For the past 19 years photographers and photo editors have gathered near the Spanish border in Perpignan, France for a grand festival to celebrate photojournalism. This years festival from August 30th to September 14th will mark the 20th such meeting and I have been handed an interview with Jean-François Leroy the festivals founding and current director, where he tackles a few of the hard questions facing photojournalism and acknowledges completely missing the boat on the internet.
In 2000 I was scheduled to attend for my first time and my ticket was abruptly canceled by the editor when it was determined that visiting the festival was an unwise expenditure of our resources in suddenly tightening budgets. The opportunity to go never presented itself again and so I’ve been stuck hearing the stories of what went down from the people who visited but never having access to the photography or lectures presented at the festival to incorporate into my own magazine.
This of course, is the problem with Visa pour l’Image, everything that happens in Perpignan stays in Perpignan. And, now it’s even more serious because not only have you missed the opportunity to reach hundreds of photo editors who couldn’t attend you now need to reach beyond the magazines and convince consumers that important, powerful stories like the one’s featured at the festival need to be seen in publications. The consumers are in charge now and it’s only going to get worse so convincing Editors and Photo Editors to buy stories is no longer good enough, you also need the support of the end user.
The internet is the perfect medium for photojournalists and documentary photographers to show their work and if Jean-François is serious about keeping Visa pour l’Image relevant he needs to find ways that the festival can reach beyond the city limits of Perpignan, so we can all hear about the great reportages that were shown and the one’s that need a home and in many cases some will reach consumers online without a publication.
It’s time for someone with a powerful voice in the world of photojournalism to take the reins and lead this industry to the next level. I think Jean-François Leroy may be the right person to do it. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
You’re great friends with Paul Fusco, from Magnum Photos, and often work with him. What’s the story behind that friendship?
In 2000, Jean-Bernard Maurel, who was working with Magnum Photos at the time, told me he’d found something in a drawer and was I interested. He pulled out a report Paul Fusco had done in 1968 after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Paul had covered the funeral train carrying the coffin placed on an open car and draped with the American flag, going all the way from Los Angeles to Washington. Thousands of Americans had gathered along the railroad track to see the funeral train go by and pay their last tribute to Bobby Kennedy. Paul, who was beside the coffin, photographed all these people, this cross-section of America bidding farewell to a dead man. For 32 years, the report had never been published! No one had shown any interest in it! We featured it as an exhibition at Visa pour l’Image, in a linear presentation, as if we too were in the train and were traveling across the States. When Paul arrived in Perpignan, he gave me a hug and said: “At least there’s you to understand my work.” And we’ve been great friends ever since. I really admire him as a photographer; his work on Chernobyl was outstanding and had all of Perpignan in tears. I think it’s such a shame that there are some people today who make millions, and a man like Paul, whose work is of such historic importance, is virtually destitute! That really riles me!
Without mentioning any names, some of the top ten photographers in the world today, including war photographers, “live in a garret”, surviving on less than 1000 euros a month, struggling to make ends meet.
Yes, it’s a real problem; I’ll give two examples. Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for Time Magazine, and has been going to Baghdad a couple of times a year for the last five or six years. Now look at his work, at what he produces, then compare it to what you see in Time. There is a gaping abyss between what his real work is and what gets published. Another example is Stanley Greene who wanted to do a report in Afghanistan and needed to find 8000 euros to get there, but couldn’t raise the money. I’m sorry to have to say this yet again – everyone’s getting sick of it, and I’m told that I’m biting the hand that feeds me– but we have to stop saying that the press doesn’t have any money! The press can find the money to buy exclusive rights to celebrity photos. A couple of years ago, one weekly magazine paid 150,000 euros for the exclusive rights to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s wedding; and they can’t fork out 10,000 euros to send Stanley Greene to Afghanistan for a month! It just makes me wonder. Fifteen years ago, when a newspaper commissioned a report, the paper would insure your equipment, pay for 150 rolls of film, cover all the lab development costs, and so on. Nowadays, you do digital work, your cameras aren’t paid for, you’re not even given a memory card – nothing. A digital camera costs a lot more than the camera you had fifteen years ago. And we’re not supposed to voice any criticism? Over the same period, the price of a page of advertising has gone up by a factor of 2 or 2.5; compare that to the prices paid for photos which have gone down by a factor of 2 or 2.5! Christophe Calais told me that he wanted to go to Kenya to report on the events there; he called a magazine he often works with, and was told “Listen, if you get the chance to take a shot of Obama’s grandmother, and if we do a double-page spread, I’ll give you 300 or 400 euros.” Hell! He wasn’t going there to do a Grandma Obama celebrity shoot! That’s the real problem, you see. Everything has become celebritized, everything is nice and clean, and we’re told that we mustn’t show any violence, but celebrities instead. Yet when you look at “real TV”, you’re shown violence! Lucas Menget, a top reporter with France 24 and a member of the Visa pour l’Image team, did an excellent 26-minute report on Iraq, and you can see violence there in his report. Just talk to Stanley Greene, Christophe Calais, Enrico Dagnino, Paolo Pellegrin, Noël Quidu, Laurent Van der Stockt, and so many others whose names I haven’t mentioned; they see violence out there in the field, in the events they cover. That’s the real story!
When we ask our parents and grandparents what they did about the Nazi concentration camps, they tell us that they didn’t know about them. And it’s true that many people only discovered what had really happened in the camps when they saw photos taken by Lee Miller and Margaret Bourke White. Today we’re lucky enough to be able to see everything. No country is completely closed off; it might be difficult to take pictures in Burma or North Korea, but you end up getting something. With modern transmission facilities, satellite phones and all the advances of communication technology, it’s much easier than it used to be. So what will we say when our children and grandchildren ask us what we did about Darfur? It’s a philosophical problem. Photographers and journalists, whether with the written press, radio or television, often run the most extraordinary risks so that they can show what’s really happening. For years we were told we had a duty to history, then a duty to remember, so let’s now say that we have a duty to see and to look! I don’t want to live in a virtual world, a nice little, cuddly, fluffy world where everybody’s happy, where everyone is sweet as sugar candy and where everyone has heaps of money. People often say that Visa pour l’Image is a festival with commitment; I would say that we are activists, that we want to be militant because we, the organizers and photographers at the festival, are journalists.
Do you think that Visa pour l’Image, would have been the same festival without this stated, and often vehemently asserted, ambition of having an editorial line and position?
That’s an interesting question because I think that it is indeed this editorial line, the conscience and commitment which produce the loyalty, with photographers, picture editors, agencies, labs, sponsors and the general public coming back year after year. At Visa pour l’Image, you can say what you like, you can show what you like, you can be committed, have your set ideas and attitudes, and, most importantly, there is complete editorial freedom, without anyone overseeing the content. If I can come back to Roger Thérond, it ended up being a gag: at the end of every evening show, Roger would always say, in his deep voice: “Ah, Leroy, isn’t it great to be left-wing! It looks so good!” I’d reply: “Roger, we’re not left-wing, we’re humanists!” And we’d burst out laughing! When I hear politicians saying that that there are people who revel in their support of the Third World, our answer is: Well, if you think it’s an insult to show interest in the Third World, we think it’s a compliment, so keep up the insults.
Would you say that Visa pour l’Image has helped write a page in the history of photojournalism?
If you look at Visa pour l’Image as it was twenty years ago, we were a lot less radical than we are today. We have reacted against the press which has become increasingly bland and clean. Fortunately there are photographers who say “I’m doing this to show in Perpignan, otherwise it’ll never be seen anywhere.” It won’t be seen by general press readership. We are, I’d say, a professional forum that offers freedom of expression to journalists and photographers. It’s a great source of pride for us. For the tenth anniversary of the Festival, the American magazine Aperture did a special issue and asked photographers what Visa pour l’Image had meant for them. Alexandra Boulat answered: “Leroy is the last Stalin in the business, but he knows what he wants.” I see that as a great compliment. And because we have our own opinions and attitudes, we can be criticized for being biased. But look at the content of the festival, objectively; we provide a forum for reports, with screenings and exhibitions which are not necessarily my cup of tea, but I believe it’s important to show them, because it’s our duty. Eugene Smith, who attracted a great deal of criticism with his book on lead poisoning in Minamata (Japan), used to say that “objectivity” was the first word to banish from the folklore of journalism, and that if we started with honesty, that’d be pretty good start. We are not claiming to be objective, we are trying to be honest.
Do you think that this commitment, or refusal to be “objective”, and the militant approach to journalism which you defend are the reasons for the ongoing support you have from the sponsors who help fund Visa pour l’Image?
I think our partners are quite proud of the festival. Take the main partner: the city of Perpignan gives us support and assistance not only for funding but also with all the infrastructure. Everyone knows that I’m not on the same side of the political spectrum as the mayor of the city, Jean-Paul Alduy, but Jean-Paul has respect for us and leaves us free to express our opinions. I’m sure that other sponsors see things the same way; by funding Visa pour l’Image, they convey a message that shows people they are being given a unique forum for freedom of expression and choice.
It’s extraordinary to think, for example, that over the last twenty years, we haven’t had to pay for one single print. The photo labs keep on funding the prints for the exhibitions because they believe it’s important to provide support for this unique forum for expression. There’s a great story on this: when Madame Gallois, the managing director of Central Color, handed the business over to her grandson (Jean-François), she invited me to lunch and told him: “Jean-François Leroy is the only Central Color customer who never pays his bills and who still gets invited to lunch.” By being part of the event and providing support for us, all the Visa pour l’Image partners are saying that they are part of the family. It’d be nice if some of them kept on saying it for more than just a week or two every year, and my dream would be to find a weekly magazine that would give us a few pages every week to feature the reports that are never seen outside Perpignan. That hasn’t been done yet, and I suppose it never will be, but why not? At Visa pour l’Image, we have pictures from around the world; photographers send them to us because they know we’ll look at them, they know we’ll talk about them, whereas in the pressrooms, they don’t even have the time any more to look at the photos sent in.
Given the delicate financial balance of the world of photojournalism, how can you make sure that Visa pour l’Image survives? In the space of one month, we saw two agencies sold, and they certainly weren’t the smallest ones: first Getty Images, then Reuters which was bought up by a Canadian group that isn’t even in the press. At this point in time [February 2008, at the time of the interview], can you be sure of the long-term survival of the Festival?
I’d like to say that I can be sure of the next three years. We have signed an agreement with Getty Images for 2008, 2009 and 2010; and with Canon I’m confident, and hope, that we’ll be signing up again in September for 2009, 2010 and 2011. We should therefore be OK for three years, but long-term survival is a real concern, when you see the number of photographers who have to do bread-and-butter jobs just to survive; e.g. Jérôme Sessini, a young free-lancer who has no money to fund his travel expenses or produce reports, and he’s not the only one in that situation. When you look at cases like that, you have to wonder about long-term survival. In three or five years time, will there still be the pictures needed to produce a photojournalism festival? I’d like to think so. I hope so!
The market has changed so much over the past twenty years. The three leading agencies (excluding AFP, AP and Reuters) were Sygma, Gamma, and Sipa; today, while Gamma has survived, Sygma is dead and buried – literally buried, as the archives have not been digitized and were buried in salt mines in Pennsylvania, USA, in a moisture-free environment, when Corbis bought up the Bettmann Archive and Sygma. Last year, the agency Noor was launched in Perpignan, and I said that if it didn’t work the situation would really be desperate. Well, when you look at the difficulties they have had to contend with, it is desperate – truly desperate.
Has the Internet changed the scene?
We could complain that the media use the same pictures that are on the Internet again and again, and don’t pay for using them, while advertising income on the Net has increased five-fold in just two years! Ten years ago, you were told: “We can put your pictures on the Net, but can’t pay for them because they don’t generate any profit; we’re losing money.” No one should be using that argument any more as the media are now making money out of the Internet! One example, which only made a couple of lines in the French press, is that the Washington Post is going to stop publishing the paper edition and will only be published on the Net; That’s a revolution! The Washington Post! One of the greatest papers in the world, the paper that pushed Nixon out of the White House, is going to disappear! If the owners and directors of the Washington Post stop the printed edition to focus on the Internet version, then it proves there is a profitable economic model for a Website! When you see news sites such as Rue89 and Arrêt sur Images, you can see that there are economic models that work on the Internet, but when it comes to paying photographers for their pictures, there’s never anything for their rights.
Why doesn’t Visa pour l’Image have a better Website?
Early on, in 1989, we used to say that Visa pour l’Image was a tool to be used by photographers and agencies. We missed the critical turning point in Internet development; I realize that, but we are going to catch up and make extra efforts. I hope that in one or two years time, the world of photography will really be able to rely on the Visa pour l’Image Website.
In the early 1990s, there were four or five agencies offering systems for viewing pictures and downloading them. At the time it was low resolution and took between 22 and 25 minutes per picture, so it was pretty unwieldy. Today, with a good broadband connection, you can download a photo in just 12 seconds. Cédric Kerviche, our picture editor for the Festival who has to find the best news shots for us, has access to 270 sites; that means 270 logins, and 270 passwords. No one working for a magazine has the time to look at that many pictures every week. If you work for a weekly magazine and you’re told to find a photo on Kenya, maybe Oeil Public, Tendance Floue or Noor has the best picture, but you’re bound to find one with AFP, AP, Reuters or Getty Images. So you go to that site on a regular basis because you don’t have the time to find the best shot somewhere else. That’s a real trap!
The agencies, collectives and young photographers made a mistake, and I’m weighing my words here. Ten years ago, I told them to get together and form a group: “Each one of you can keep your personal or trade name, but create a portal called pressphotography.com (or whatever you like); then, when people are looking for a shot on Kenya, they’ll see Oeil Public, Cosmos, Tendance Floue, Vu, Contact, Magnum, and others.” Today, if you go looking for something on China and globalization, or on the market economy in China, we know the place to go is Oeil Public for Samuel Bollendorff’s reports, because we know him, but someone in Mexico looking for a picture will go to Corbis, Reuters, Getty Images, AP, Sipa and AFP, because they’ll always find a suitable photo; they won’t go to Oeil Public. I think the young agencies really missed out on this opportunity; they didn’t see how crucial it was to join forces as a group, and that it didn’t mean compromising on either their identity or their soul.
Look at recent events in Kenya and what’s been published in the press: you see Dagnino, some van der Stockt and some Terdjman, but plenty of other photographers were there. If those photographers don‘t have their shots on line in real time, they send them on a CD to Paris Match, VSD, Newsweekand the rest, but it’s too late, because the events are over and the papers have moved onto another story. There is, however, one very promising development in France: PixPalace.
Listening to you, we might get the impression that it’s not photojournalism that’s dead, but rather the way it’s presented that’s dying.
True, photojournalism is not dead. Just look at the programs for the different Visa festivals, and you can see we still have both quality and quantity. In Beirut in 1982, anyone working for AFP, and who did not have a Belinograph wire photo machine, had to take their own films to the airport and get a passenger to carry them; then a motorbike courier would pick them up in Paris. There was a whole chain: the shots were then edited and duplicated and everything was sent off to the photo departments of the different papers and magazines. From the time the shot was taken to the time it was printed, some 24 to 72 hours had elapsed. And there were people acting as filters. Now there’s digital technology. With the war in Iraq in 2003, we first saw AP photographers with transmitters on their backs linked up to their cameras; as soon as they took a shot, it went straight to AP in real time. That speed can be good, but then the newspapers are less demanding because they want to have the same scenes as the TV news. With only a few rare exceptions, the photos that have gone down in history did not make the front page the day after they were taken; often they were spotted much later, or rediscovered on contact sheets. Now with digital photography, shots can be erased if they don’t appear to be of any immediate relevance. Digital technology may mean that great chunks of history could be lost.
When you’re in a basement in Grozny, or wherever, during a bombing raid, I don’t know how you can burn a DVD or make back-up copies. You go for the basic essentials and a whole aspect of the work is lost. Twenty years ago, whenever a photographer showed me a report, he’d turn up with 100 photos. There are plenty of photographers today who turn up with 15 photos on a story, because they were only commissioned to work for two days, whereas in the past they’d be paid for two weeks. When you’re sent to Kenya and are told you have 48 hours, what can you expect to do on the events in the country? You do generic illustration-type shots.
It’s clear that everything is going downhill for photojournalism, with fewer pages in magazines, less money and fewer resources for photoreporting in the field. Yet every year in Perpignan, we see plenty of picture editors, magazine/newspaper editors, and editors-in-chief, in other words all the decision-makers in the industry. There must be some hypocrisy involved here.
Three or four years ago, I’d tell professionals in the press: “Stop saying you like photojournalism, buy it instead!” You see plenty of people who come to Perpignan and go into raptures: “Oh, that’s quite remarkable, wonderful, magnificent!” So why don’t the same people buy the reports? Why don’t they publish them after the Festival? I can remember a story, in 1998, by Ettore Malanca, on the children at Bucharest railway station. He’d shown it to everyone and hadn’t got it published anywhere, but after his exhibition in Perpignan, he made a number of sales; that was great. But that’s increasingly rare now. Last year we screened 100 photos Diane Grimonet had taken over a ten-year period reporting on social outcasts and disadvantaged people in France; VSD and Libérationwere the only ones to commission anything from Diane after that – no one else!
It is positively crazy that photographers such as Fusco, Greene, Dagnino, van der Stockt, Quidu and others cannot make ends meet. It is absolutely insane! These guys have talent and are genuine journalists who go out in the field. This is a real problem for me, a philosophical problem: why can’t they find the funds needed to set up reports and/or get their work published on a regular basis?
Over the last two decades you have been renowned for your outbursts. What was the latest one?
The trouble is that people don’t see the difference between being strong-minded and being bad-tempered. I’m strong-minded but I don’t put on temper tantrums; I get carried away because I’m outraged and appalled by things. When you see the quality of the work done by photographers, and then look at the press, there is such a gap, such a huge distance that, OK, that really makes me mad! I think that the papers could be so much better. Look at ventures that have been both demanding and ambitious, such as the launch of XXI (and the first issue certainly augurs well). I’d like to see lots more photos and visual reports. I’m sick to death of this fashion for portraits; I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is nothing more tedious than portraits of American soldiers in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan. I do NOT want to see any more portraits.
You often say that you plan Visa pour l’Image as you would a newspaper.
Yes, I like that parallel. We have the best prints in the world because we work with the best photo labs in the world. And we can present reports with 40 to 70 photos per exhibition. There are no ads between the reports. There’s just one problem: we have only one issue a year and it can’t be sent out to subscribers!
Will there ever be a printed version of Visa pour l’Image?
I must admit that I’m somewhat disappointed. For twenty years now one of our leading partners has been one of the largest magazine-publishing press groups in the world, Hachette–Filipacchi, now Lagardère Active. If that group had believed, if only for a second, that a project such as Visa pour l’Image Magazine could be viable, then I think they would have done it. So I’m disappointed because you’ll never convince me that, with the content we have, we couldn’t produce an edition in two languages (French and English) and that they couldn’t sell 400,000 copies a month. Honestly I can’t believe it. It must therefore be a question of choice. There’s the content, we have the people to do it, and there are plenty of journalists who would be willing to write for a magazine like that.
Without giving away any secrets for the 2008 festival, how do you intend to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Visa pour l’Image?
With both flamboyance and discretion. Twenty years is a big chunk of life, even though I feel as if my first Visa pour l’Image was only yesterday. We have devoted a great deal of energy to it, from the entire team, and a great deal of love and dedication over all these years. We want to celebrate this 20th anniversary, but at the same time you can be sure that the 2007/2008 news stories will not be sacrificed for festivities. We’re all determined to keep moving along the same path. So it’s news, news and news – the story, the full story and nothing but the story. And one of the six evening shows will be set aside for a review of the stories that have really left a mark on us all.
Interview by: Claire Baudéan, Caroline Laurent & Lucas Menget