22 March 2011, Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. Two weeks after earthquake and tsunami, a man is taking his dog out for a walk in a devasted residential district. Image © Isse Kato / Reuters.
Gone were the doom-and-gloom conversations at this year’s Visa pour l’Image, the world’s largest photojournalism festival, finds Olivier Laurent. Instead photographers are looking to the future and experimenting with new storytelling methods and revenue streams.
In past editions of Visa pour l’Image, pessimism prevailed. Hit by the economic crisis and a drastic reduction in the numbers of assignments available to photojournalists, the community came to the festival questioning what would come next. This year, Visa attempted to answer the question, and a wave of optimism and entrepreneurship seems to be sweeping the photojournalism market. Long gone are the times when picture editors and photographers called “time of death” on photojournalism. In 2011, discussions on the top floor of the Palais des Congrès or at Le Café de la Poste centred on those who have looked at the crisis as an opportunity to develop new models of financing or distributing their work.
John Knight and Jackson Solway were two of them. Criss-crossing the town of Perpignan, often with nothing other than an iPad and a notebook, the executive editor and CEO of Once magazine met with photographers, editors and agencies to present their new iPad app – a photography magazine created solely for Apple’s tablet. The app showcases three photographers’ work each month, publishing around 20 images per project plus pages of background information, interviews and audio files. The attraction for photographers comes from the app’s revenue model. “We plan on sharing our revenues 50-50 with the featured photographers, after Apple takes its 30 percent cut,” says Knight. “We will cut photographers a cheque every six months for two years, depending on how their work sells.”
So far the industry’s reaction has been very positive, says Solway. “Photographers look at us as a possible new revenue stream. The only hesitation we’ve encountered came from agencies, which are concerned or unfamiliar with our business model. But in most cases, after lengthy discussions, they came round.”
Once aims to launch its first paid-for magazine in October. “A satisfying number of downloads would be 10,000,” says Knight. “It would make enough money for it to be considered seriously by the industry. Of course, 15,000 to 20,000 downloads would be great.” A group of young photographers has embraced the initiative, with Matt Eich, Munem Wasif, Anastasia Taylor-Lind and Guillaume Herbaut lined up to appear in upcoming issues of the app [Once Magazine has since released its second edition, available here].
Many of these photographers have also been testing another recent initiative: Karim Ben Khelifa’s Emphas.is. First announced at last year’s Visa pour l’Image, the crowdfunding platform for photojournalists came into being this year. Photographers such as Tomas van Houtryve shared their success stories, for others to follow suit, and the platform is now working on a spin-off dedicated solely to self-publishing.
“To a certain extent, Emphas.is Publishing is the natural evolution of Emphas.is,” says Walter Tjantelé, the firm’s new publishing director. “We saw that a lot of people wanted to fund self-published books on our platform, so Karim and I started thinking about that. Then came the idea of our own collection of self-published books.” While the photographers get free rein to design the book they want, the cover will have an identifiable mark as part of the Emphas.is collection.
Emphas.is Publishing, slated to launch in the next few weeks, brings the concept of crowdfunding to photobook publishing – but with a twist, says Tjantelé. “The core of the funding is based on a limited-edition book that is sold at the beginning of the project. Each book will be edited in an edition of 100 available at $100 each. The books will come signed, numbered and with a print.” Once the $10,000 are raised, an extra 1000 copies will be made to be sold via the Emphas.is platform. If the 100 limited-edition books remain unsold, none will be produced. “We’re trying to minimise that risk by carefully selecting the books we wish to see published, because there’s a lot more work involved in getting the books ready in the first place,” says Tjantelé.
Emphas.is Publishing has 10 to 12 projects already in the pipeline, and is lining up three of them for launch. “We’ve been approached by some top photographers who have really good, finished work but can’t find a publisher to publish it,” says Tjantelé. “They tell us stories of very enthusiastic editors who would love to own their books but won’t publish them.”
And for Emphas.is, it’s symptomatic of what has gone wrong with the industry. “There’s a big demand for photobooks, but publishers don’t seem to be willing to adapt to that demand,” says Tjantelé. “We’re trying to fix this.”
A need for ideas?
At the heart of Emphas.is and Once is a need to find new ways for photographers to connect with their audiences – but from an outsider’s point of view, it’s not enough, says Solway. “I was surprised there weren’t more people trying new stuff at Visa pour l’Image. We’re based in San Francisco where we’re all pushed to re-imagine markets, to challenge the status quo. When we tell this to agencies they laugh, but that’s what we’re here to do. We’re trying to re-imagine the market.”
Samuel Bollendorf agrees. In 2005, the former Oeil Public member looked for a new way to tell stories. “I was working on a large project on China – just before the Olympic Games,” he tells BJP. “I found I had to divide the project into 10 sub-parts to make it easier for newspapers and magazines to finance it.”
Even then, he couldn’t find funding, and was forced to appeal to the French Ministry of Culture to kickstart the work. “In the end, I was able to make a book and an exhibition, but I started to wonder what would happen for my next project.”
That’s when he met Arnaud Dressen of Honkytonk, a French company that develops, produces and distributes interactive documentary films on the internet – or, as they are called in France, Web-Docus. “Arnaud asked me to think of a way we could publish a photographic story on the internet but by using the medium’s true singularity – its interactivity, its mix of media.” In 2008, they produced the award-winning Journey to the End of Coal, which attracted more than 250,000 viewers, followed by The Big Issue in 2009 and Rapporteur de Crise this year.
Since then, Bollendorf has become an evangelist for web documentaries, says Visa pour l’Image’s director Jean-François Leroy. “But there is still a big misunderstanding on what constitutes a web documentary,” Leroy tells BJP. “This year, for example, for our Web Documentary Award, we received 64 entries. Out of these 64, 45 were links to a Youtube or Vimeo video. These are not web documentaries. A documentary that you upload online isn’t a web documentary. You need interactivity. You need to allow your viewers to choose what they want to see and where they want to go.”
But is there a revenue stream for web documentaries? No, says Bollendorf, or at least not at this time. “Right now, web documentaries don’t generate revenues online but, with the iPad, people are used to paying for content – you spend €1 on this app, €2 for another. Just imagine if the 250,000 viewers of Journey to the End of Coal had paid for it! So, yes, there is a lot of potential with the iPad. Of course there are technical issues that need to be addressed, mainly with HTML5 and the fluidity of movements, but we’re getting there.
“You also have to make sure not to replicate what can be found on the web. The iPad needs a new way of writing, of telling stories. When you’re watching a movie, you’re a passive spectator. With the iPad, you have to be active – so we, as photographers and story-tellers, have to renew people’s interests every single minute.”
Some of the photographers on show at this year’s festival are also experimenting with multimedia. The Canadian photographer Barbara Davidson was showing her two-year investigation of gun violence in Los Angeles, for example, which was published and turned into a multimedia presentation by the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve been living in Los Angeles for four years and, about six months into my stay, I met a woman named Rose who had been shot,” says Davidson. “She was coming home from buying some groceries and there were two gangs at the end of the street that were fighting and a stray bullet hit her in the back.”
Davidson convinced her editors to let her work on the long-term project, and slowly built contacts in the neighbourhoods that were most touched by gun violence. “I kept coming back. These people saw that I had a vested interest in their community and that I was not just coming there to exploit them.”
Davidson went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for the work, which she says is in part down to the multimedia format. “It’s such a powerful medium – to have the victims tell their stories and what happened to them. My photos don’t have that much emotional impact compared to hearing someone describe what it was like to be shot. It also allows them to be a part of the process and of the story itself because they are taking a physical role in the storytelling.”
Fernando Moleres chose a different approach to the community he’s been photographing. After seeing Lizzie Sadin’s Juvenile Suffering exhibition at Visa pour l’Image in 2007, the Spanish photographer decided to document the plight of thousands of children that are incarcerated in adult prisons in Africa. “Most of them don’t have access to lawyers – some, in fact, have spent years in prison without even going in front of a court. There is deep injustice – deeper than in any other country such as Russia, India, Israel or America.”
For the past year, Moleres has been trying to help the kids, bringing them medicine and taking photographs of them to show pharmacists and doctors. Now, he’s even spending some of his own money to pay for these children’s bail but, he says, he can’t continue alone. He has appealed to various NGOs, but they have all declined to help.
“NGOs prefer to work on projects relating to starving kids and pregnant women,” he says. “It’s more difficult for them to pay attention to people caught in the prison system. But people don’t realise the extent of the injustice in these prisons.”
Magnum photographer Lu Nan showed work on a similar theme, images of China’s psychiatric wards. The haunting shots document the plight of the mentally ill, who are abandoned and forgotten in run-down institutions. Ed Ou, meanwhile, looked at Somalia’s children fighters – according to the United Nations, Somalia remains one of the “most persistent violators of children’s rights”.
Regular visitors to Perpignan’s photojournalism festival will see a familiar trend emerging – death, violence and misery. Getty Images’ Shaul Schwarz showed his report on the Narco Culture in Mexico; Riccardo Venturi turned his lens to Haiti, documenting the extreme conditions that continue to plague the victims of last year’s earthquake; while Álvaro Ybarra Zavala presented his eight-year exploration of violence in Colombia. Added to these were reports on Guatemala’s internal armed conflict by Associated Press’ Rodrigo Abd, and of Yemen’s recent uprising by Catalina Martin-Chico, this year’s winner of the Humanitarian Visa d’Or Award.
It has become routine to criticise the director’s narrow focus on press photography, and I admit the projects shown tend to focus on violent matters. This was particularly striking when I lined up to receive my accreditation – there, behind the four overworked media contacts, hung Visa’s promotional posters of the past 10 years, all sporting images of natural and man-made destruction and misery (2009 was the notable exception, featuring a picture of a soldier replacing George W Bush’s portrait with that of Barack Obama in his barracks).
Leroy is adamant that his festival is just a reflection of the past year’s news. “Visa is a photojournalism festival,” he tells BJP. “Look at what happened this year – Sudan, Ivory Coast, Fukushima, the Arab Spring, the London riots, Oslo. I created this festival 23 years ago. I have an editorial take. I fought for it, I’ve spent some of my own money on it. Now I’m told I’m too conventional or I should retire, but I’m only 54. I’m not senile.”
Asked whether he would accept guest curators, Leroy says he’s open to proposals. “Contrary to what people think, I’m not sectarian. Submit your ideas. But not if it’s to propose six exhibitions of portraits – portraits bore me.” One thing is sure: Visa pour l’Image will be back for a 24th and 25th time, because Canon has announced its renewed commitment to the festival. “I’m not tired,” says Leroy. “I still have enthusiasm.”
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