Photoreporter festival reconsiders goals after financial struggles
Photoreporter launched in 2012 with a simple but ambitious goal: to offer an alternative to photojournalists in their struggle to secure funding. Two years later, the festival has been forced to rethink its ambitions after it faced successive budgetary shortfalls. Molly Benn and Olivier Laurent exclusively report
© Molly Benn / Our Age is Thirteen
Photoreporter is a festival like no other. Launched in Saint-Brieuc, France, in 2012, its concept was to call on local businesses to finance photojournalists’ projects around the world.
Alexandre Solacolu, the festival’s creator, had the simple idea of transposing the idea of sponsorship, which has been widely adopted within the sport industry, to photography.
From the start, the industry has been ecstatic, with photographers and magazines embracing the festival’s potential and optimism. “Photoreporter’s main goal is to become a laboratory, which can be used to find new economic models for the industry,” Solacolu told BJP in 2012. “I’d love to see other organisations, especially in the media industry, use our model to finance and develop new work.”
For Didier Rapaud, the festival’s first curator, Photoreporter brought hope to an industry in dire need of it. “I’m not talking about a revolution, but there’s a ray of sunshine that didn’t necessarily exist before.”
In its first two years, the festival had planned to raise €300,000 from local businesses to finance projects by photographers such as Guy Martin, Philip Blenkinsop, Peter Dench and Robin Hammond, among others. Yet, hit by budgetary shortfalls, which led to delays of up to six months in payment for many photographers, the festival has had no choice but to reassess its strategy.
In its proposed, initial budget, the city of Saint-Brieuc and neighbouring towns in Brittany allocated €150,000 to the festival’s first edition, with the remaining €300,000 coming from private interests. Eight months later, in a public meeting held on 06 June 2013, the local Tourism Board was forced to assign another €115,000 to fill a shortfall in revenues and private contributions, BJP and Our Age is Thirteen have found. It was at that point that the local authority also decided to take control of the festival and its budget.
During its 2013 edition, the festival once again experienced funding issues when some local businesses chose to stagger their payments, creating another shortfall – albeit provisional. The impact, however, was felt by photographers. In October 2013, when the festival welcomed the selected photojournalists to Saint-Brieuc, most still hadn’t been paid for the projects they’d delivered.
On 17 December, lacking clear answers from the festival’s organisers, the unpaid photographers sent a letter to the local government, the festival’s organisers and the judges who had selected their work (including BJP‘s Olivier Laurent, who served on the jury for that edition) calling for their debts to be paid.
The letter read: “The 13 photographers chosen for the 2013 Saint-Brieuc Photoreporter Festival Grant are writing this letter collectively to express our dismay and anger at the failure of the Saint-Brieuc Festival to honour the terms of the grant contract and their commitments toward us […] The Photoreporter Festival in Saint-Brieuc presents itself as a new model, an answer to the crisis in photojournalism today. The Festival has taken place, the public marvelled at the exhibitions and the Saint-Brieuc Agglomeration had its event; only the photographers have been wronged and treated with contempt […] Our patience and understanding has run out.”
Within days, the local authority had no other choice but to ask for a bank loan to pay its debts.
For Joel Halioua, who had the job of communicating with the 2013 crop of selected photographers, these financial issues didn’t affect their projects. “The truth is that photographers have a tendency to be less critical of magazines that pay them 90 days later, mainly because they can’t afford to argue with these titles. Their projects were selected in January or February. Most of them received an advance as long as they asked for it. The contract they signed with Photoreporter was clear that they would receive one third in the beginning, another when they submitted their work, and the last third during the festival. Indeed, they should have received part of the money when they sent us their work, but there were silly issues with our budget because of our sponsors. Officially, the funds were here. But, simply put, these funds weren’t distributed promptly by the powers that be.”
When the photographers sent their letter, they were still owned more than €40,000, with some still awaiting the full amount they had been allocated nine months before. “While we were told to start our reportages in April, I received the first instalment in May; the second instalment arrived eight days before the deadline to submit the images,” Dench explains. “It compromised my project. I think I was lucky compared to some other photographers, since I received these instalments, but that’s because I continuously hammered them since I couldn’t get anything started without the funds. I eventually had to ask Getty to get involved to secure the final instalment, which came to me in November instead of September.”
For Robin Hammond, whose work was also exhibited in 2013, what happened has been sobering. “They were talking about creating a concept to solve the problems of photojournalism and at the end, it was even worse. You know, most of my clients, when they tell me they are going to pay, they pay.”
The Saint-Brieuc conurbation has taken its responsibilities, a spokeswoman tells BJP and Our Age is Thirteen. “In two years, the festival has fought hard battles and has learned from them. When you launch such an event based on a novel financial model, you know that the first editions can be improved upon. In fact, in 2013 we optimised the budget, which was reduced by €200,000 to reach a total of €450,000 using the our public/private model.” €120,000 of that went to the photographers, adds Solacolu.
That number is set to be lower in 2014, as the festival is questioning its role and ambitions. “We didn’t really have a strong financial model the first two years, because everything was based on a theory,” says Solacolu. Today, the festival has learnt from its mistakes and is planning changes. “This year, everything will be better managed. We’ll have a defined payment plan. We will abide by it. But we have to position the festival better. We’re not looking for recognition. Our goal is to question the evolution of society and the importance we give to images and photojournalism. The medium has changed and the support we use to show images are in constant evolution. That has an impact on narration.”
The challenges are clear: to offer quality work, develop the festival’s status outside France, and experiment with new distribution models. To help with these developments, Solacolu has hired Marc Prüst, who will become the festival’s sole curator. He will select the winning projects and assist photographers every step of the way. “I’ll be looking for non-fiction photography,” says Prüst. “It’s a bit of a new theme or a new turn in this context. But for me, non-fiction is about reality. I want to see stories.”
As for the festival’s international ambitions, they will have to wait. “That is not something that I am going to be able to bring in the next few months,” Prüst tells us. “First we have to become a meeting place for non-fiction photography, producing new work and allowing people to discuss new concepts and financial ideas but also storytelling models.”