Image © Guillaume Roujas
"Unfortunately, we are in a business where there is no joint effort; it's every man for himself," says Jean-François Leroy in an interview with Lucas Menget and Olivier Laurent, addressing the future of photojournalism and the role of social media
Surely Visa pour l'Image has shattered dreams. It may have launched talents and careers, developed skills and taught plenty of things to plenty of people, but hasn't it also shattered plenty of dreams?
JFL: Yes, you're no doubt right. I remember a conversation in 1994 with Roger Thérond. He was starting to see Visa pour l'Image as an emerging force, and said to me: "Always remember that you will be loved by the ones you exhibit and hated by the ones whose exhibitions you turn down. I've been coping with this for the last fifty years. If I do a doublepage spread in Paris Match, I'm seen as God, and if I turn down a story, I'm a fool." Yes, I think that Visa pour l'Image has shattered lots of dreams. But after 727 exhibitions in 24 years plus another 3000 stories screened in the evening shows, things have to be good to impress us. I haven't seen anything on street children in India that is better than Dario Mitidieri's story in 1993. Any photographers reporting on forced marriages of girls after Stephanie Sinclair will really have to be on their toes. Paul Fusco's train was featured as an exhibition then screened again for the 20th festival, and since then not a year has gone by without someone sending me a train routine, across Siberia or wherever. That's hopeless.
It's only logical for young photographers to see these as sources of inspiration. That's the Visa pour l'Image approach, handing knowledge and skills onto the next generation.
JFL: Inspiration, okay, but not just making an inferior copy.
Basically, Visa pour l'Image is what you admire, isn't it?
JFL: Yes, I can't deny that.
Are you fascinated by photographers?
JFL: No, not fascinated, but I admire them. And I have been very lucky to be able to build up relationships with people I like and who have become friends. In 25 years, the only person who genuinely fascinated me was Roger Thérond. Whenever he said something to me, I was really taught a lesson, I got my comeuppance, and I learnt an enormous amount. He had a certain sagacity. I greatly admire David Douglas Duncan, I admire Don McCullin, and being friends with Eugene Richards, Stanley Greene, Pascal Maitre, Paolo Pellegrin and others is a great privilege and a great source of happiness. I can't give you a comprehensive list.
Do you still admire young photographers?
JFL: I am in admiration of Robin Hammond; he amazes me and will continue to amaze me. I know that he'll go a long way. The first day I saw his work, I felt immediate empathy. It was the same with Sebastian Liste and Alvaro Ybarra Zavala, and this year with Abir Abdullah. It's a long list. There are shots we'll remember for a long time.
A fireman attempting to extinguish a fire at Kung Keng Textile factory. Unsafe working conditions have led to repeated accidents. Export Processing Zone, Dhaka,Bangladesh, August 6, 2005. Image © Abir Abdullah / EPA.
Let's talk about the future, not just the past. We can probably say that within the next five or ten years, most printed newspapers and magazines will have disappeared. What is the next step for Visa pour l'Image following the changing path of the press?
JFL: I don't think that anyone in the world can say what the media scene will be like in the future. Just look at how fast digital technology has developed, how fast the photo market for the written press has all but collapsed. I don't know if there will be a reaction, a revival. I obviously hope there will be, and I keep on doing Visa pour l'Image because I'm optimistic. You have to try to keep pace with the change, but I don't think it's possible to look into a crystal ball. That's why I talk about opening up to documentaries and videos. But I'll never get as excited looking at a picture on a screen as I will when I see a beautiful print with the full, wonderful, fine effect of a photographic print on paper. And I don't think I'm the only one to feel that. Why are there so many photo galleries? There's a growing market in photography.
That's the technical side, but the photographer's job, the work, is obviously going to change.
JFL: Yes, and the change is well under way. But people will still need a place to get together, to meet and talk with one another. With the press going off paper, as you mentioned, if The New York Times and The Washington Post are only available in electronic format, people will still want to meet up and talk outside social networks. That's what I'm betting on.
The debate about social networks such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook has become more heated over recent months, particularly since the Facebook takeover of Instagram. Lots of people use the networks to reach a new audience, often publishing pictures which were made for Instagram and will never be used anywhere else. What's your opinion on this? Isn't it worth the risks of Instagram if it means that photographers can reach a new audience, and particularly if it can end up with "followers" making a financial contribution?
JFL: I can see that the Instagram phenomenon is getting bigger every day. It's all very well to build up a new audience, but I'm not sure that the followers are capable of paying to look at photos. The world of photography hasn't found a counterpart for Steve Jobs and iTunes where everyone agreed to pay for music without batting an eyelid.
That's exactly it. Do you think that the future of photojournalism will go through these communities of followers? It's like cable television; we can select what we like. Do you think that we're moving towards a model where readers choose the photographers they're interested in and want to follow? What would happen if that were the model?
JFL: I only hope that you're wrong, and I really do hope that it isn't the case, because if we start following certain photographers, then we'll miss out on plenty of others. What's exciting in this business, is discovering new talents. I love Stanley Greene, I love Eugene Richards, but I don't just look at their work and nothing else. Thank goodness! Otherwise where would we be heading? You need to keep an eye out to discover someone like Robin Hammond or Sebastian Liste, like Rafael Fabrés or Muhammed Muheisen. Three years ago we presented Mohammad Golchin's work on schools in rural Iran, and saw how successful it was with the press after that. If there hadn't been the curiosity to look at the CDs sent in, then we would never have seen the story. Five years ago, someone like Mohammad Golchin would never have had a "follower."
Visa pour l'Image is exhibitions and screenings, but should it also be a think-tank looking at changes and developments with the press, looking at the future and specifically the future of photography? Unlike other festivals, you have concentrated on photography, with just a few rare exceptions.
JFL: You're right, but I think that's our strength. We have kept on track, on our track.
Yes, but are you going to stay on the same track?
JFL: You don't reach as many people as you do with Facebook or Internet, but there are always people who will enjoy coming to see stories that are well told and well displayed. I am quite sure of that. Of course you have to change. I say that we haven't, but it's not true. You can see the difference between 1989 and 2012, differences in professionalism and with the audience. We've evolved, little by little, but we've changed. And we shall continue to change.
JFL: Third generation cameras have just come out, but no one can afford them yet. There are some with 4K resolution, a new video standard with 4000 pixels; at the moment, the best you can get is 1280, so you'll have more than three times the quality. By the time the equipment becomes affordable for everyone, the great temptation will be for photographers to start doing video, because a video report is easier to sell than a photo report; then you just select a frame to make a picture. With 24 frames per second, it's obviously going to change the way people work. An EOS I-DC today costs €10,000, but it will be much more affordable in two years time.
How are you going to keep up with these trends? I imagine that these are things that have to be thought about already.
JFL: Quite honestly, I don't have the answer yet; for a start Visa pour l'Image doesn't have a 4K projector for the screenings, but we're bound to have one two years from now.
Are you saying that Cartier-Bresson's famous "decisive moment" will no longer exist, that it will be a frame selected from a video?
JFL: It's possible, but there will always be photographers. Strangely enough, more and more are coming back to film. The pendulum is swinging back. There are photographers such as Eric Bouvet who has dropped his digital gear and gone back to a Graphiflex view camera with lenses dating from the Second World War. There are people like Philip Blenkinsop and Stanley Greene who refuse certain commissions because they want to be able to keep on working with celluloid, at their own pace. There are people who are not interested in instant news. They'll always be welcome. And there will be the others too. True: Cartier Bresson's decisive moment will soon be a curiosity for historians to study, and I think that's a shame.
Where do you see yourself in this changing world? Where are you in relation to all the young photographers who have lost faith in the press and whose dream is now to sell their pictures in galleries?
JFL: That makes me laugh. How many of them sell their pictures? How many can make a living out of it?
Pierre Terdjman sold more of his Israel shots in galleries than for the press.
JFL: That's a bad example to cite. He had a Paris Match commission to do his story on poverty in Israel, then a Saint-Brieuc grant to continue the story. I don't think that Pierre Terdjman earned more with his gallery sales than he did with his grants and commissions.
Some photographers these days are looking at ways of funding their work via NGOs or even via private companies or private cultural institutions. Do you see this as a development in the right direction?
JFL: A "photojournalism festival" includes "journalism." In theory that means working in the news industry. But if the press is not in line with these requirements or needs, people may turn to NGOs and grants, may look for prizes and projects with interest groups. That's all very well, but I don't know if this surrogate press is a positive development, as some people maintain. Prizes are one of the changes in Visa pour l'Image: at the beginning we were against the idea of awards, but they keep photographers going. We have a new one every year; so they're necessary.
Some photojournalists are now operating more like small businesses, controlling everything to do with their photos: funding, production and distribution, using platforms such as Emphas.is. Is that the solution? Or is it only a temporary solution to a problem that requires a concerted response from the photo industry at large?
JFL: It's always the same. I was a great supporter of Emphas.is when it started up, and I'm delighted to see all the projects that have been done through it. But is the model going to develop? I hope so, but I'm not sure that it is.
How do you see Visa pour l'Image in five years time? What will it be like? Will it always be the same? I'm not talking about the photographers, or your commitment, but physically what will it be?
JFL: Technically it will be the same. We waited years before we stopped using slides and changed over to digital projectors. Why? Well, no one was satisfied with the digital projectors and pictures until we found the solution we chose. We were the last ones to go into digital projection because, when we did, we wanted to be better than all the rest. And without false modestly, we have succeeded in that. Nowhere in the world have I seen any quality better than the digital projections in Perpignan. But it costs a lot. Yes, we'll have to adapt to these new techniques and technology.
Do you think that your partners will keep going with you? What do they get out of it?
JFL: Yes, I do, because I think the annual event has become a real must. It's a meeting place for everyone, and technology won't change the appeal of that.
Does that mean that technical developments will never prevail over photography?
JFL: I think so. Look at the enthusiasm for "Paris Photo" which has now been taken to Miami and Los Angeles.
Are you worried by competition?
JFL: No, because I think (and maybe I'm wrong) that we don't have any competition in the field of photojournalism, even though I've seen attempts.
Is it because you've been there the longest?
JFL: It's also a matter of loyalty. I'd like to talk about the teams and their loyalty. With the exception of Michel Decron who started the festival with us and who left in 1994, all the original people from the first year are still with us, which is outstanding.Then there's the loyalty of our partners who have been with us since the very first festival: Paris Match, Canon and, of course, the City of Perpignan; and there are the photo labs that have been with us since the very beginning: Central Dupon and e-Center. You talk about competition; well, I've been around lots of photo festivals in different parts of the world, and can tell you that when you sit down at the Café de la Poste after the evening screenings in Perpignan, you're with Stern, The Sunday Times, Paris Match, the Figaro Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, The Guardian and so many others. I've never seen that anywhere else. The day The New York Times goes all-digital, do you think they're going to close down the photo department? Of course they won't.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, 2012. From an upcoming article on lions in the Serengeti to be published in the August 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine. Image © Michael Nichols / National Geographic magazine.
What do you think of the demise of the paper edition of Newsweek? Does this mark the end of a changeover period and the beginning of a radical transformation of the media? There are already plenty of rumours about whether The Guardian in the UK will survive, and it's no secret that The New York Times is seriously contemplating a shift to all-digital in the years to come. What will the repercussions be for photojournalism?
JFL: I'm obviously sad to see the printed edition of Newsweek disappear, but at the same time, in the age of the Internet and instant communication, there are fewer reasons for a weekly magazine to exist. Newsweek comes out on a Thursday, so it has stories of what happened the Friday before, and all that has already been dissected on the social networks and analyzed on TV news channels. I'd say that it's part of an inevitable process. But there will always be photographers who will tell their stories in different ways. At the National Geographic seminar in January, between my appointments with editors, and photographers and looking at works in progress, I saw 30 reports and chose eight for Perpignan. I still have a few years to go before National Geographic stops giving work to photographers. National Geographic is invariably described as "pretty photos," and it's true, but stories such as Paolo Pellegrin's report on the tunnels in Gaza and Alexandra Boulat's Iraq are hard-hitting. The people there are not interested in simply elephants and lion cubs, and nothing else. It's facile to dismiss it all as just pretty photos!
Yes. National Geographic is one of the rare magazines that only gives commissions to photographers once they've gone through a long series of interviews. The photographers also have to be seen by a panel of directors and editors; they have to present the work at the different stages of their project. Many magazines have stopped working this way. Why? And what effect has this had on the magazines and most importantly on photographers?
JFL: True, National Geographic is the last one to do this. This means that there is a whole series of links missing from the chain. You realize this when you see just how a story should be developed, because they don't have a contact person any more and they're left to their own devices. A photographer working for National Geographic has to report in, and works with someone, has a picture editor and a text editor, working as a trio and producing wonderfully constructed stories. Others stopped working this way because of the cost. As agencies have got poorer, the idea of a picture editor has got lost, and you can feel that something is really missing.
Isn't this a symptom of an entire system which is collapsing, where no one seems willing to share their experience? These days, the idea of getting the directors of the leading agencies (Magnum, NOOR, VII, AP, Reuters, Getty Images and others) in the same room together would appear to be impossible. Why? I was talking with a photographer from one of the agencies after he'd got funding from a different agency, and he went on and on, stressing that he had no ties with the second agency. He just could not even contemplate the possibility of having any association with the other agency.
JFL: It has happened in the past. I remember clearly that a few years ago I had Henri Bureau's famous shot on the Iran-Iraq war, showing the taxi driver, seen from behind, holding a gun, in between two columns of smoke. The photo credit was for a Mexican agency. With distribution agreements, this is going to happen more and more.
Isn't that the basic problem? How can you hope to find a joint solution if we can't get together?
JFL: That's a very good comment, and unfortunately we are in a business where there is no joint effort; it's every man for himself. That's why we supported Freelens in Perpignan, and did so for years. Some 400 people attended the first Freelens meeting, but ten years later, there were only eighteen. This year we are going to provide a forum for PAJ (Photographers, Authors, Journalists), and they look as if they really want to get things moving. It's true: if we don't get together and act together... Look at the Observatoire de la Presse, the French press watchdog authority: it does not have one single person representing photographers! That's insane!
Doesn't Visa pour l'Image have a role to play there? Could it be the right place, the right forum? Instead of talking about problems affecting the world of photography, what about engaging in discussions on solutions, discussing them together?
JFL: That is what we have been trying to do for 25 years, but it's complicated. Some problems only concern France and have no relevance in an international context. It's difficult sometimes to get everyone in the business to rally to the cause when they are not all affected by the issues. We are obviously open to any initiatives. In 1989, we declared that Visa pour l'Image would be a tool for photo professionals, and if they want to use it, they are certainly welcome to do so.
Read part one of Jean-François Leroy's interview here. 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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