 6 2021

We will start the programme with a visual column by Dr David Campbell on a seminal moment in the anti-democratic moment: the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. This presentation will feature the work of the VII Photo photographers who covered the attempt by President Donald Trump and his allies to seize power illegally by preventing the certification of the 2020 presidential election. The big lie–that Trump rather than President Biden won the election–is propagated by Republican candidates for the 2024 election and continues to shape American politics, most notably November’s presidential vote.

Fact-checking in a time of information disorder

Democracy requires trustworthy information. One clear and present danger is that we face fundamental challenges on trust and truth in the digital age. This is because we are witnessing something new: information pollution on a global scale, whether this be repurposed images, overt lies, or the rise of AI. In an interview with Marc Prust, Dr. Claire Wardle we will set out the challenges of global information disorder. There are simple and powerful ways to respond to this disorder, and Peter Burger from Nieuwscheckers will demonstrate fact-checking techniques.

Visual stories for a democratic culture

Responding to the dangers facing democracy does not require all visual journalists and storytellers to report on politics directly. Frits Gierstberg, curator at the Dutch Photography Museum in Rotterdam, will showcase the efforts of visual storytellers contributing to a democratic culture. Frits will present photographic series of early pioneers and their role in taking control of image formation, as well as presenting projects by new creators that grapple with the challenges and influences of social media omnipresence.

The Willem Poelstra Lecture by Forhanna

In 2017, Dutch documentary photographer Willem Poelstra established the Forhanna Foundation. Willem’s remarkable life journey began as a diver at Smit Tak, where he worked his way up to an operational manager. After transitioning from offshore to onshore, he found his place in the advertising world.

A serious accident resulted in disability, but following his recovery, Willem pursued an education in photography and embarked on a career as an award-winning photographer. The audience came to know him as a passionate storyteller.

During his final project, “for Hanna, Future Stories from the Past…,” it became evident that he was battling incurable Sarcoma cancer. The establishment of a foundation to support documentary photography took shape. In October 2018, Willem Poelstra passed away.

In remembrance of Willem, Forhanna annually organises The Willem Poelstra Lecture, where notable creators from documentary photography share insights into their projects. The goal is to highlight projects by creators whose deep commitment to the subject, much like Willem, is apparent. The work is inspiring, the topics are relevant, and collaboration with various specialists fosters interdisciplinary approaches. The outcome is relatively small stories with significant reach.

Even after Willem’s passing, Forhanna remains dedicated to supporting documentary photography, adhering to his committed and fearless approach to complex themes.

This year, for The Willem Poelstra Lecture, Forhanna gives the stage to Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen. Bendiksen began his career as an intern at Magnum Photo’s London office before leaving for Russia to pursue his work as a photojournalist. Throughout his years there, Bendiksen photographed stories from the fringes of the former USSR. Following this, he experimented with 360° photography of daily life in four urban slums. In 2017, he published “The Last Testament” and, more recently, “The Book of Veles,” which probed the vulnerabilities of our perceptions and became hotly debated after Bendiksen revealed that what appeared to be a classical piece of photojournalism was in large part synthetic computer-generated renderings.

This evening is organised by Forhanna and VII Insider (a programme of The VII Foundation in partnership with PhotoWings). It takes place at Pakhuis de Zwijger on Wednesday, January 17, 2024, starting at 20:00 CET. You can attend this event either in person or online. Please register via the link on this page and choose between a physical spot or an online reservation. Entrance is free.