Obtaining wider attention for documentary photography, promoting discussion about the role and significance of the medium, and bringing photographers, photography users and the general public together: these were the aims of the founders of Noorderlicht. In 1980, under the aegis of the USVA, they established the Noorderlicht Photogallery, which would quickly grow into the podium for new developments in Dutch documentary photography.
But their aspirations were higher. In 1990 the Gallery celebrated its tenth anniversary with the first edition of the Noorderlicht Photofestival, after which the independent Noorderlicht Photography Foundation came into being. While the first festival still focused its gaze on our own 'northern' photography, in 1991 the perspective broadened to the rest of The Netherlands. After these first explorations it was decided to transform the festival into a biënnale with an international character.
The festival Home (1993) was the first to be organised according to the now classic Noorderlicht recipe: a main exhibition organised around a theme, comprised of carefully selected individual series that concentrate on social developments. The series are welded into an probing, coordinated statement, in which the curators take a stand and do not shun controversy. This outspoken character – a passionate combination of individuality, engagement and impertinence – would continue to characterise Noorderlicht, as festivals like Act Of Faith (2007) and Human Conditions (2009) testify.
In 2000 the festival – which until then had always been located in Groningen – was organised in Leeuwarden for the first time. The biënnale then became an annual event, organised in alternate years in each of the northern provincial capitals. The Fries festival focused on photography from a non-Western region, in which not ‘our’ vision, but the peculiar vision of the photographers from the region was definitive. This resulted in a successful series of exhibitions on Africa, the Arab world, South America, Asia and the former East Bloc.
Through the years Noorderlicht has expanded its field of activities beyond the boundaries of classic documentary photography. Art photography and experimental forms of photography found their way into the gallery and festival, and ever more photographers of international stature took part in Noorderlicht productions. At the same time Noorderlicht still continued to offer unknown photographers their first international stage.
Its annual character makes the Noorderlicht Photofestival unique in The Netherlands, and a rarity in the international photography landscape. The Festival's growing reputation was underscored by the authoritative journal Photo District News, which in 2007 proclaimed Noorderlicht one of the five most important photography events in the world. That is no reason for us to rest on our laurels, but rather an incentive to work with passion and deep conviction, to continue to bring an engaged audience in touch with the power of photography in the future.