Ten years ago the idea that most people would carry a camera in their pocket or in their bag wherever they went was impossible to conceive, except in the minds of tech wizards.

Yet here we are, in the middle of the digital age – and perhaps the greatest shift in technology since the industrial revolution – with portable telephones with built-in cameras more powerful than clunkier models five times their size.

The effect on society has been enormous. The changes have inspired economic and political revolutions as unimaginable as the digital advances.

It is the meeting of these developments that inspired this year’s theme for the revamped Brighton Photo Biennial – Agents Of Change: Photography And The Politics Of Space.

“We are living through interesting times and through a recession experienced on an international scale,” says Dr Ben Burbridge, lecturer in art history at University of Sussex and co-curator of the biennial programme with Photoworks colleague Celia Davies.

“This has brought some of the inequalities embedded in capitalism into focus.

“We are also witnessing attempts and protests to change the system. A lot of that is taking place in the way spaces are used, whether that be with Occupy or UK Uncut or Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square.”

The impact of digital culture and the role photography plays in everyone’s lives is a concern.

“The large majority of people have a camera on their person most of the time.

“Web 2.0 technologies, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook all provide people with the capability to share pictures.

“Photography is now ubiquitous in a way it wasn’t 20 years ago. We hope the biennial can get people to reflect on that – from the way photography is used to how it can be used to service different agendas.”

He hopes the biennial can offer answers to questions about how public space is constructed, controlled and contested – and how photography is implicated in those processes.

“It is not within our capacity to prescribe any response or behaviour.

“We can foreground discussions we think are important, but we have no line: we are not in favour of one side or the other. What we want to promote is thought.”

One factor in Photoworks’ approach to the questions was the biennial’s new organisational structure.

After the Arts Council cut its budget, Photoworks and Brighton Photo Biennial realised the event would be more likely to go ahead if they pooled resources.

Two years ago, the biennial was curated by well-known photographer Martin Parr.

This time around, Photoworks is adding its creative, curatorial skills, so everything can be done in-house, with the two working as a single organisation.

“We can’t begin to try to replicate the particular draw of the celebrity of Martin Parr. However there are other ways of bringing people in.

“Where the previous edition led with the subjective taste of Martin Parr, we are leading with a set of ideas.”

Photoworks has a national reputation for commissioning photography and photography events.

Here, it has commissioned Thomson And Craighead to produce a portrait of the Occupy movement.

Political activists

“We were thinking about grassroots activist movements, people who are turning public and private spaces into commons, and it is interesting to think about activist media.

“We commissioned Thomson And Craighead to produce a portrait of the Occupy movement using footage uploaded by Occupiers on to YouTube.

“Photography and video are being used by activists. Occupy bombards people’s Facebook accounts with streams of information once a day as a way of occupying.

“It’s a new way of using digital activitist media.”

He explains the flipside is we can think about the way photographs are used to reinforce the status quo. How billboards command space to sell us things.

“You go about your daily life in an urban environment and it is built up with adverts.

“You can also think about how CCTV is used to control space.”

Another new commission is by Preston Is My Paris, a collective of young artist photographers and graphic designers, which focuses on proposed changes to electoral constituency boundaries.

The group have been photographing the boundaries and they will stick the results along the lines to “foreground this in a lyrical manner”, says Dr Burbridge.

A guidebook has been made to guide visitors around the hotspots, with pictures on noticeboards outside church halls, strapped around lampposts and in people’s windows.

“You can follow the route or happen on them by chance – this is one of the things they were excited about.”

The first of two projects Photoworks have produced as partners and co-curators is Whose Streets? Photos From The Argus Archives.

The team worked with award-winning Argus chief photographer Simon Dack to find shots that showed Brighton as a contested political space for protest.

“We will exhibit those in public. It makes sense to put them back on the streets rather than on gallery walls.”

There will be light boxes in Jubilee Square with the pictures and posters showing arguments about local issues – from Smash EDO protests to the building of The Amex stadium at Falmer – on display in various loctions.

A second new production is Another Space: Political Squatting In Brighton. Not only is the theme topical, the medium is engaging.

5,000 copies of a free magazine will be distributed across the city to reach an audience who wouldn’t normally venture inside an art gallery.

“We’ve worked on this with activists and squatter networks. We’re using photographs they have taken to put together a short visual history.

“We focus on political squats rather than residential squats. The difference for us is a political squat is a building that is opened up to the public as a social centre or community centre or art gallery or a garden, not a place where someone is living.”

Alongside the photos in the magazine, the team have charted the places’ changing uses. They will stick the results outside the old locations “to show what once was”.

“It gives you a fascinating insight into the changing face of Brighton,” explains Dr Burbridge.

“Biennials are happy to deal with big issues but they don’t always deal with local history and how it affects local people.

“We were interested in how they affect Brighton but resonate on an international scale as well.”

  • Venues across Brighton, until November 4. Late-night openings on November 2. For more information, visit www.bpb.org.uk