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Steven Bevis, West Australian, 2013:
One of a handful of great photographic festivals among 100 such events around the world, FotoFreo encompassed 240 exhibitions, workshops and other activities across the metropolitan area last year. FotoFreo attracted such major international artists as Edward Burtynsky, Martin Parr, Eugene Richards, Trent Parke, Paolo Pellegrin, Christophe Bourguedieu and Shi Guorui.
The showcase for the best camera-based art had been run on the smell of an oily rag in its first few incarnations. It survived only through the long, volunteered hours and the organisers and artists waiving their fees.
Bob Hewitt, a retired engineer, and photographers David Dare Parker, Brad Rimmer, Graham Miller and Max Pam had conceived FotoFreo in 1996 around a few glasses of wine in Mr Hewitt's idyllic backyard behind a converted central Fremantle worker's cottage.
The pay-off for the locals who shunned other work to devote time to organising FotoFreo was the chance to mix with and share the work of the best photographers in the business.
What began as a collection of loose exhibitions and seminars at the inaugural FotoFreo in 2002 grew over six iterations into a major month-long event that extended to nearly every gallery in the metropolitan area.
FotoFreo chairwoman Jude Savage announced this week that Australia's first and biggest international photo festival would fold, claiming that it was going to lose the substantial support of naming rights sponsor the City of Fremantle.
Losing such a key partner would have made it too difficult to secure funding from other sponsors such as Eventscorp, Ms Savage said.
The festival had a budget of $700,000 and attracted 90,000 people last year. The City of Fremantle contributed $75,000 in cash and in-kind support and Eventscorp provided $140,000. Ms Savage understood the city's support was expected to be much less for the next festival in 2014.
Despite FotoFreo's success with artists and audiences, it had never secured recurrent funding and had become too uncertain and exhausting for the largely volunteer staff to run, she said.
Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt said the council would have been likely to continue supporting the event.
"A final decision was to be made at our mid-year budget review to be held this month," Mr Pettitt said. "This was communicated formally to the board of FotoFreo. The city is now of the understanding that the board of FotoFreo has decided not to continue with this event."
The loss of FotoFreo five months after the closure of Deckchair Theatre is a blow to the cultural fabric of Fremantle.
FotoFreo's future was vulnerable once Mr Hewitt, its founder and driving force, stepped down as festival director at the end of last year. Mr Hewitt would have continued in a support role to a new director but the funding uncertainty made it extremely difficult to attract a high-calibre candidate.
"This has been an absolute passion of Bob's and he did so much unpaid work and bankrolled some of it out of his own pocket," Ms Savage said.
Every two years, Mr Hewitt and other organisers had to go cap in hand to raise funds afresh rather than have the confidence to plan ahead on the back of a secured income stream.
"Disappointed is probably an understatement," Mr Hewitt said of the decision to wind up FotoFreo.
"After one event we would all be exhausted so we would have a bit of a holiday, from one month to six months depending on how severe it was on everybody, and then we would have to start the whole process over again," he said. "That is the really difficult thing - regaining that momentum.
"You just wear people out. I wore people down. I am part of the problem in a sense but I am retired. The other guys had jobs and mortgages to feed. They need an income so we couldn't really continue to do that. It was just one of those cycles which eventually get the better of you."
FotoFreo established its international identity through its innovations and risks. It established links with other major festivals such as Avignon, France, and Pingyao, China, and showcased the work of Australian photographers alongside leading photographers from Asia, Europe and North America.
It commissioned exhibitions and books by Burtynsky (Australian Minescapes, FotoFreo 2008), Dare Parker (The Clubs, 2010), Parr (No Worries, 2012) and Bo Wong (Fremantle Markets Project, 2012).
Eventscorp executive director Gwyn Dolphin said the FotoFreo board's decision was unfortunate but he understood that the difficulties with running FotoFreo went beyond funding issues.
"Eventscorp hadn't received a funding request for the 2014 event but if the organisers decided to regroup and submit a proposal it would be considered," he said.
Ms Savage said FotoFreo had raised public awareness of the art of photography and been a boost to WA culture. "The only regret might be the loss of recognition that came with the event nationally and internationally over 10 years or more of growth and development and for which there are few similar events in WA, let alone Fremantle."
Mr Hewitt said hundreds of tourists had come from interstate or overseas specifically for the event. "Over 10 years we had built up a reputation as the best-known Australian festival," he said. "These events, if you believe in them, then you have got to have a long-term view."
Fremantle was well served by galleries, museums and other cultural infrastructure in a compact, visitor-friendly area. "That is the kind of centre of gravity that can have an impact but it is all in how you use them."
Steven Bevis, 'The last picture show', The West Australian, Friday 8 March 2013.
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