The Perpignan Report
October 2002

By Peter Howe

I don’t think that any of us have to worry about computers taking over the world. Well, Macs maybe at some point in the distant future, but PCs don’t have a prayer. Mine can barely balance a checkbook. It has also developed a new and somewhat disturbing feature since I came back from Perpignan. Whenever I go to enter an address in Outlook, the default country has changed from “United States” to “France.” Whatever I do I cannot get it back to the good old US. I swear to you that this didn’t happen before attending Visa Pour L’Image, and I suspect some dark Gallic plot. The message is clear, however. France is the center of the universe whatever the Americans think. Even Bill Gates’ technology has given in.

I love going to Visa. I think that I’ve only missed one or two of the fourteen years that it’s occurred. It’s always such a shot in the arm to see old friends (although after fourteen years many of them are really old friends) and to look at show after show of wonderful photography. This year was no exception. The ones that stood out for me were Abbas’s thirty year documentation of Iran; Gerd Ludwig’s stunning use of color in his work on the collapse of the Soviet Empire; Lauren Greenfield’s strikingly intimate look into the “Girl Culture” of the United States. Visa always has fascinating retrospective exhibitions as well. The accolades this year go to the Russian photographer Mark Markov-Grinberg, Charles Moore’s epic work on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and Dominique Berretty’s photography from Algeria in the same decade. You can also rely on seeing compelling work from photographers that you’ve never heard of, or at least that I’ve never heard of. I was engrossed by the work of AFP photographer Menahem Kahana on the Israeli sect the Haredim. There was one monumental picture in the exhibition that had all of the qualities of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” Visa should be applauded for the high standards that it brings to the selection of this work year after year.

What Visa should not be applauded for, and indeed what it is frequently booed for, are the nightly projections. After suffering through them for several years I have given up attending, as a result of which I no longer have to eat dinner after midnight when I’m in Perpignan. I only went to one this year, which merely confirmed the wisdom of my decision. Hundreds of images, many of them mediocre, bombard you relentlessly. The editing is appalling, and takes a “more is more” approach to photography presentation. My absence however did have one drawback this year. I completely missed out on the “Anti-American” bias that Photo District News editor Holly Hughes alleges was present in many of the projections, and which has caused a transatlantic food fight with Jean François Leroy. I was also blissfully unaware of the alleged “shoving” incident between Jim Nachtwey and Laurent Langlois, Visa’s head of audio visuals. Nachtwey wanted to preview the presentation of the projection of his work on September 11th, work that he nearly lost his life photographing, but Langlois refused. It seems that everyone now agrees that the altercation was verbal rather than physical, but there were several unfortunate results. The most regrettable was the decision by Jean Francois Leroy initially to cancel VII’s projection on the Friday night completely. Having been rightly dissuaded from this action he then proceeded to make and execute another decision that was equally high handed, namely to remove Nachtwey’s nomination from the Visa d’Or award contenders. As a citizen of the country that virtually invented diplomacy he probably could have and should have handled the whole incident differently. I think that M. Langlois is in charge of the presentation rather than the editing of the projections, otherwise I would have decked him myself.

My ego took a pretty good decking one morning in the courtyard of the Hotel Pams, which is not a hotel at all, but serves as the meeting point of the festival. It was a classic “Pride Comes Before A Fall” situation. I was waiting for an appointment when a young woman photographer read my name on the Visa ID badge that everyone wears. She introduced herself, and went on to tell me that she had heard about me for so long and had always wanted to meet me. So far so good. She then went on to say: “I went to the University of Miami and around there you’re a legend, and I didn’t know if you were still alive.” I checked my pulse, and I’m happy to report that I detected a slight throbbing.

During my interview with Lauren Greenfield this smartest of photographers articulated something that has been my theme song for some time. I asked her about making a living from editorial photography, and this was her response:

“I don’t make a living from my documentary photography. I subsidize documentary photography from other things that I do. I guess the new thing that I’ve been doing since Fast Forward is also doing commercial work. I don’t work that many days but it’s the majority of my income. I’ll never be a commercial photographer; I’ll do what I need to do in that world to be able to do what I really like to do in the documentary world. It would be nice if I could make a living just doing editorial work, and that’s really how it should be. I think that it’s especially important for young photographers that you just have to figure out a way to do your own work and do your own projects and find your own voice. It doesn’t mean you have to get jobs in photography. When people have lucrative waitressing jobs I don’t think that you necessarily want to leave your day job. I’m always looking for good sidelines to be able to help me do my work. Documentary photography is not unlike being a painter or a poet or any of these other professions where you assume they’re going to have to teach or do something else to pay for it. It’s a privilege to do this work. More than in other arts we have the opportunity to get people to actually pay us while we do this work, but I don’t think it’s something that should be taken for granted. Taking it for granted disempowers you from being able to do it.”

Required reading, documentary photograph 101.

One final word on Jean François Leroy. For all of his intolerance of criticism and his often explosive nature, without him there would never have been Visa Pour L’Image, and as importantly there would be no Visas in the future. This festival, which is one of the very few remaining celebrations of photojournalism, is his child, and he’s a very strict father. The drive that everyone sees during the event, and which often contributes to his outbursts, is at least equaled by the intensity of the efforts that precede the opening. Not only is Visa a wonderful place to bathe yourself in good photography, it’s also a great place to do business. I was there this year with one of my consultancy clients, and he managed to completely reorganize his European sub-agent network in two days, much to his surprise, but not mine. So, Jean François, above it all I salute your vision and hard work, and assure you that I will return for as long as you’re continuing to produce that upon which we have come to rely. Unless of course you ban me for writing this column!

© 2002 Peter Howe

Contributing Editor

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