A Letter From Paris: John G. Morris Remembers Perpignan

PARIS, FRANCE - Visa Pour l’Image, reflects its veteran director Jean-François Leroy, has come of age at 18. As usual, the photojournalism festival held each September in the Southwestern French city of Perpignan broke all its own records, with more than 3,250 professional visitors from 67 countries including 177 Americans.

Also as usual, the challenges posed to the media by the work shown at Perpignan go largely unanswered. What is the point of risking one’s life to cover a war? What good does it do to report on child labor and prostitution? Can photojournalism do more to help fight the battle against AIDS? Does the evidence provided by pictures help to indict war criminals? The answers to these and many equally provocative questions are debatable.

Nevertheless, those who go to Perpignan enjoy the year’s biggest party for photojournalists, far surpassing those of the White House News Photographers or NPPA, even those held in Amsterdam to celebrate World Press Photo awards. In brief, Perpignan is a blast. A chance to see provocative pictures that will never be published anywhere. A chance to drink champagne with the greats of the profession. A chance to ogle the girls with bare midriffs and men who flaunt their lenses. If that means coming of age, so be it. But now down to serious business.

It has now become almost compulsory for picture agencies to appear in Perpignan, and it costs them dearly. Space in the Palais des Congres rents for about 3,000 Euros for 10 square meters, and there is the additional cost of getting there, hotels, etc. Professionals talked this year about their shifting fortunes, about abrupt firings of executives, about big agencies swallowing smaller ones, about the video threat to newspaper photo staffs. Will still photographers become obsolete if newspapers come to rely on video grabs? Will newspapers too, as we now know them?

The No. 1 celebrity of this year’s festival was Magnum’s 78-year-old Elliott Erwitt, who was born in Paris of Russian parents, grew up in Italy, and graduated from Hollywood High. To Elliott photojournalism is just one aspect of his job. He calls photography his hobby. He has a lot of fun with it, especially when it comes to photographing nudist camps and dogs. Erwitt admits to occasionally setting up dog pictures: “I like to bark at them.”

Erwitt’s serious pictures have sometimes had serious consequences. He unwittingly helped Richard Nixon get to the White House, as one of only three photographers who shot the then Vice President’s “kitchen debate” with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow in 1959. Nixon poked his finger at Khrushchev, who hadn’t the slightest idea of what Nixon was saying. Americans assumed that Nixon had “won,” and retained the image of a forceful statesman when they elected him president in 1968.

Perpignan also welcomed one of the true heroes of press photography. The veteran Associated Press photographer Horst Faas, a two-time Pulitzer winner, came from Munich in his wheelchair – the result of a spinal blood clot which almost cost Horst his life in 2005. In 1997 Faas and Tim Page published the book Requiem in tribute to the 135 photographers of all nations who died or disappeared in covering the long conflict in Vietnam and Indochina.

Horst came to Perpignan to pay tribute to his cherished colleague Henri Huet, who died, along with Larry Burrows of Life, Kent Potter of UPI, and Keizaburo Shimamoto, working for Newsweek, when their helicopter was shot down in Laos in 1971. Horst’s new book on Henri, edited by Hélène Gédouin for Editions du Chêne, makes it clear that Huet was one of the greatest of all war photographers.

In the Chapelle St. Dominique, Perpignan’s grandest exhibition space, an exhibition of Huet’s pictures faced those of Erwitt. It was a fitting juxtaposition of hard and soft news, for both occasionally ennoble mankind. Huet’s war photos depicted the agony and heroism of men at war in the worst of circumstances; Erwitt’s showed men, women, and children in familiar acts of life and love.

At the rear of the church, separating the Erwitt and Huet shows, was a color photo mural entitled “The Dreadful Details” that was commissioned, insensitively, by a division of the French National Center for Visual Arts. Supposedly “inspired” by the American Civil War images of Gardner and O’Sullivan, it was made with actors, on a Hollywood back lot, purporting to recreate a battle scene in Iraq. Most visitors found it totally out of place. Dreadful indeed.

As if to make that point even more forcefully, Perpignan eloquently displayed and projected the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Todd Heisler of The Rocky Mountain News, on the return from Iraq of dead American Marines and the notification of the soldiers’ families.

Wars, the one in Iraq and the subsequent war over Gaza and Lebanon, received further attention, from those who have covered them. Stanley Greene, the American photographer who has noticeably matured through his steady attendance at Perpignan, told how he had privately broken into tears after covering the assassination of four American security guards in Fallujah, realizing that but for the grace of God he might have been next.

Another emotional moment came when the Ukrainian news photographer Igor Kostin told how he rushed to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor within hours of the original 1986 explosion, obviously risking his life. Speaking through a translator, Igor received a standing ovation when his pictures were projected. Hand over heart, he bowed humbly in appreciation. The following day he joined a panel discussion of Chernobyl with Magnum photographer Paul Fusco, who has made three trips to the site, and Gerd Ludwig, who has thoroughly documented the aftermath of Chernobyl and its surroundings in color. Radiation levels are still so high that workers are allowed only one shift of 15 minutes per day.

Natural disasters were also explored. Last year Hurricane Katrina, occurring during Perpignan, abruptly took several photojournalists away, including National Geographic’s senior editor David Griffin, who returned to Washington to produce a Geographic special issue on Katrina. This year saw a Katrina exhibition and book by an international team: Stanley Greene (U.S.), Kadir van Lohuizen (Netherlands), Paolo Pellegrin (Italy) and Thomas Dworzak (Germany). Coincidentally, on August 27 The New York Times Magazine devoted 26 pages to “Children of Katrina,” by Brenda Kenneally, who won the 2000 W. Eugene Smith grant for humanistic photography.

Less than two months after Katrina, a massive earthquake struck in Kashmir and 75,000 people died. It was almost ignored in the U.S., still suffering from “tsunami fatigue” and the aftermath of Katrina. In Perpignan it was chronicled in two exhibitions, one by Jan Grarup of Politiken, Denmark, and one by the 16 photographers from 13 countries who covered it for Reuters.

Another kind of natural disaster, shown in an exhibition by Belgian photographer Bruno Stevens, was the four-year drought in the Horn of Africa, which has affected millions. Failing to get a press assignment, Bruno covered this for the United Nations World Food Program, based in Rome.

Jean-Francois Leroy, Visa’s lanky director, shows no mercy when it comes to choosing heavy subjects for Perpignan’s exhibitions. One, entitled simply “Sangre” (blood) showed violence on the streets of Latin American capitals: Buenos Aires, Rio, Medellin, Mexico City. Another, by Lynn Johnson for National Geographic, showed how Zambians, living on less than a dollar a day, risk death as poachers to provide for their families. Alvaro Ybarra Zavala of Vu showed the miserable plight of children in the southern hemisphere: child miners in Bolivia, AIDS victims in Africa. “Crossing Hell” was the subject of still another exhibition, by photographer Samuel Aranda for Agence France Presse. He showed the desperate and often fatal attempts of Africans to cross the sea in small boats to Europe, hoping for a better life. The subject was shown even more powerfully at Perpignan two years ago by Oliver Jobard. His video and exhibition on one man’s struggle to reach Paris from Cameroon was one of the highlights at this year’s photo festival in Arles.

Women continue their ascendance in photojournalism. More comfortable in jeans than in skirts, they were everywhere in evidence, including three bigtime U.S. picture editors: Michele McNally of The New York Times, Janet Reeves of The Rocky Mountain News, and MaryAnne Golon of Time. Hazel Thompson (Eyevine) received the CARE International Humanitarian Prize, worth 8,000 Euros, for her shocking report on “Kids Behind Bars – Inside Filipino Jails.” Rena Effendi, whose photographic talent was discovered by Stanley Greene when she worked as a translator for the American Embassy in Baku, showed ironic photos of the contrast between old and new in that Azerbajani capital. Claudia Guadarrama won the Canon Female Photojournalist Award for her coverage of Guatemalans crossing the border into Mexico – a journey even more perilous than that faced by Mexicans illegally entering the U.S.

Collectively, the exhibitions and projections offer a kaleidoscopic overview of our times. Photos of the past year, two months at a time, are shown in the six nightly projections. Morning sessions in the Palais des Congres featured such journalists as James Hill of The New York Times, Peter Dejong of AP, and Michael Nichols, one of the four National Geographic staffers. The recent history of Argentina was seen in fascinating news photos which somehow survived the dictatorial clampdown of the late 20th century. Similarly, the Stalin era was shown in previously unseen photos. The Maoist revolt in Nepal was shown both in black and white by the Singapore journalist Philip Blenkinsop and in astonishing color coverage by Tomas Van Houtryve, winner of this year’s Young Reporter Award, now sponsored by the City of Perpignan. No doubt Leroy plays his favorites, and the U.S. is not one of them, when it comes to politics. Cuba’s Castro did well, as did the new hero of the Latin American Left, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who is trying on Castro’s shoes. Leroy paid final tribute to Catherine Leroy, for her work in Vietnam and Beirut; to Mark Grosset, for his role in Rapho and in working with Russian photographers; and to Joe Rosenthal, another of Perpignan’s past honorees who has joined the immortals.

The Best of Perpignan is a book crying to be published, an exhibition that should be seen by statesmen around the world.

- John G. Morris
29 September 2006


Morris, author of Get The Picture: A Personal History Of Photojournalism (University of Chicago Press, 2002), is a frequent contributor to News Photographer magazine. He's the former picture editor of The New York Times and was executive editor of Magnum Photos and he now lives in Paris. He will be a speaker on the 2006 NPPA Flying Short Course.