Image © Jean-Pierre Laffont
Ahead of the festival's 25th anniversary, Visa pour l'Image's director Jean-François Leroy speaks with Lucas Menget and Olivier Laurent about his editorial line, which has, at times, been criticised; and addresses the cost of covering conflicts
Now that Visa pour l'Image is 25 years old, will it finally grow up?
Jean-François Leroy: I don't know what you mean by grow up. What interests me is that after 25 years we still have the freshness and enthusiasm of the early days, and are both spontaneous and professional.
You say you never wanted to be an institution, but you've done everything to become one, which is good as Visa pour l'Image has become a global institution for press photography.
I don't think so.
It's an institution because it's a meeting place, and no matter what, 25 years down the line, it is clearly an institution for photography; otherwise people wouldn't come.
JFL: In 1989, we were told we'd never make it to the fifth festival; at the fifth one, people said we'd stop after seven; by the seventh it was the tenth that would be the last. Things fell into place, so that's good. It's become an event that is virtually a "must" for the press. In 1989, we used to laugh about how we would become the photojournalism equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival because there was a market in photojournalism. That idea does not really fit in with the digital revolution, the tsunami that hit the world of photography in general, and press photography in particular. There's no point in pretending it's not the case now: the only ones who can break and make news on a daily basis are AP, AFP and Reuters.
At the time you set up the festival, the leading agencies, the ones producing photos, and in particular war photography, were not AP, AFP and Reuters, but small and medium-sized agencies.
JFL: Yes, the all-time greats: Sygma, Gamma and Sipa were grand agencies.
Now, 25 years later, it's the opposite. AP, AFP and Reuters are the main names in war photography. Would you say that things have come full circle?
JFL: No, because things aren't done the same way. I'm not criticizing the photographers of the time, but most of the photographers working for wire agencies in 1989 were nowhere near the quality we see today.
JFL: The agencies trained their own photographers. The work that AP, AFP and Reuters did training people on the job in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America is just astonishing. There were people like Goran Tomasevic who learnt the job in Serbia during the war in former Yugoslavia and who has become one of the world's best war photographers. At the time, the agencies had stringers, but even AP, AFP and Reuters would send their staff photographers from New York, Washington, Paris and London to cover conflicts. It doesn't happen very often these days. When you look at people like Awad Awad, Ahmed Jadallah, Goran Tomasevic and Alexander Joe, the quality of their shots is just so impressive.
What has happened to the whole economy of the press in the space of 25 years? It's not just about training.
JFL: No, but it's important. Remember that in 1982, it took twenty minutes to send a photo by Belinograph, whereas now you can send a 30 mega file across the world in just 12 seconds. All the agencies, both wire and non-wire, have had to respond to speed, breaking news. This obviously revolutionised the world of photography. In 1982, when Alfred Yaghobzadeh and Coskun Aral had photos in Beirut, they had to find someone flying to Paris to take their rolls of film, and a motorbike courier would pick the film up at the airport. The shots were then developed, edited and duplicated, and the reps took slide duplicates off to the papers. After that, came C-41 and paper prints. By the time Visa pour l'Image started in 1989, it was Ektachrome which had taken over from C-41.
After 25 years, is Visa pour l'Image now endorsing the dominant position of the wire agencies, of the three leading news agencies in the world? I'll take the argument even further: is there a future for press photography outside these agencies?
I maintain that there is, and it's complementary; but if someone wants to do news work, there's no point in going to Mali without a guarantee.
In this day and age, can you still be a Noël Quidu, Yuri Kozyrev or Laurent Van der Stockt?
Yes, and they're there to prove it.
But for how much longer?
JFL: For as long as there are photographers doing stories. Last year, for example, there was Stephanie Sinclair's work on forced marriages of young girls - that's real photojournalism. The story has been incredibly successful, and first of all because it deserved to be. There are people still in the business. What we need is photographers who reinvent themselves, and the challenge is to tell another story, a different story.
I agree, but Visa pour l'Image is a news festival. My question is deliberately provocative, but is there a future outside the wire agencies, given the competitive advantage they have and the challenge they are to freelance photographers, with all their facilities, the distribution and the speed? I've also seen a number of young photographers today who won't go to Mali, for example, saying that there's no point, and that in any case AP and AFP are there, so they won't be able to do anything.
JFL: They will be quite right not to go. Once the AP, AFP and Reuters teams come back, they can go because there's no more topical news; they'll be able to find angles to tell a different story. The book Bosnia by Jon Jones which goes over the events in Sarajevo in former Yugoslavia is interesting because the intervening twenty years act as a filter; there aren't even ten pictures of fighting. What remains is the people behind it all, the everyday life. That was never done by Goran Tomasevic, but then he was the best ever on the front. When Don McCullin decided to go to Syria, he said that no one had shown the people who were suffering, that we only saw the front lines, and he wanted to show something else. His article in The Guardian is really interesting. But getting back to your question, you're perfectly right when you say that a young person who wants to be a photographer today needs to be taken on by AFP, AP or Reuters.
A man and his daughter outside his partially destroyed house in Azaz, on the outskirts of Aleppo. Syria, August 28, 2012. Image © Muhammed Muheisen / Associated Press.
You have kept up with the changing world of the printed press and could be described as a reflection of the press now, i.e. more magazine content and much less news. Did you do this deliberately? Were there more news stories in the exhibitions in the 1990s than there are now?
JFL: I don't think so. Look at 1990: there was an exhibition on Japanese rites by Masatoshi Naito, a story on marriages in New York by Kathy Shorr, the sex of flowers by Heinz Teufel, and honey hunters by Eric Valli, i.e. magazine stories. There was also a Patrick Chauvel retrospective, Luc Delahaye's report on Romania, and domestic violence by Donna Ferrato. There was a balance. We've been labeled "violent" but I've always denied that.
You exhibited photos on Rwanda that had never been published in the press.
JFL: That's true, but you can't say that we'd seen nothing on Rwanda. Albert Facelly's picture of the little girl screaming beside the decapitated body of her mother was a double page spread in Paris Match. We weren't being revolutionary when we presented that. And there are photos of scenes of violence which we've refused to show, much more often than you might think.
Visa pour l'Image has now been going for 25 years, so what is the editorial line? Nearly all your audience today has access to news from multiple sources via the Internet, and a lot comes through the social networks. You need just half a day on Facebook to get, almost live, all the shots from the photographers in Mali at the moment. There are just a few photographers hiding in the sidelines who'll take their reports off to the magazines. But what is the editorial line in a world where everyone has access to all these pictures?
JFL: That's not true! Everyone does not have access to everything.
Well, it's partially true. What can you offer a young photographer or a photography fan?
JFL: Last year, you could have spent three weeks browsing on the Internet, and you would never have seen Stephanie Sinclair's work as it was exhibited. It wasn't on the Web then and it still isn't. Pascal Maitre's story on artists in Kinshasa can't be found on the Web. Okay, we're going to show Goran Tomasevic's pictures which are often seen on front pages around the world, but when you see the thread running through his retrospective, starting with the front lines in 1992, then it's a different way of comprehending his work. The photo that caught your eye yesterday, when a sniper was killed and which has been sent back and forth via Facebook and shared with 352 000 people, is a photo that leaves a mark. But take the same picture and put it in the context of Goran's work, and you understand a coherent story and the way he works.
Has the editorial line at Visa pour l'Image changed? And what was the editorial line?
JFL: I wouldn't say it's changed. The editorial line has always been based on my own "bad taste," on what I love spontaneously, and there's so much. The editorial line meant showing photographers whose work could not be seen anywhere else. Festivals with photojournalism had Magnum, Magnum, Magnum, a bit of Rapho, and from time to time, Black Star. That's all. So we said that there were also photographers with AP, AFP, Vu, Getty, Polaris, Sygma, Sipa, Gamma, Cosmos, and so on, and that they were really interesting. Afterwards, it was a matter of what we loved, and the stories, and that hasn't changed.
That's an explanation, but it's not an editorial line. An editorial line is the way you build up the festival, going from A to Z.
JFL: I really have no idea. It depends on who you meet, what strikes you.
Perhaps "editorial line" is not the right term, but it looks like a choice, a way of seeing the world. For three weeks in September, you present a certain view of the world. What is it?
JFL: We try to be realistic. In the past, I used to say that there were three key elements: uncovering talented young photographers, supporting talented photographers already established, and rediscovering talented photographers who have been forgotten.
Are you still doing the same thing 25 years later?
JFL: I think so.
I'll rephrase the question. You love the press, read everything and see everything, yet, like everyone in the business, you complain a lot about what there is, about all the lousy work, about stories that haven't been given proper coverage. So your program in September every year must come from you, somewhere inside you, a gut feeling or a cerebral exercise. If it's not an editorial approach, then it's political. Where does it come from?
JFL: Look at Robin Hammond's story on the mentally ill in African countries in conflict which was not published at the time; that is so unjust for such fine work. But a few weeks after Visa pour l'Image, it came out in the Sunday Times Magazine. It is appalling that such a compelling story was not published.
Is Visa pour l'Image also a response to anger? Who or what makes you angry?
JFL: Look at the amount of money the papers can spend on third-rate reports, when there are so many fantastic stories done. Robin Hammond did his report by himself and thought that everybody would be interested, but no one was. We showed it at Visa pour l'Image and suddenly people turned around and said: "Hey! This guy's got talent." Yes, there is anger.
You could hardly be described as calm.
JFL: It's outrage.
Then part of the editorial line is an expression of outrage.
JFL: Outrage and rage, particularly when you have the opportunity, which I do, to see 90% of the pictures produced around the world and you see how little is actually used.
What is your target audience?
JFL: As big an audience as possible. There are professionals working in the photography business who discover things they had never seen before. And when you think of the speed of communications, sending shots, as we mentioned earlier, we're suffering from visual overkill. I'm pretty sure that there's no picture editor anywhere in the world who receives as many stories as I do. And I look at them; maybe that's the difference. I look at them all and I see plenty of bad work.
In other words, you make a choice, you put together a festival in an editorial framework, so who are you targeting? It's like a newspaper owner who has a general idea of the readers being targeted. I think we're aiming at professionals in the photography business and the mainstream public. How can you reconcile the two?
JFL: Every day there are "Meet the Photographer" sessions for the general public, either as a "press conference" or as a guided visit to an exhibition.
What are the attendance figures?
JFL: The 24th festival had 3000 accreditations, with 1300 photographers; the picture editors were next, then journalists, photo agencies, and picture researchers. That's 3000 professionals working in the photography business.
How have you managed to keep going for 25 years, reconciling the interests of professional players aware of the limits in the industry and sometimes acquainted with part of the work of the photographers featured, and the tens of thousands of visitors who come to see the exhibitions? That's why I'm trying to grasp the editorial line. There are more photojournalism festivals around the world now targeting one specific sector, e.g. fashion or animal photography, in other words niche festivals. But in the space of 25 years, you have managed to establish yourself as an institution which is not a niche institution, appealing to both professionals and the mainstream public.
JFL: I think visitors seeing the exhibitions in Perpignan are excited to see in-depth reports which they have not necessarily seen anywhere else. Last year, a total of 220 000 people visited the exhibitions and 10 000 attended the evening shows.You have stayed with the written press, while also moving in a completely different direction. The written press today no longer has huge readership figures; and when you do extended reports telling stories that are a bit different, in other words moving outside the scope of mainstream news reports, then you're looking at papers that have a niche readership of say 20,000 or 40,000, or at the very most 50,000.
Yet you still appeal to the mainstream public. After 25 years, isn't it time to tell us what some of the ingredients are in your secret recipe? That's what I'd like to know. How do you manage to bridge the gap between the groups? How do you get people like Noël Quidu and David Douglas Duncan to come back to Visa pour l'Image again and again, while also attracting members of the general public?
JFL: The work done by Sylvie Grumbach and the 2e Bureau team with PR and communication has been of critical importance. I'll repeat what I said a few years ago: we are the opposite of Facebook. You don't click the "Like" button. You see people, there's physical contact, you kiss, you have drinks together. It's not thumbs up or thumbs down; it's real life, the human side. A month ago I read a letter from students at a local high school who had been working on Stephanie Sinclair's story on forced marriage of children for three months and had turned it into a full-page story in the Perpignan newspaper, L'Indépendant. I was delighted. The teachers are pleased that they have managed to get them interested in an issue which they had never heard about. There is the informative side where the public can learn about things, and it is a human side. Things really happen at the school week at the festival. Earlier this year, Olivier Laban-Mattei was telling me that he is still in contact with students he met three years ago. Visa pour l'Image is also a way of sharing and handing on knowledge.
Was the idea of transmission, of passing knowledge onto a younger generation, already there 25 years ago, or did it gradually emerge?
JFL: It wasn't a distinct feature the way it is today, but we introduced people such as Horst Faas, David Douglas Duncan and Alfred Eisenstaedt to everybody. I'll never forget Dennis Stock telling me that the best thing I'd done was to get so many different generations together, talking to one another, around their one shared love of photography and news. I'm not the person who should say this, but I think that Visa pour l'Image is a tremendously generous venture. The exhibitions and shows are free of charge and that is both important and symbolic. All the people who make up Visa pour l'Image - all the people who come, whether to learn, speak or be challenged, or even to criticize - are all tremendously generous. Of all the festivals I know, the only one where things happen with such intensity is in Perpignan.
The financial crisis is global, and France has been particularly hard-hit. If Visa pour l'Image went under (and we certainly hope that it doesn't), what would you like the legacy to be? How would you like Visa pour l'Image to be remembered?
JFL: If it stopped, there would be plenty of people who'd be sad at not having their yearly get-together.
But looking beyond that?
JFL: There have been some truly memorable moments and encounters; for example, the time we brought Zohra Bensemra to Perpignan, hidden in the trunk of the car because she had not been able to get a French visa. There was the standing ovation at Campo Santo for the Algerian photographers who had been running so many risks for so many years. There was Igor Kostine, the only photographer in Chernobyl on the day it happened, in tears at Campo Santo, and the entire audience on their feet. I'll never forget those moments. And there was Eisenstaedt and Khaldei and Baltermans, and...
Will such moments be more lasting than the photographs?
JFL: No. I don't think that anyone will ever forget Stephanie Sinclair's photos, or Paul Fusco's report on Robert Kennedy's funeral train, or Scott Thode's Venus Williams by the fire hydrant, or Pascal Maitre's back view of General Massoud, and so many more. They are all photos that have left an indelible mark.
Even though it's an impossible choice, if you had to choose one from the 25 years, which would it be?
JFL: A shot that someone will take tomorrow! That was a clever way out, wasn't it? We've had 727 exhibitions in 24 festivals, plus the screenings. At the moment we're going through the 727 exhibitions to record the number of first exhibitions by photographers who have since become prominent figures. There's Lise Sarfati, Laurent Van der Stockt, Luc Delahaye, Paolo Pellegrin, Pascal Maitre, Guillaume Herbaut, Samuel Bollendorff, Julien Goldstein, Stephanie Sinclair, and more, whose professional reputation started in Perpignan. Something incredible will remain and that is the uncovering of new talents for people to see in Perpignan. Robin Hammond and Sebastian Liste, for example, had their first chance at Visa pour l'Image, and that's great.
How about regrets?
JFL: For the tenth festival, I pointed out that with just two exceptions, I had never really managed to get any photographers from sub-Saharan Africa. But I've certainly tried. When we had Akintunde Akinleye's photo for the poster, he said: "Now that I know about Visa pour l'Image, I'll submit stories every year," but I've never heard from him again. It's the same for Alexander Joe. There is Issouf Sanogo who works for AFP and is famous for his photo of the soldier wearing a skull mask. So, I'm sorry about Africa.
I'm not asking for names, but are there any exhibitions you wish you hadn't presented?
JFL: Yes, two, with two photographers devoid of professional integrity in relation to their work, the festival and the public.
You've drawn criticism over the past 25 years, and one charge is that you're an ayatollah in the photo business. Do you want to talk about that?
JFL: I was nicknamed "Ayatollah" by a photographer who called me the "ayatollah of pictures with meaning." I'm sorry, but I took that as a compliment. Okay, I can speak out, speak up, and loud. Yes, I have said things, and afterwards wished that I hadn't; lots of things.
JFL: I lost my cool one day and ranted and raved about the "shit press." I certainly regret that sweeping generalisation.
Without the press, there wouldn't be a festival.
JFL: Yes. I'm sorry I said it, and I've talked it through.
I'll give you an example of your "ayatollah" behavior. Last year, for the 24th festival, you said you would not do any exhibitions by photographers going to Syria. Are you sorry you said that?
JFL: That's not quite accurate. I said that I would not put on any more exhibitions by photographers who had gone off to Syria without a guarantee from a newspaper. I am not sorry about that at all; on the contrary, I defend that stance. [A few days after this interview, the Sunday Times made the same decision.]
Yet there will be some in this year's festival: the Syria shots in the Goran Tomasevic exhibition.
JFL: Now, I didn't say "No photos of Syria." I said "No photos of Syria by photographers going off without any guarantees or insurance." Unfortunately, over the past 24 years, a lot of friends have died. Far too many.
Abu Hamza, a fighter from the Free Syrian Army's Tahrir al Sham brigade, screams in pain at the moment when he was shot in the shoulder during heavy fighting in Mleha suburb of Damascus, Syria. Image © Goran Tomasevic / Reuters.
So there are personal reasons behind that.
JFL: Yes, and I'm not pretending there aren't. Too many people have gone off without proper backing or cover. To do what?
"To do what?" You wouldn't have said the same thing twenty years ago. You didn't start asking about insurance when Stanley Greene and Yuri Kozyrev went to Chechnya.
JFL: I'd say there's a radical difference in the level of danger. Remember that in the past, up to Vietnam, photographers were welcomed. People such as Catherine Leroy and David Burnett would go to Vietnam, anywhere they wanted to go, and would say "I'd like to see the 317th platoon," and a helicopter would be provided. Now reporters are seen as enemies.
Have you achieved a level of wisdom after 25 years, and has this changed your view of what a photographer's job is?
JFL: I'd say it's maturity.
Is all this worth the human sacrifice and the struggle to survive on an income that will never reach even the minimum wage?
JFL: Horst Faas used to say that no photo was worth dying for. He said that when he was very young, but I probably didn't realise how right he was until 2012, when Rémi Ochlik died. Then I felt genuine outrage and revulsion.
It was one death too many, because your address book must be full of friends who've been wounded and killed.
JFL: Yes, alas! This year we're having a Joao Silva retrospective. I'm amazed by Joao's courage. He lost both legs in Afghanistan, then swore that he would get back on a motorbike again, and he's done it. He had another operation on 21 February, followed by six months convalescence, and said: "Now I'll have time to go through my files and make a selection." I'm full of admiration. As part of last year's Transmission pour l'Image we had a session via Skype with Patrick Chauvel interviewing Joao who had just had surgery, and he was there with his intravenous drip and walking frame. At the end, he looked at them through Skype and said: "I know what it's like to lose your legs on the job. Do you really want to do that?" Jérôme Delay concluded the session by saying: "We can be here to help you start your career, but we can also help shatter your dreams." That's an eloquent way of summing it up.
End of part one. Part two of Jean-François Leroy's interview will be published on 04 June. This interview was commissioned by Images Evidence, which organises the Visa pour l'Image festival, but conducted independently by Lucas Menget and Olivier Laurent.
For more about Visa pour l'Image, visit www.visapourlimage.com.
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