04 September 2010

Perpignan: 22ème Visa pour l’Image

The Castillet, gateway to the old town of Perpignan,
where most of the Festival’s events take place.

The town of Perpignan, a Catalonian mini-capital within France, is not without its mostly dusty, decrepit charms. But as a tourist attraction, it didn’t have much going for it: it served mostly as a pit stop on the way to Barcelona. This sad state of affairs began to change 22 years ago, when Perpignan was chosen as the site of “Visa pour l’image,” the International Photojournalism Festival. For a few days at the end of every summer, photographers, editors, and agents from around the world could be sure to turn up here.

This year, I attended the Festival for the fourth time — the first without press accreditation.* When I first came here, photojournalism seemed to be at its peak of power on the world stage. The sun-baked streets of Perpignan were choked with fans, as well as with professionals, all of whom considered attendance mandatory. The line for admission to the projections formed early each night and took on the proportions of an intellectually pretentious mob as we waited to grab our seats in the Campo Santo. There, we were treated to a 90-minute onslaught of horrors, images from the year past, at a rate of two months per night.

We saw war zones distinguishable mainly by the color of the combatants’ skins, and ceaseless natural and ecological disasters. As a rule, the malefactors in these images were, in descending order, Israel, the United States, and God; capitalism also made a strong showing. Our hosts railed against press restrictions (for example, the French laws enacted after the death of Princess Diana) and the thugs who kill journalists, until we really began to believe that we wielded influence sufficient to bring about change.

Festival director Jean-François Leroy, who narrates the slide shows
in a mellow, thoroughly disdainful baritone voice.

Human nature being what it is, the subject matter of the slide shows hasn’t changed, but much else has: I feel as if I’ve witnessed an evolutionary transition in photojournalism, whose race used to number the kings of the forest, but now count mostly dinosaurs. The crappy economy, allied with technological innovations, meant that there would be fewer of us at the Festival. Agencies have closed; magazines and newspapers have ceased production. Any clod with a cellphone is a de facto photojournalist now, though it’s harder to tell reportage from invention.

And we’re walking, and we’re looking:
A Festival exhibition.

Alarmingly, the extinction of so many agencies, and the inability of the survivors to archive, catalogue, digitize and preserve their collections, means that vast documentary resources are at risk of being lost forever. France’s Minister for Culture and Communication, Frédéric Mitterrand, is taking steps to rescue these photos, as is the newly created Centre International du Photojournalisme Roger Thérond here in Perpignan.

Declaring that Perpignan has become the world’s capital of photojournalism, and boasting surprisingly high attendance figures from last year, the Festival’s organizers are trying to remain optimistic. That said, as I wandered among the exhibitions, I didn’t see very many familiar faces; a great many people can no longer justify the expense of coming here. The pictures, however, were remarkable.

Generally, these can be grouped into two categories: breaking news (depressing without exception) and features (occasionally cheerful but mostly depressing, too). I tend to dismiss complaints that “there isn’t enough good news” in journalism, but when it’s all laid out this way before me, I do understand the feeling.

Sometimes retrospective exhibitions, such as this year’s celebration of William Klein, do help to relieve the miserable mood; during slide shows, I’m almost grateful for the occasional obituary tribute: “Oh, good, Dennis Hopper died. Let’s see some pretty pictures from Blue Velvet now, shall we?”

“Four Faces”: New Yorkers as seen by Klein, 1954.
Displayed at the Perpignan Festival.

During the day, one goes from exhibition to exhibition, before taking a break for cocktails and returning for the slide show in the evening. The danger is always that one will see so many images of human suffering that one’s senses will be dulled. After a while, my brain and my eyes are quite simply overloaded, and I can barely tell one picture from another, much less come up with any appropriate emotional or intellectual response to the content.

The best photo essays and exhibits shed light on important but somewhat neglected news stories. This year’s Festival included a great many pictures from the Red Shirt uprising in Thailand, last May. It was a story I hadn’t followed in detail at the time; now I found it extraordinarily compelling, particularly in the images by Athit Perawongmetha, which found beauty and poetry even amid the violence.

Photo by Athit Perawongmetha, displayed at the Perpignan Festival.

“Personally, never had I imagined that I would have to wear a bullet-proof vest and steel helmet to take pictures in my own country,” Perawongmetha writes. “…I do not want to see any more death or injuries, no matter who the people are and what they believe in, whether they are red shirts, soldiers or police. We are all Thais. No matter who wins this game, victory comes at a loss for Thailand.”

Photo by Athit Perawongmetha, from the Perpignan Festival.

This year, without the badge to get me into the Campo Santo, I settled for a table at a restaurant on the Place de la République, where unaccredited, overflow crowds can watch a simulcast of the slide show. Eating a good meal in comfort is a better way to look at the pictures, yet ultimately the usual overload did set in.

That’s a shame, because I really want to keep my focus not only on the stories the pictures tell but also on the valiant work of the people like Perawongmetha who take the pictures. I am better informed — and more free — because of the risks they take.

Red shirts comfort a wounded protester. Bangkok, May 2010.
Photo by Athit Perawongmetha, from the Perpignan Festival.

*NOTE: Lack of accreditation denied me access to certain professional meetings and cocktail parties: sadly, this blog is not viewed with the same respect as is CBS News, or even Opera News, the organizations I represented here in years past.

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