Perpignan 2008

Processing Perpignan

By Beverly Spicer Saturday, 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.

Aftereffects, another view, and more cud chewing to follow

By Beverly Spicer Monday, September 15th, 2008

Most of us who attended Perpignan have been home for days.  Almost all who were there for the opening of the festival left by Monday morning, and by the end of the week were re-ensconced in familiar surroundings.  It was back to our corners, except of course for those who went directly to wherever they will be shooting next.  People had come from all over the world to attend the festival and the guest list was simply phenomenal, a veritable Who’s Who of the world’s most notable photojournalists ranging in age from a very young 20 or 21 to the two emeritus members who by now qualify as living legends: David Douglas Duncan and John G. Morris are both 91 and were born 6 only months apart.  It was great having them present, and the whole thing had the feel of one big family.  

I had a note from photojournalist Paula Lerner about an exhibit that opened this past weekend in Brunswick, Maine, of her AFGHAN STORIES. Numerous photojournalists who have worked in Afghanistan were in Perpignan for the week, and she was sorely missed.  

Funny how a small comment can start one ruminating about things, and Paula said something in our exchange that has had me thinking for days: “Good luck with post-Perpignan time,” she said, “I always find the transition back to my life after a festival like that to be a bit of a challenge.” 

That’s right, it is a bit of a challenge.  There’s a curious thing that happens after participating in an event such as Visa Pour L’Image, or in fact anything that is extraordinary or profound. The experience is one thing, but after you leave, it’s quite another thing altogether, which I is what I’ve been thinking about.  The aftereffects can often be just as strong as the experience itself, sometimes even stronger.  So, I’ve been formulating ideas about intense experience and the spiritual digestion (or indigestion) that follows.  I’m pretty sure the continuum is broad and includes everything from a positive afterglow described by “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” to post-traumatic stress (PTSD), a phenomenon that’s often devastating to photojournalists, especially war photographers.

I’m going to say more about that shortly, but in the meantime, I want you to see more of what happened in Perpignan. To the right you see Photojournalist Casey Kelbaugh, who has written a perfectly fantastic blog entry  on Slideluck Potshow entitled NOTES FROM PERPIGNAN: Casey Kelbaugh visits Visa Pour L’Image 2008. His words and images paint a great portrait of the intense experience that Perpignan really is.  He’s posted a ton of rather trippy, near-psychedelic photographs to go with his comprehensive and very funny narrative.  He describes the experience of getting there, being there, taking it all in and blowing it all out – the ritual that all festival goers undergo – in a beautifully descriptive post that makes me remember what it was like to be a little younger and burning my candle at both ends & in the middle in a relentless quest for life experience.  

Take a look at Casey’s blog while I mull over a debriefing, which I’ll be writing in the next day or two.  His post is a don’t-miss, and as soon as you’ve seen his lively perspective on Perpignan, we’ll be ready to talk about the phenomenon that follows such an event.  To see my own blog entries, click on the category Perpignan 2008 to see the other posts from our phenomenal week in France.

The Dark Side

By Beverly Spicer Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

There were rumors in Perpignan that festival goers were being attacked on the streets.  We don’t have any figures on how many people this happened to, but here is one verified victim. Meet photographer Jason Howe, who was attacked while walking at night on a sidewalk just northwest of the area where the festival was held.  He was accosted, pushed to the ground, kicked and robbed.  I’m not sure how he incurred the nasty looking blow to his forehead, whether it was by hitting the ground or by direct assault, but you can see he had a rough encounter.  

Molly Roberts photographed him at lunch the next day and reports he was in pretty good shape in spite of his injuries. We guessed he might feel a lot worse in a day or two. Sorry to say, I don’t know exactly what possessions he lost in the attack, but this incident brought to mind the very sophisticated equipment one sees hanging around people’s necks as they casually stroll around town.  It’s a wonder it doesn’t happen more often.  

As you might have seen from a previous post, there were many security officers stationed around town, but apparently they couldn’t cover everything.  It’s all still a bit of a mystery, though I heard the suggestion “immigrant gangs” were responsible.  If anyone knows more about Jason’s or other incidents, leave a comment.  We’d be interested to hear more.  

More images from Perpignan; retrospective to follow

By Beverly Spicer Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Even though the actual flight time is about 14 hours, it takes about twice that much or more to get from awakening in Perpignan to going to bed again in Austin, TX. I kept thinking I would have the opportunity to post some pix at least in one of the airports, but just as I would get settled in and find a wi-fi connection, it was time to get on the next plane.

By the time I hit my front door, the only thing on my agenda was going to bed. But on the way home I had many thoughts about the preceding week, which I intend to write about in the coming days.

It’s true that the final moments of the festival took a real beating and cancellations were disappointing, but aside from the fact that the Soiree presentation and a large gathering were both nixed, people had a great time nonetheless. Droves of disillusioned people radiated from the Campo Santo area, but almost all decided to make alternative plans. I was with Molly Roberts, and we ended up eating a wonderful dinner at Le Sud on a tip from Seamus Murphy who also broke the news that the show was a no-go. At Le Sud, where I’d not been in 10 years, several groups gathered at large tables and there was a lot of socializing going on. We sat out on the patio under a large, densely leaved tree that served as an umbrella during sporadic drizzling. It was calm and pleasant, and in ways, maybe the best alternative of all.

The enthusiasm of this community is irrepressible, and there is a camaradarie that cannot be matched. Some people left Perpignan the next morning, but others hung on for a final visit with each other as they partied way into the night at the beach in Canet. I heard festivities went on till 4am. In spite of dragging on their last legs, many showed up at the airport the next morning at 9am to begin their long journeys home. I ran into Sacramento Bee photojournalist Renee Byer in the airport and she told me she left the beach “early” at 2am. By the look on her face and the reserve of energy she still had, you would never have known her appearance was based on about 4 hours of sleep. It shows how much enthusiasm is generated among colleagues who cover the world and occasionally get a chance to see each other in the same place. Maybe this community is like a flock of egrets who disperse in the day and then return at sunset to the rookery. Or the bats that live under the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, who fly out at sunset and return before morning, and make a great squawking cacaphony when they are together.

I’m going to digest a little more about the week in Perpignan, but in the meantime, here are a few images from the last few days. I will also post some more, as there were so many things to experience visually in addition to the photos of the festival itself.

Park outside Palais des Congres

Memorial to the French lost to war

Steps behind the Park Hotel leading to Campo Santo

Best dreadlocks ever

One of many weddings on Saturday

First floor of the Palais des Congres

Poster advertising a CD from the retrospective
on the Rolling Stones shown at the Soiree

From my hotel room at the beach in Canet

This monsieur in Canet was having at least
as much fun as the rest of us in Perpignan

The sad anti-climax to an orgy of a photo festival

By Beverly Spicer Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Perhaps you have been wondering what has been happening since the last post. A lot, and at the same time, nothing at all, and the title is something I’ll explain in a moment.

It’s Sunday and many people are leaving for home, some are at the beach for a last party, and I’m in a hotel on a keyboard connected to the internet. It’s not my own computer, but it’s something. Wi-fi has again eluded me for over 24 hours, and as much as I would like to include some visuals, this post will be text-only.

Most of yesterday before the rain came was spent looking at books, getting the backstory from the photographers who produced them, and viewing various exhibitions at the Eglise des Dominicains, La Poudriere, Caserne Gallieni and Couvent Des Minimes. Almost all of the exhibition spaces are stand-alone architectural masterpieces, and there is something magnificent about seeing photos hung in a medieval space. I don’t mean to sound like a travelog, but the juxtaposition the old and new, of silent stone and powerful image, makes the experience at Perpignan even more moving. I urge you to go to the Visa Pour L’Image site to explore the exhibition links within.

So, the rain had its way with the grand finale to the festival, and a misfortunate series of circumstances forced the cancellation of the last evening’s Soiree as well as an elaborate after-party scheduled to follow the show. When I think of the work that was scheduled to be shown on this night of all nights, it makes me sad all the way around. I’m sad for the consistently enthusiastic viewers, for the Visa staff that worked so hard for the special 20th anniversary of Visa Pour L’Image, and most especially for the photographers whose work was to be shown in the last in a series of some of the best presentations that can be seen anywhere.

I hope Director Jean-Francois Leroy et. al will post the multimedia presentations online, so that all of us can see them. I would love to see what we missed last night, and would surely watch again and again what was shown earlier in the week.

Will post some more images as soon as possible. Till then, the good news is that Getty will be a major sponsor of Visa Pour L’Image for at least the next four years, guaranteeing there will be a major venue for international photojournalism in the future. With the state of news and journalism the way it is going, this is more than heartwarming. There is much more about that topic to explore. Later.

Sights de Perpignan on Friday

By Beverly Spicer Saturday, September 6th, 2008

Palais des Congres, with seminars, technical exhibits

Palais des Congres

Afghani photographer Abdullah Zaheeruddin and Getty photographer John Moore

Photographers Abdullah Zaheeruddin and John Moore

WaPo Sarah Voison and photographer Karen Ballard

Brian Storm

Brian Storm

Fountains of the Palais des Congres

Security is high and so is everybody else

Security is high and so is everybody else

Un cafe before the Soiree

Dining in the streets

Crowd waiting to enter Campo Santo

Crowd gathers for Soiree at Campo Santo

Soiree Presentation/The Legacy of Chernobyl


Soiree Presentation

Earthquake in China

The Poor in Belgium/Stefan Vanfleteren

Soiree Presentation/The Poor in Belgium

Soiree Presentation

Peoples of the Orno Valley

Children of Kabul/Laurent Van der Stockt

Soiree Presentation/Children of Kabul

Soiree Presentation

Gun Nation

Les Soirees de Projections

By Beverly Spicer Friday, September 5th, 2008

This is the third time I’ve been to Perpignan in the last 10 years.  I met a person last night who has been here for each of the 20 years the festival has been in existence.  Even 10 years ago, Visa Pour L’Image was an enormously impressive event, but today, it is even moreso.  Exhibits are hung all over town in every space available, and the international work is comprehensive from the past year and there is also a good bit of retrospective work shown.  

Each evening of the first week there is a program such as the one I mentioned in the first post of Perpignan 2008.  Les Soirees de Projections are exquisite multimedia presentations held in a large space called Campo Santo, where temporary bleachers are erected to hold the hundreds of journalists, editors, publishers, agents, others involved in the photo industry, photophiles and interested festival goers.  

At the beginning of the presentations, awards are given to various journalists for their work from various organizations.  Last night, the CARE International Award for Humanitarian Reportage was presented to  Stephanie Sinclair of VII.  The VISA D’OR Daily Press Award for 2008 was won by Mona Reeder of the Dallas Morning News over 31 other nominations.  This is the second time a photojournalist from the Morning News as won the award.  In 2003, the award was presented to Cheryl Diaz Meyer.

 Last night the lengthy and spellbinding program included works almost too numerous to mention. Columbia, the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, Amidenijad in Iran, the war in Iraq, a revelatory and horrifying look at the earthquake in China, drugs and prison in Burma (Myanmar), Mexico, Ernesto Bazan’s work in Cuba, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Camaroon, the Congo, Russia, Kashmir and a retrospective compilation on Pakistan since the partitioning from India in 1947 to the present. Following the Pakastan retrospective was a separate presentation on the work done in there by Getty Images’ John Moore, including the gripping images surrounding the events of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in late December 2007.

 There were also retrospective images celebrating the lives of Charleton Heston and Billy Graham, a tribute to the work of the late Cornell Capa, and a very strange piece on the Pope accompanied by the country western music, “I’m Just a County Boy.”  I don’t speak French, so I don’t know the context, but I found it confusing even if it did evoke humor.  There was a magnificent retrospective of national and international news by Figaro Magazine marking their 30th anniversary.  We also saw a tribute to the life’s work of Claude Dityvon, and a piece about the making of the feature film “Johnny Mad Dog,” shot in Liberia and in ways disturbingly indistinguishable from real life.

There were pieces that stood out evoking compassion, humor, emotion, or a sense of wonder.  One was “Grandpa Boxers,” by Arie Kievit, images of aging boxers back in the ring.  I could not help but think of Yosuf Karsh’s stunning black and white portraits when we were shown “Pescados,” portraits of fishermen of the North Sea by Stephan Van Fleteren of Panos Pictures.  The deeply lined, weathered faces and haunting eyes of men who have spent a lifetime at sea made me think of a community where I lived for about a year and a half that was composed largely of Portuguese fishermen.  It’s a life that previously as an inland dweller I could barely fathom but that I found fascinating beyond description.  These portraits told stories I could not.  The tales told just by Van Fleteren’s images of faces were enough to send me into flights of imagination and realms that only hint at what the lives of these fishermen have been like. 

Two profound stories from Thursday’s Soiree stood out about the Homeless.  Stefan Falke’s “Homeless Americans,” is about victims of the subprime crisis who among thousands were rendered suddenly homeless.  A heartbreaking look at “Outcasts in France,” by father and son team Alain and Frederic Sancho offers a respectful and dignified look at the homeless in Paris.  I was struck by the universal physical similarities of these persons, whom the hand of fate has placed in this situation. With heads hung downward, backs curved and bent, and whose body language bespeaks the hopelessness of the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, and the disenfranchised, they looked the same.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I have never felt a separation between the lives of these people and myself, and but for the grace of God or I-don’t-know-what, go not only I but every single one of the rest of us.  

Overall, the increase in numbers of refugees worldwide is profound, and in just this one evening’s complex but relatively brief portrait of worldwide suffering, it is evident that the trend to destruction and oblivion is increasing at an exponential rate, whether it be by natural disaster, war, economic crisis, disease, famine or whatever other way life can suddenly be defeated.  

The last projection was a literally uplifting piece about the work of George Steinmetz, who presents stunning aerial photos of the African continent from a paraglider.  I met George briefly yesterday afternoon before the evening’s presentation, and was embarrassed to realize I later that I knew his work and his name but had not linked them in my mind.  You’ve all seen these photos, I’m sure, as I had.  Meeting him, I could never have guessed that this mild-mannered person would have produced these images we were shown, the logistics for which are simply intriguing.  

I hope you will explore the Visa Pour L’Image site to see images and descriptions that I cannot include here.  It will be worth the time, and I regret that all reading this who were not able to attend could not join us in the moving and thought-provoking times here in Perpignan.


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