The Digital Journalist
Vive La Folie
The Perpignan Report

by Peter Howe

If Benjamin Franklin's definition of insanity is correct - doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results - then I've just spent the last few days in the company of some delightfully crazy people. They are my peers in the business of photojournalism, with whom I always feel at home, wherever that happens to be. This time of year, of course, the favored location is Perpignan in France for Visa Pour l'Image, and the usual group of lunatics have dutifully attended, proving once again that modern psychopharmacology isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Digital Journalist Executive Editor Peter Howe poses for Aïna photographer Fardin Waezi on the roof of the Palais des Congres in Perpignan. Aïna took hundreds of photographs of world-famous photojournalists, using an ancient Afghan box camera to raise funds for the Kabul-based agency.

Photo by Dirck Halstead
If you wanted to do a study on obsessive behavior you couldn't do better than to use the attendees as your control group. It's like being at a Captain Ahab conference discussing whale sightings, our particular whales being projects, assignments and justifications to continue doing whatever aspect of this maddening activity you happen to be pursuing. Everyone you meet here is a poster child for Persistence, and if we were to adopt a motto it would have to be "Against All Odds." The refusal to conform to rational comportment is across the board. The fact that the festival is in its 17th year is in itself a tribute to the tenacity and determination of its director, Jean-Francois Leroy. Even though the event is a well-established feature of France's cultural calendar, even though Leroy himself was awarded the prestigious Ordre National du Mérite for his work, and even though Visa brings hundreds of thousands of Euros to the economy of this small town, getting adequate funding and sponsorship is an annual grind for the now-grizzled and finally-English-speaking Leroy. You also have to admire and respect someone who is as equally adept at handling photographers and French bureaucracy as he is, both being groups that can try the patience of a saint, a role to which Jean-Francois never aspired.

The prints of Peter Howe's portrait are laid out to dry in the sun. Perpignan, France.

Photo by Dirck Halstead
Other examples of irrational activity abound on the walls of the exhibition sites. Take the work of Heidi Bradner, for example. Why would a well-brought up, softly-spoken American woman courageously risk her life for more than 10 years to photograph the sufferings of a tiny country called Chechnya? And more to the point, why is it that the only place you will see the breadth and power of her commitment to this subject is on the walls of a former convent in a French provincial town? Then there's Paul Fusco, a 75-year-old man who, instead of bouncing grandchildren on his knees in his Florida condo, spends his golden years reminding America of the price it pays for the flawed policies of the Bush administration by photographing the funerals of strangers, young men and women who have died in the debacle of Iraq. That he does this a full 38 years after famously accompanying Robert Kennedy's funeral train from New York to Washington, D.C., is a comment not only on his devotion to witnessing the events that shape our nation, but also on the continuing sacrifices we demand from those who serve our country. David Burnett's exhibition of 35 years of work, a display that he claims to be more an introspective than a retrospective, not only shows that you can't keep a good photographer down, but that it is still possible to get powerful images from presidential campaigns, however many you've done. His show is a compelling lesson to younger photographers of the value of stepping back and taking the different angle, and that in the digital age a Speed Graphic can produce photographs that rise above the common herd.

Aïna photographer Fardin Waezi washes prints made from the negative produced by an ancient Afghan street box camera. Perpignan, France.

Photo by Dirck Halstead
In some cases the examples of aberrant determination are multi-layered, and exist one within the other like Russian dolls. Brian Storm gave a presentation of his soon-to-be-launched Web offering, MediaStorm, the fulfillment of an idea that he had while in graduate school in the early 1990s, about the same time that Ed Kashi and his wife, Julie Winokur, started their project on "Aging in America" that we brought to you in 2003. A video presentation of Ed and Julie's work is part of Brian's opening lineup, forming a powerful confluence of three obsessive personalities. Over the years you see people at Visa who are like distant relatives that refuse to go away, and into this category falls Evan Nisselson. If there were a Visa d'Or for hanging on it would have to go to him. He is the ultimate photo-entrepreneur, trying one thing after another with varying results. He reminds me of Thomas Edison's famous saying, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Evan may not be at the 10,000 mark, but he has finally found something that seems to be not only successful but also valuable. Both agencies and photographers alike are rapidly adopting his system, Digital Railroad, to very favorable reviews.

And while we're on the subject of reckless determination let me remind you that The Digital Journalist is now eight years old. If that doesn't prove that passion will overcome reason I don't know what does.

However, all of these examples of abandoned determination pale in comparison to the continuing existence of the Afghan agency Aïna, which we featured in our February 2005 issue. The most visible part of their presence in Perpignan consisted of one of their photographers, Fardin Waezi, taking portraits of Visa attendees on the roof of the Palais des Congres using a traditional Afghan box camera called a Kamra-e-fawri. This extraordinary red, brassbound contraption, a combination camera, changing bag and lab in one unit, produces a paper negative that is then photocopied through an attachment in front of the lens to make the final print. The exposure seems to be determined by how quickly Fardin can take off and replace the lens cap, and the amazing thing is that it works. The prints aren't exactly Avedon quality, and neither would I say that the photograph of me he took with it is flattering, emphasizing as it does my bald head underlined by a rictal grin. However, it may be one of the most valuable I've ever had taken because the 15 euros that I paid for it go to help support the efforts of the agency to maintain a range of independent media in Afghanistan that not only includes the agency and its photojournalism school, but also such ventures as the launch of the first women's radio station in that country, as well as eight media and cultural centers. Furthermore, my name and e-mail address were added to the list of all the other sitters, extending Aïna's global contacts. For those of you in despair over your sales reports take comfort from the fact that staff photographers at Aïna are paid $250 per month, which makes them some of the best-paid workers in the country.

David Douglas Duncan (R) watches Hurricane Katrina developments on a laptop in Perpignan with (L to R) Digital Journalist "Dispatches" Editor Marianne Fulton, Corbis' Maria Mann and the Founder/Director of Visa Pour l'Image, Jean-Francois Leroy.

Photo by Dirck Halstead
There has been much discussion as to whether or not Visa could be exported to the United States, and I'm not sure that it could, partly because you need a confined environment like Perpignan where you can walk to every venue and event, and partly because you wouldn't be able to attract as many different nationalities as a European location allows. It also is a very French event. In many ways the French are among the most annoying people you can find. Somebody told me that their approach to customer service could be characterized as "The customer is always wrong," which certainly was the attitude of the waitress at dinner last night until she fell under the irresistible charm of Maggie Steber. However, I always feel completely at home in France, and especially in Perpignan. I think that one of the reasons is that photography and photographers enjoy much greater respect here than they do in the States, and as a result you walk a little taller. The contribution that photographers make not only to French society in general but also to its cultural life is more widely appreciated and celebrated than in America. The two countries have a curious relationship with each other, one of mutual superiority, envy and admiration, and although there is evidence of the creeping influence of globalization it still seems to have only made a small dent in the armor of French chauvinism. I also find it hard to criticize a country where dogs have a status that is at least on par with children, and take their rightful place as equal participants in society. David Douglas Duncan was here with his wife and his Norwich terrier, and all three have Visa Pour l'Image badges. The dog's simply says "Yo Yo" but gives no indication as to whether he is a photographer, editor or agent.

For those of you who haven't attended this festival of photojournalism and have the opportunity to do so it's highly recommended. It gives you a shot in the arm that renews eroded faith in what we do, and reconfirms that it is worth doing. It's also always comforting to be surrounded by people with the same neuroses and obsessions that you have, for here the asylum really is run by the inmates, and is much better for it.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor