A Letter From Paris: Perpignan's Report Card

One in a series of regular dispatches from the front lines of photojournalism:

By John G. Morris

PERPIGNAN, FRANCE - Visa Pour l’Image, the photojournalism festival held here annually the first week of September, serves as a kind of report card on the state of the world. The report this year was anything but excellent. The year began with the horrible aftermath of the tsunami. Just as the festival was getting underway, came word and equally horrible first pictures of hurricane Katrina. It was a bit too much.

Nevertheless, the festival was once again the family reunion of the world’s photojournalists. More than 3,000 professional photographers, journalists, picture editors, and agency representatives from 61 countries paid their dues (50 Euros) to attend the 29 exhibitions, the six nightly projections, the interminable “debates,” the previews and press conferences that make Perpignan unique.

Visa Pour l’Image can be described as a circus with three major rings and innumerable sideshows, presided over by ringmaster Jean-Francois Leroy, a journalist who learned the trade at Paris Match and has directed Visa for seventeen years. The three circus rings are the refurbished 16th century Couvent des Minimes, which houses more than half the exhibitions; the modern Palais des Congres, whose seven floors house the commercial sponsors and the world’s picture agencies, as well as two theaters and a rooftop restaurant; and theCampo Sampo, once the courtyard of a nunnery, now fitted with bleachers for hundreds of lucky spectators. Those who don’t get in are welcome to watch on another screen, at Place Gambetta. Surrounding all this (and much more, including a fort, a palace, a cathedral, a town hall, and too few hotels) sits the city of Perpignan.

The printed program for Visa is a big booklet of 57 pages, which is condensed into a little leaflet of 28 pages with map – indispensable in this city where streets wander like goats. Alphabetically, the 24 one-person picture shows this year ran from Eddie Adams to MichaelYamashita. Eddie’s was a posthumous tribute to a man known affectionately in the profession both for solid photojournalism and for showmanship. Michael’s show was on the Korean DMZ, the demilitarized zone and “last remnant of the Cold War.” He photographed it forNational Geographic in the winter of 2002-03 but unfortunately little has changed.

There were also retrospectives by Claude Dityvon, once considered the enfant terrible of French photography, and by David Burnett, the Washington-based photographer from Contact Press Images. Burnett, one of the few American photojournalists who actually speaks their language, astonished the French press by the number of world events he has managed to cover in the past 35 years, from the coup d’etat ofChilean General Pinochet to the campaign of John Kerry. Adriano Bartolini, a respectful paparazzo to the Pope, showed John Paul II in blue jeans.

The kind of show that sends Visa director Leroy to the wall (to hang it) is a photographer’s passionate statement of a cause. As usual at Perpignan, there were plenty:

* Contact’s Kristen Ashburn won last year’s Canon Female Photojournalism award, and was thus guaranteed a show this year. Her photographs of AIDS victims in Zimbabwe were a powerful indictment of the Mugabe regime, which welcomes journalists with prison sentences, eviction, or extinction. This year the award went to Claudia Guadarrama, for a show at Perpignan next year.

* Heidi Bradner of Panos Pictures began photographing the first Russian assault on Chechnya 10 years ago. She then lived in Moscow and speaks Russian. Her pictures pull no punches: “I have tried to give a human face to the many victims of this war,” on both sides. She now lives in London.

* Asim Rafiqui of Sipa, a young photographer who is a Pakistani born American of Kashmiri descent, now living and working from Sweden, has launched an all-out photographic attack on the “interim” government in Haiti which replaced that of the democratically elected President Aristide. His images show the brutality of the present regime.

* Marcus Bleasdale is an English writer who was first inspired by the Congo of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He left a banking job to see for himself. He found little had changed and published a book, One Hundred Years of Darkness. He hopes that his reportage, which he calls “The rape of a nation,” will shock the world into action.

* Kadir van Lohuizen of Vu, supported by a Dutch NGO, documented the world diamond industry, starting with the dismal conditions of African miners. Thanks to groups such as Fatal Transactions, there has been modest reform, embodied in the Kimberley Agreement of 2002.

* Gerard Ranciman’s color portraits of the survivors of Hiroshima, shown at Perpignan as a mural 40 feet long by 10 feet high, are one of the few Visa projects to be widely published – on the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. His story made Paris Match, Time, London’s Sunday Times, Stern, Oggi, and Hola. Will it now be forgotten?

* Alexandra Boulat, one of the founders of the agency VII, returned to Perpignan with a story on “Women of the Axis,” meaning Mr. Bush’s axis. Her story was recently published in Paris Match, with text by Caroline Mangez. It was obvious that the women of Afghanistan do not see the wearing of the burqa and the black abaya (which the two women were forced to wear) in the same way as do western women.

* Paul Lowe, who may also be remembered for his coverage of the first war in Chechnya, reminded us of still another war, with a show called “Scars,” from the war in Bosnia. It’s also a book.

* The plight of Palestinians, generally favored in Europe over their Israeli occupiers, was the subject of two exhibitions. Vu’s Jerome Equercalled his “Gaza, Life in a Cage.” Reuters presented the work of its three Palestinian photographers, who happen to be brothers: AhmedJadallah, Suhaib Salem, and Mohammed Salem. The title of their exhibition: “Gaza – Funeral Days.” The preface explained: “For years in Gaza, every day has been a funeral day … This exhibition is a simple sample of their daily work.” Next year should be different, at least in Gaza.

* Unsurprisingly, the occupation of Iraq was either the main subject or was touched on in five exhibitions. Two were by AFP photographers,Patrick Baz and Mauricio Lima. One was by Time’s Russian contract photographer Yuri Kozyrev, who covered both sides. One was by freelance Jerome Sessini, who was in Iraq from March 2003 to January 2005. He says, “I shall be returning.”

* Lynsey Addario, who won the Fujifilm Young Photographer award, to me did the most remarkable job in Iraq, although she worked there only five days. Assigned by the weekly newspaper supplement Life, she arrived during the fierce fighting at Fallujah, and managed to photograph wounded Marines in the Air Force Hospital at Balad. Getting signed releases, she photographed faces, eloquent witness to the sacrifices made by American fighting men (she says that no women were on the front lines). After holding her pictures for four months Lifereturned them. Fortunately, they were almost immediately published by The New York Times Magazine.

* Magnum’s Paul Fusco also defied Pentagon attempts to sweeten the sour news of Iraq by photographing American funerals for servicemen and women killed in Iraq. His story, much like that published in News Photographer in March, 2004 (“When War Comes Home”), was published in Mother Jones.

* Finally we come to CARE, the international NGO, which conducted a competition of its own, judged by Jean-Francois Leroy. It was won byJuan Medina of Reuters, for his shocking coverage of lives lost as men and women attempt to flee Africa for the Canary Islands – Juan’s country. CARE also showed the four runners-up, in mini-shows of 10 pictures each. They were by: 1) Thierry Falise, on the Karen rebels of Burma; 2) Jan Grarup of Politiken on the Romas of Slovakia; 3) Lizzie Sadin, on the curse of being born female in India; and 4) FrancescoZizola on the victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Lest Visa be accused of showing only things that most people are against, it’s worth reprinting the CARE exhibit’s explanation of what the organization stands for:

CARE seeks a world of hope, tolerance, and social justice 
where poverty has been overcome and where people live
in dignity and security.

I am not going to attempt to review the evening projections, for the simple reason that I found it impossible to take notes in the dark. However, thanks to the use for the first time of digital projection instead of slides, the evening screenings were the best ever. Created by a small company called Abax in the small town of Chagny in Burgundy, near Le Creusot, they may well revolutionize this fast-growing medium.

Perpignan’s Palais de Congres is beginning to resemble a Las Vegas trade show, with ever more elaborate displays by sponsors Fujifilm, Canon, and Apple. A constant spectacle at Apple was a line of people checking their email on a dozen computers. One floor of the Palais this year was devoted to space for 18 of the relatively new photographer cooperatives that have sprung up all over the world, with Aina, created by the Paris-based Iranian photographer Reza, heading the list.

On the floor above, the International Press Center housed 38 agencies this year, five fewer than last, but including seven new names: Editing, Images de, IPJ, Photoshot-UPPA, Pixpalace, Studio B, and Top. Seven of the 43 listed last year did not show up, at least under the same names. There were some new hats on old heads: Vin Alabiso, former photo director for AP, came as a consultant to New York Times Syndication. Mark Grosset, son of the founder of Rapho, came as editor and agent for Russian photographers, going back to Soviet times.

Brian Storm, who made his name at MSNBC and then Corbis, launched his new company MediaStorm with a presentation of five films that combine stills and video, from the work of freelancers. To me the most moving was “Never Coming Home,” a series of glimpses of and comments from families who have lost loved ones in Iraq, with photos by Andrew Lichtenstein of Corbis and audio by Zac Barr of StoryCorps.

National Geographic was at Perpignan in full force, making it clear that the switch from Kent Kobersteen to David Griffin would not alter their commitment to Visa. In return, the Geographic seems to get at least two exhibitions a year. In addition to Yamashita’s DMZ there was a fascinating color story by Stephen Alvarez called “Maya Underworld,” on the curious mixture of Mayan and Catholic ritual in Central America that is now threatened by evangelical Christianity.

Only four U.S. newspapers bothered to enter the competition for Visa’s Daily Press award (which was won by Ian Grarup for his Darfur coverage that appeared in Politiken in Denmark). The four were the Dallas Morning News, Newsday, The New York Times, and theWashington Post. The Times, which now owns The International Herald Tribune, sent its new assistant managing editor for photography,Michele McNally, as well as the IHT’s picture editor, Cecilia Bohan, and the Times’s Paris bureau picture editor, Daphne Inglese.

Magnum, which last year gave a big party, decided this year to hold a serious symposium, presided over by David Alan Harvey, on the outlook for sales of photojournalistic work through galleries and auctions. The discussion, like most panel discussions at Perpignan, seemed interminable and inconclusive. Meanwhile, Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak was making a photograph of an unidentified man floating in a New Orleans street that made a double truck color spread in both Time and Paris Match.

By now, the sale of photo reproduction rights through the web has become so commonplace that it almost goes unnoticed. The big agencies – Corbis, Getty, Magnum – offer hundreds of thousands of images to their clients. At a Perpignan press conference, Evan Nisselson, founder of Digital Railroad, made an effective pitch to “the little guys,” freelance photographers and small agencies, announcing three new clients: 4See, a Portuguese agency; Veras Images, a collective based in New York; and Stephen Alvarez, the freelance photographer whoseNational Geographic story on Mayan religion was exhibited. The Geographic also sells pictures.

Ryuichi Hirokawa, editor-in-chief of Days Japan, a monthly Japanese picture magazine created on the first anniversary of the Iraq war, March 20, 2004, brought copies of his first quarterly edition in English. It leads with a challenge to “media around the world (who) gave unquestioning and uncritical support to the U.S. war on terror, thus limiting itself to covering the perspective of the only one side. Photos of victims of the war were quietly removed, for fear that they would threaten the ‘legitimacy’ of the war. Victims were neatly hidden from our eyes.”

Determined to show “the hard reality of the world,” Mr. Hirokawa held the first Days Japan International Photojournalism Awards contest. The first prize went to Prakash Singh for a tsunami photo, the second to Q. Sakamaki for a Liberian war photo; third prizes went to Nina Bermanfor her Purple Hearts photos and to Evelyn Hockstein for photos of Sudanese refugees and raped women.

Greg Kelly of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation came to preview his film on war photography called “Words Are Not Enough.” The film consists of interviews with 24 leaders in the field, including David Douglas Duncan, James Nachtwey, Don McCullin, Maggie Steber,Gary Knight, Peter Howe, Hal Buell, Patrick Chauvel, Alexandra Boulat, Larry Towell, Horst Faas, Philip Jones-Griffith, JeromeDelay, David Leeson, and your correspondent. The film, which will air in Canada in November, attracted a small audience because of a scheduling problem.

John G. Morris, formerly of The New York Times and Magnum and now living in Paris, is the author of Get The Picture: A Personal History Of Photojournalism (University of Chicago Press, 2002).