You don’t have to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo to find a good story
Though I don’t have as many notches on my Visa pour l’image belt as many, I returned home from this year’s event feeling like the most innovative and illuminating aspect of it was that they finally figured out how to print your name on both sides of the badge.
Not sure what it was this year. At first (as usual) I thought it was just me and that I was not in the right frame of mind for it, but then as I spoke to lots of people I discovered many were having the same kind of feeling, a kind of ‘what happened’ sensation. More than one person said they would not be coming back after this year. Not in a foot stamping ‘this sucks’ kind of way at all but in a bewildered and rather mournful way. The rumblings have been going on for years and there were far fewer familiar faces in attendance than I can remember. Every year has its own flavour, mind you, and some years seem to have a dark cloud built into them by outside forces. The year that is indelibly seared into my memory is 2008, when a teenage girl jumped to her death from the Castillet on the Wednesday afternoon as people started congregating at the Café de la Poste, landing on the pavement in front of the eyes and lenses of a huge chunk of the world’s photojournalism community. I was not eyewitness to the event, for which I’m eternally grateful. We arrived when the body had been taken away and the blood was being hosed from the pavement, but that single event had a profound effect on everyone who was in Perpignan that year. Everyone remembered the sound she made when she hit the ground.
But what was going on this year? I wish I could time travel back to the early days of Visa before I ever knew it, when the whole thing was tiny and everything was based at the Hotel Pams and had a more DIY feel to it born of passion for the subject. When the Café de la Poste was so disgustingly wonderful and it was impossible to get the urine smell out of your shoes after a humbling visit downstairs to the loos. When it felt important, even essential to be there and to be seen there. Because this year it didn’t.
Walking into the exhibitors’ hall, which has been steadily shrinking year on year, was a shock. SIPA and Polaris were there on the left in their usual spots, but where was everyone else? No Getty down at the end. Loads of agencies and companies I’d never heard of. Was it just me being out of touch? Had I somehow missed a whole chapter? A walk through this space was always one of the first things I did after getting my credentials just to see who was there and what was going on, but I did a loop and felt like I was walking through a memory, like Shelley Duvall walking into the Gold Ballroom near the end of the Shining and seeing the cobweb covered skeletons in the bluish light. There was no buzz, no sense of urgency or excitement, just mental silhouettes of a lost era. I hate sickly nostalgia but had to confess to a twinge of it as I fled the room.
There’s no avoiding the obvious in terms of how technology has shifted the relevance of Perpignan. Not all that long ago, this was the annual (and often only) chance to speak to your international agents face to face, to have the opportunity to discuss business and make deals and be part of an industry that, unlike now, felt like it had a centre. You’d go with a list of people you needed to see and have meetings with and then get introduced to more people and year on year this would build until you forgot that there had ever been a first time when you didn’t know anyone. There was no real way to get to meet or know a lot of the industry gatekeepers back then unless someone introduced you or they knew your work, and getting them to know your work was dependent on events like Perpignan as a showcase if you were not with an agency or getting regularly published. Where Perpignan seems to have missed the boat is by not evolving and not acknowledging how different the world is in terms of how photographers get their work out into the world. They don’t need a show on a wall in Perpignan to have their work reach a global audience. I mean no disrespect to the talented photographers whose photography was on display, but I do query those who curated the shows like it was 2007. Walking through the Couvent des Minimes, an old convent that contains the bulk of the shows, I saw exhibition after exhibition that looked like exhibition after exhibition I’d seen in years past. Same aesthetic, same presentation, same stories…just, well, the same. What year was it? Had I not seen a nearly identical piece of reportage in 2009? Surely there is more to photojournalism than endless framed images from conflict zones? And on top of that, endless framed images that needed a good edit. They could have fit double the shows in some of the spaces if only someone had made better editing choices. Smaller interesting human stories were hard to come by this year. That’s something that baffles me, that an interesting local story from anywhere in the world is not included. This is certainly not because photographers aren’t producing this work, it’s just not making the cut. Why?
Back to the word gatekeeper. Photographers have more power than ever to share their work and get it seen by the people willing to publish it or hang it on a gallery wall or give it a prize. This democratisation of exposure is on one hand a fantastic opportunity for enterprising photographers but it is also a lot of work. As a photographer you really have to do everything yourself and that’s as scary as it is exciting, as not everyone is adept at relentless self-promotion. This is nothing new and has been the name of the game for ages now. But Visa is still behaving like an event whose institutional approval is somehow essential to a photojournalist’s career. The result feels bloated and out of touch and held prisoner by the specific world view of its own gatekeeper, the director, who seems unwilling to change a thing.
What to do about it? Well, get rid of the tragedy that is the Exhibitor’s Hall for one thing. It was like going into a restaurant that used to be popular but now had no customers and feeling that cringing sadness of wanting to shake the owners and start screaming ‘This is unsustainable! Start a food truck!’ In fact, the whole Palais des Congres felt redundant and empty. The ground floor contained Canon’s exhibition hall as always and the Charles Trenet auditorium had the talks, but the rest of the building was spottily used. Even the roof was nearly empty every time I went up there (so I stopped going up there) Why not center the whole thing back at the Hotel Pams and use some of the other venues around town for the talks? Why not the beautiful Art Nouveau Cinema near the Castillet for the talks? If the Palais des Congres was no longer in use, the festival would take on a different center of gravity and there would be a greater density of festival goers making use of town and congregating in central locations. I can only assume that there is some political reason or perhaps a long-term commitment to use it, in which case the festival’s only recourse is to drop the expensive exhibitor fees, use the space for exhibitions and get more bodies through the door and make it a proper center. It’s only amplifying Visa’s problems by visually reminding everyone that not so many people are going anymore.
The other thing that has contributed to my feeling for the event is the abolishment, since the Visa of 2016, of the evening screenings in the Place de la Republique in the wake of the 2015 Paris bombings. Because the entire plaza is atop an underground car park, it’s hard to argue with the logic of this on the most obvious level, but on several other levels it seems like security could be increased for those 4 or so evenings. This has been such a loss for the whole festival because it democratised the screenings and allowed the general public to see the work and, for people like me who hate being penned up in that awful Campo Santo on those uncomfortable seats and getting stink eye from the director if I try to slink out, it allowed people to meander from bar to restaurant to bar and walk around as we looked at the projections. There was a lovely energy to it and it created an important mix of festival goers and locals.
Yemen. Democratic Republic of Congo. Syria. Brazil. Guatemala. Libya. Iraq. All were well represented. Meanwhile, literally within a few blocks of the Visa pour l’image action, an ongoing drama was unfolding in the Gypsy community of St. Jacques in the oldest part of Perpignan. The city of Perpignan was in the process, over the past years, of demolishing ancient buildings in the community of thousands of Gypsies for urban regeneration, triggering protests and an outcry about the preservation of their lifestyles. I read this article whilst at Visa pour l’image in the Guardian:
Aside from seeing the demolition debris and various areas boarded up on my walks around St. Jacques, I saw nothing of the story represented at Visa itself. Here was a local story, unfolding in real time during a purported celebration of photojournalism, and not a frame or pixel was in evidence. This is a rich story with legs reaching far beyond Perpignan itself in terms of the subject of the destruction of communities and the evolution of cities, but for some reason it was not being shown, even as a screening. Too political? Might it upset some officials whose grace and favour the festival relies upon? Don’t know. After all, photo reportage from the distance of Yemen won’t annoy the local politicians because they don’t care about it. It also won’t inspire people to turn their lenses on what is happening around them, and that’s where the best stories start. And the best stories are often the ones that scare people who want to keep things quiet and control the narrative.
Last year I was with a colleague at my favourite bar in Perpignan, Bar and Britz, which sits right on the Place de la République. It’s a bit of a dive and reminds me strangely of favourite old haunts from New York. We were having a chat with its owner, Barend Britz, a former rugby player from South Africa who was so massive it looked like he was standing up on a platform behind the bar, but he wasn’t. I asked him whether taking away the evening screenings during Visa had hit his business over the past few years and he said it definitely had, but he wasn’t angry or nostalgic for the old days, things were just different now. His business was a year-round business supported by locals and also the large numbers of rugby fans in and out of town for the Catalans Dragons and so this was just one week out of the year for him. He had been in Perpignan for many years and had a take it as it comes attitude that was calming. I guess when you’re nearly 7 feet tall this attitude is a good one to have.
After the second night at the Café de la Poste talking to friends from all over the industry and all over the world and picking up the general vibe that I was not alone in my feelings of unease about the festival, I decided to head over to the Place de la République to see Barend and see what he thought. I picked up my phone to check Bar and Britz’s hours and it was then that I found out that Barend had been murdered at his own bar at the beginning of the previous December, a week or so short of his 64thbirthday. While trying to keep the peace with an emotionally disturbed man who was in the process of wrecking the bar, Barend was struck on the head repeatedly and died from his injuries.
The screenings in the Campo Santo are broken out by month, each night covering two months of the news from the previous year as well as showcasing other stories. On September 3, the screening covered the months of November and December, which would have contained Barend’s murder, this was the list of stories shown:
It’s a Dog Life
The Manila Water Problem
Industrial Pollution in Bangladesh
Born Free-Mandela’s Generation of Hope
Delta Hill Riders
Sugar Moon – Texas Nature
The Camp in Rivesaltes France
You’re Not There by Chance
Trapped in Greece
A Desperate Will
If Visa pour l’image doesn’t pull its head out of its rump and champion local photojournalism and personal stories, then its relevance will continue to diminish and maybe we’ll all look back from our dusty collection of red and white lanyards holding credentials of years passed and say that it had a good run for awhile. Until local photojournalism is supported and celebrated, we are stuck in an echo-chamber of conflict porn. All global stories are local to someone and sometimes a small story (beloved bar owner murdered by man known to police and allowed to walk freely in the streets) can become a big story if we care enough about how to tell it. The New York Daily News is a poster child for how not to treat journalism and photojournalism in particular. No staff photographers, local beat reporters gone, no one with the inside knowledge to blow fresh air into the dark corners. It’s okay, a junior reporter can rewrite a press release for the web and use the picture they supplied. Nothing to see here.