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Dear Portrait Photographer, Thank You For Your Submission, You Suck…

Photographers looking forward to Visa Pour L’Image, especially those who had submitted work for consideration, will have been happy to receive this year’s preliminary press release: until they read it. For the twenty page list of exhibitions is prefaced by an editorial by Visa Director General Jean-Francois Leroy that can only be described as brutally frank.

Photographers looking forward to Visa Pour L’Image, especially those who had submitted work for consideration, will have been happy to receive this year’s preliminary press release: until they read it. For the twenty page list of exhibitions is prefaced by an editorial by Visa Director General Jean-Francois Leroy that can only be described as brutally frank.

The first reaction of many of us here in EPUK Towers to a document which one recipient described as ‘astounding’ was to roll on the floor with hilarity. Dig those crazy Frogs! Perhaps some element of J-F’s thoughts had been lost in translation: logic, for instance.

But once the laughter died down some of our more thoughtful members seemed to agree with J-F:

‘I think it’s a fascinating rant, and is really about the death of philosophy, of political ideology. Bland postmodernist imagery gives nothing away about the photographer’s point of view, and that is commercially advisable if it is to coexist with rate card advertising. It means nothing; it’s all surface, eye candy, freak show. Photography and art in general have become castrated and enlisted to the status quo, when their real value was always to oppose, undermine and challenge. So yeah, I think Leroy here opens an important debate.’

Well, perhaps; but of course without seeing any of the rejected entries it’s impossible to say whether J-F is correct. Perhaps he is, and the work was as bad as he claims. But he hasn’t named any names, and we rather suspect none of the perpetrators will be publicly claiming responsibility.

Certainly if 150 photographers from the same city all manage to enter the same subject matter for a single festival – irrespective of how they approach the subject – that does seem to suggest they need to broaden their horizons a little. Could they have been working as a team? The mind boggles.

But the subject matter is not J-F’s complaint: his objection is to the genre chosen to portray the subject. Arguing about style rather than content is a fairly odd way to address the perceived decline of press photography. 150 stories on the same subject would be pretty damn dull to trawl through no matter how they were shot.

And isn’t there a moral issue with a logic which seems to say that portraiture only belongs to the rich and famous? What’s wrong with portraits of the homeless if they’re an accurate representation? Or is the only politically acceptable way to photograph a homeless person face down on the sidewalk beside the remains of a rather disappointing burgundy?

During Vietnam, a war in which there was no official British involvement, UK newspapers carried regular in-depth reportages in words and pictures. In 1979 the Daily Mirror ran over 20 pictures by Eric Piper from Cambodia in a single issue: exactly the kind of work that has become a staple of Visa. A few months ago in Afghanistan a group of British soldiers strapped themselves to the outside of a helicopter to rescue a wounded comrade under fire. The front page of the Daily Mirror the following day? Jade Goody’s antics on Big Brother.

The real celebritisation of news has been a gradual process rather than something that has appeared in the last year, and has bugger all to do with whether photographers approach a story on drug addicts with a Leica or a Hasselblad. And while we’re talking celebs, Visa hasn’t steered entirely clear over the years: exhibits by Helmut Newton and Nigel Parry spring immediately to mind.

Visa is of course a festival of photojournalism, but since when did that mean only reportage? Portraiture isn’t necessarily separate from photojournalism; in many cases it’s an integral part of it.

But not according to J-F’s polemic.

So it’s goodbye Dorothea Lange, so long Mary Ellen Mark. In fact, according to J-F’s logic, whole swathes of the Magnum archive, and those of countless others, are suddenly suspect. Karsh is trash. Nina Berman’s ‘Purple Hearts’, an award winning set of portraits of wounded US veterans, is right out. You can toss that copy of Avedon In The American West. And anything at all by Annie Leibovitz outside of a studio and the pages of Vanity Fair. Wait a minute: perhaps J-F has a point…

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