Peter Howe

The Rocky Road
to Enlightenment


It seems so long ago now that Visa Pour L'Image happened. In fact as I write this it's only eight weeks. It's also another lifetime. If the importance of an event is measured in the effect that it has on the society in which it happens, then September 11th was one of the most important events in the history of the United States. It has had the effect of changing the way that most of us feel about living in this land, and its relationship to the rest of the planet. How long this change will last and what the results of it will be only time will tell, but it's like that now, especially in New York. Interestingly for me one of the effects of the attacks was to make me realize how much I like this city that has been my home for twenty-three years, and how proud I am to be an American. If this is not the effect that the perpetrators had intended through their acts, then so much the better.

The first three paragraphs immediately below were written on the plane back from Barcelona to London on September 9th, the day after Visa's closing party. When I read them now they seem inappropriate to the times, which is precisely why I decided to finish the piece the way that I had planned to write it. One of the effects that the perpetrators did have in mind was to so shake our faith in our way of life that we would never be able to continue to live it in the same way. To finish the piece in exactly the same spirit that I originally intended is my very small gesture of defiance, even if it means that I will have to type only with the erect middle finger of my right hand. So here goes:Driving in France, while not quite the contact sport it is in Italy, is nevertheless not an undertaking for those of a weak disposition. On the way from my hotel in Perpignan to the center of town there is a road by the University with several speed bumps. The French take two separate attitudes to their presence. One is a stoical endurance of yet another impediment for the persecuted driver, and the other is that these have been provided as ramps to launch their hurtling vehicles into an even faster, airborne trajectory. In neither case is it ever perceived that their purpose in life is to slow you down.

If driving in Perpignan is not for the faint of heart then neither is attending Visa Pour L'Image. It has become one of the best-attended gatherings in photojournalism, as the result of which you see many people that you really want to see, and several that you really don't. When I was working for Corbis and first introduced the company to this event it was considered by Tony Rojas and Steve Davis to be one of my (they thought many) boondoggles. It was not until Steve Davis first attended Visa that this attitude changed. Although a few days in the South of France attending parties thrown by Paris Match, National Geographic and others seems like an easy gig they actually can be some of the most grueling days of the year.

For one thing you eat much too much, which makes you sluggish, and drink more coffee than a Colombian insomniac, which makes you jittery. You walk for miles to look at all the exhibitions, and then in the evening attend the nightly screenings. These allegedly start at 9 pm, but in reality rarely begin before 9:30. This is the result of trying to funnel several thousand people into a ruined Abbey whose entrances are guarded by individuals with all the character defects of French bureaucrats. They clearly derive much more pleasure in keeping you out than letting you in, which they regard as a personal defeat.

Once inside, however, the hard part begins.

First of all you have to find a seat. All of the seats in the front are reserved for sponsors of the festival and other important people such as representatives from the Ministry of Culture, so no one with an ounce of self respect wants to sit at the back. Actually I'll reverse that statement. Anyone with self-respect doesn't care where he or she sits. It's only people with a high level of insecurity for whom such placement is important. It often takes me days of planning and flattery to get a spot up front.

Once you're in your seat the show finally begins. If your French is as minimal as mine you have to depend upon the marginally effective translation headphones. The problem with these is that you're always a beat behind the events unfolding in front of you. One of the most disturbing aspects of this is when, unbeknownst to you, the speaker makes a joke and everyone laughs, leaving you wondering why everyone is laughing. Although this is annoying it's not half as annoying as when you hear the translation of the joke and still wonder why everyone is laughing.

The introductions out of the way the projections begin and the next hurdle to overcome starts. I looked up in my French/English dictionary, and there actually is a word in the French language for “edit”, but it's clearly fallen into disuse. It seems as if you're hit with a thousand images every night, each one dealing with an aspect of human misery more enervating than the previous. Now I believe in the value of the photojournalist as witness as much as anyone. As both a photographer and an editor I have published more than my fair share of stories from the dark side of life. The problem is that in such numbers, and also within such a narrow range of subjects, the human mind, at least my human mind, starts to shut down in an act of self-protection. It was such a relief to see Bill Allard's pictures of America on one of the evenings this year. Images of ordinary people leading ordinary lives, and in color no less, was like a breath of fresh air.

So you survive the evening firmly convinced of man's inhumanity to man only to discover man's inhumanity to the digestive system. You allow good friends, often the same ones that got you seats up front, to persuade you to eat spicy Moroccan food well after midnight. As the result of this you get to bed about 2 am, but you don't get to sleep at all. This means that you attend the next days projections sleep-deprived on top of everything else. The KGB couldn't have created a system more effective in breaking the human spirit.

So why do so many people attend this photographic marathon? The answer is simple. In spite of all of the hazards it is the best display and celebration of photojournalism in the world, or at least the best that I've seen. All of the effort and patience required to participate in what truly is a festival is amply rewarded, especially in the display of compelling photography in what have to be the most beautiful venues for photographic exhibitions anywhere. There were twenty-nine of them this year, ranging from Patrick Aventurier's study of nomads in the forests on the border between Laos and Thailand to Paris Match's coverage of the French Presidents and Callie Shell's work on an “almost president”, Al Gore. But for me the bright shining star of the festival was Wayne Miller's essay on Chicago's South Side that he started in 1946. The joy of photojournalism is that it can transport you to places you've never been, and backwards in time to days you've never experienced. Miller's work is captivating, and set the framework in my mind for the civil rights movement of the sixties that was to follow. Such outstanding work not only engages the viewer emotionally but also expands the sense of understanding.

As I sit here on the second day of November looking at the program that I brought back from Perpignan it occurs to me that so much of the work displayed in those days that preceded disaster was relevant to what we are dealing with now. Look at the following: David Butow “In the Heart of Saddam's Iraq”; Chris Anderson “The Stone Throwers of Gaza”; Jan Grarup “The Boys from Ramallah”; Jean-Paul Guilloteau “Pakistan, a Broken Country”; Andrea Motta “Iraq after the Storm”; Patrick Robert “Sierra Leone: Final Offensive of the Kamajors”. You cannot attend Visa without coming away with a better educated, more informed view of the world. If there were a way of showing this work in Islamabad, and the West Bank, Belfast and Manila, then maybe the exhortations of the fanatics would be slightly muted, Christian as well as Muslim. Exposure in Des Moines and Houston wouldn't hurt either.

So I will be back next year to have my horizons broadened, to see old friends, make new acquaintances, and always get good copy. But what Visa mostly gives me is a wonderful sense of reassurance that a career in photojournalism is relevant, rewarding and a pretty good thing to make your life's work. Look out for me. I'll be the guy at the back with the jumbo size bottle of Tums.

© Peter Howe, 2001
Contributing Editor

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