Processing Perpignan

By Beverly Spicer September 20th, 2008

It’s impossible not to have a great time at Visa Pour L’Image.   It is without a doubt one of the most sophisticated, riveting, well-organized and informative gatherings in the world.  An enormous, highly ambitious event, it brings together images, stories, books, their creators, fans and followers in a beautiful French Catalonian town that gives itself over completely to the festival for the duration.  The first week is for professionals, and it is one big celebration and chance for the image-makers to convene, to view each other’s work, and to blow off a lot of steam.

Ever since returning from Perpignan, I’ve been mulling over the sights, sounds, images, and happenings that occurred there, as I’m sure others who attended have done.  Re-entry into routine existence after such a festival is an interesting phenomenon, and I’m pretty sure about 50% of the overall effect comes afterward.  There’s something that invariably happens after an intense event.  I’ve attended enough workshops, seminars and festivals during the last 25 years—three times to Perpignan—to perceive a pattern.  First, there’s the experience, and later, after it’s over, there are repercussions.

A weeklong, in-depth submersion in international photojournalism has after effects just like any other riveting event, and almost as much bubbles up in ones consciousness after the experience as during it.  At Visa, there is an almost non-stop bombardment of images both beautiful and shattering from around the world.  Here in the states, it’s no secret the mainstream media sanitizes the news, and people who are truly interested are driven to online sources to see images that depict harsher realities.  But if you looked all day every day, you still wouldn’t find what is presented at this festival in Perpignan.

It’s difficult to come away from the stimulation in Perpignan without experiencing emotions ranging from giddiness and excitement to exhaustion and hopelessness.  It’s everything at once.  A lot of death and human suffering are shown at Visa, but because of the lively intensity of the festival, it is also full of life and hope.  Along with the awareness of extreme suffering one gets from witnessing second-hand so much of the dilemma of humanity, the festival is also massively stimulating and tremendously life-affirming.

In the past 10 days I have heard many comments from people who went to Perpignan this year or have attended in the past.  They all mentioned there’s something of a readjustment after spending a week at the largest international photojournalism gathering in the world.  It may sound strange to say there’s some sort of aftermath that needs to be dealt with, but it’s true, there is.  It is especially true for photojournalists who rarely get a chance to be with their colleagues in one place—temporarily suspending a kind of existential loneliness induced by the nature of their work—but it is also true that others who attend Visa Pour L’Image must readjust, no matter what their level of involvement. 

For “festival goers”—sounds so light and breezy—Visa Pour L’Image is in fact one of the most powerful visual and consciousness-raising events you can find anywhere.  The number of images recorded from events worldwide seen in just one day at the festival is incredible.  There are exhibits of photos from all over the world, and though there are some soft cultural stories, delightful collections, and retrospectives, the majority of the images are of human suffering. 

Consider this:  We spend the days strolling around town, attending seminars and entering numerous exhibitions of 100 or more images each that depict disease, war, famine, earthquakes, natural disasters, life in the desert or jungles or refugee camps, or of human beings—many of whom are children—slavishly working in mines or in mud, and living under extreme circumstances of war, poverty, brutal oppression, homelessness or exile, to name just a few of the situations we viewed, depicted in graphic and heartbreaking detail.  

With thoughts of much of the world scavenging for food and water, fuel and shelter, we festival goers at Perpignan then have a scrumptious dinner, some wine, a little relaxation, then at 9 it’s time for the evening presentation, the Soiree, 2-plus hours of non-stop multimedia, heavily weighted in suffering from every conceivable place on earth—this time presented not for silent contemplation afforded by the exhibitions, but via powerful, psyche-shattering audiovisual presentations that can leave one numb and practically speechless afterward.  Or maybe the reaction is the opposite—a get-down, pull-out-all-the-stops party mood to relieve the stress of unabashed, literally in-your-face reality—for which there will surely be a choice of after-parties.

The cumulative effect of being exposed to such intensely beautiful and shocking images is both exhilarating and devastating, and there is something truly strange about sitting in an amphitheater under the stars on a balmy Indian summer evening, digesting a recently consumed gourmet meal while viewing the most extreme images of human suffering to be found anywhere in the world.  What is presented is not a movie or fantasy, but is raw and non-fiction—the images are of real people in real places undergoing real suffering, loss, disease, degradation, devastation and death.  All this we witness while sitting comfortably next to our neighbor under the night sky, inhaling the pleasant fragrances of perfumed beautiful people who are jam-packed into the viewing arena.

I don’t mean to be sarcastic or to denigrate anyone attending the festival—and they ARE beautiful people—but the juxtaposition of our affluence and privilege against the images we make a feast of creates a dissonance that most manage to suppress, and least until we get home.  All it takes is someone to say, “How was Perpignan?” and it becomes apparent that it’s an experience not really easy to explain nor digest, nor is it easy to describe who was there and what we did for a week. 

The people who attend the festival are in so many ways made even more beautiful for the week because of being made alive through collective awareness.  The journalists who are drawn to the festival to show and view their peers’ work have the aura of this aliveness about them anyway because of what they do, and one cannot help but respond to the stimulation of the information they bring us in the same way.  Most of the people who attend during the professional week are involved in the industry, so it is really like one big family, although this does not describe everyone. 

Whoever else might have been slumbering or unaware is unavoidably awakened to realities elsewhere in the world—not by the glamour one might dream of, of photojournalism—but by the profundity, depth and breadth of the work shown.  And it is astonishing to be among a legion of the people who risk their lives to create these images, all casually walking about town as if in suspended reality on a movie set.  

At night their individual contributions become known when images illuminate the evening sky, projected on enormous screens to hundreds of people.  In the daytime, their images hang silently on walls of medieval buildings while droves of people pass by in somber acknowledgement of the profundity of the work.  There is a fierce camaraderie among the image-makers, and they have a special bond, as does the industry as a whole.  Most photojournalists, though, have an interesting dual quality of appearing as ordinary as anyone you will ever meet, and yet at times, they can seem larger than life.  There are reasons for this duality.

Without exception, those who photograph war, disaster and human suffering also personally experience the trauma of whatever situation they cover, and they have the enormous task to stay objective and bring back an accurate depiction of what happened.  They have to follow the adage to “be in the world but not of it.”   For those who made the images, there is no degree of separation, but for most of us, what happened is an abstraction for which understanding depends on our ability to empathize. How can someone who hasn’t experienced something know of it, really?  How many times have any of us seen an image or read a story that a short while later shows up in a dream?  And how many artists are compelled to transform their personal suffering and empathy into artistic statement?

I asked David Leeson about the relationship between his art and the trauma of observing war and human suffering. Readers may not be aware of the deeply artistic self-portraits David has done for the last 15 years and has made available to the public for he last 2.  In his writing he exquisitely articulates his own experiences as a war photographer and struggles with PTSD.  I told him I had the idea that all of us are now living with varying degrees of traumatic stress, and despite sanitization, the troubles of the world are immediate and in our living rooms, available at our fingertips, and that we are all trying to find ways to cope and assimilate the knowledge of what is happening in the world.   I told him I thought taking in so many images of suffering at Perpignan creates a sort of reality-shattering awareness that comes to witnesses of war.  He had a lot to say about reality-shattering awareness.

David has developed an entire philosophy about art, experience, and the creative process.  He breaks down the process into five stages: The Portal (or idea), The Beast (the fear that would ordinarily prevent one from going on), The Muse (that which enables or inspires someone to push through the fear and take the risk), A Place Beyond (where true creativity takes place, yielding treasures and ecstasy or sublimity), and Coming Home (re-entry to regular life and the assimilation). I was struck by so many of his thoughts, but the thing that was most resonant was his observation that without a doubt, the hardest part of war and war photography is in fact, coming home.

One wouldn’t expect that going to a photo festival would sweep a person ‘away’ from ordinary existence, or that upon coming home it would require a period of assimilation, but I think to some degree this is exactly how it is.  It’s not that Visa Pour L’Image is traumatic—that’s not the word for it.  It is enormously enjoyable, interesting, profound, and somewhat overwhelming, but it is also a suspension of normal reality.  It is a look at the enormity of suffering in the world we don’t usually see and can barely comprehend, but it is also a social situation where like-minded people come together as a sort of family for a period of time that is very affirming and gratifying, where they share common interests and concerns and have one great big party.  But after the party, they have to go home.  That may be the hard part:  processing Perpignan.

One Response to “Processing Perpignan”

  1. Jann Alexander Says:

    Beverly, though I have never attended Perpignan, I’ve certainly been involved in the “industry” you describe and have been moved indescribably in sorting and choosing images of suffering, and you’ve captured beautifully the incongruity of those who are in charge of documenting and witnessing tragedy against those who are actually participants in it. What do we know of their suffering, really? How is it that the universe dropped us (the processors of all of this fantastic visual information) into the affluence of the United States at this moment in time when so many others (maybe even *most* others) struggle in ways we know nothing of, but can merely pay homage to in stunning imagery? you’ve cannily summed up many contradictions indeed. thanks for calling my attention to this very thoughtful post.

    Existentially Yours, Jann