A few years ago a writer of pulp detective novels was being interviewed on a British television chat show. The author freely admitted that his work was, shall we say, a few notches down from Dickens and Dumas. But then the host slyly intervened. ‘You do realise that in France you’re taken much more seriously. You’re treated as a great author: there are even degree studies in your work.’ ‘Yeah, well,’ was the reply. ‘The French: you’ve got to laugh.’
That pretty much sums up many Brits’ attitude toward photojournalism festivals in general and Visa Pour L’Image in particular. What is this photojournalism festival thing anyway? For those who haven’t been, Visa, now in its 18th year, is the biggest of a summer series of European photo-festivals, and the one most committed to photojournalism. The rules for contributors are bluntly spelled out on the Visa website: ‘May we remind you that we are an International Festival of Photojournalism. We deal with current events and are not interested in art photography.’
What that means in practice is some 30 odd exhibitions; a week of evening screenings of thousands of images in a city centre square; a convention centre packed with agency booths for photographers and clients to meet agents; halls where photographers can present stories and ideas to editors; and a slew of late night parties and drinking sessions where much of the real business is done, even if the following morning participants can’t quite remember the details of the agreements they made the night before.
Of course, this being the photo business, there are no shortage of complaints. Visa has become either too commercial, or it’s not commercial enough. There are too many pictures, or not enough pictures, or they’re the wrong pictures. Everybody has to stand in line for everything. The hotels suck, the waiters are rude and it’s too hot, except when it’s raining. An entertaining sub-plot is the regular skirmishing between the American and French contingents, both of which have a tendency to lack perspective when interacting. This reached a nadir a few years back when a very well known US smudger took a back-stage poke at one of the projectionists during a dispute over the running order of the photographer’s presentation. Simultaneously Photo District News published an article denouncing Visa as inherently anti-American. The proof? Not enough pictures of the previous year’s 9/ll attacks.
But most of the charges against Visa are easily dismissed and contain more than a whiff of sour grapes. The photographers who complain about the choice of pictures on display always seem to be the ones whose pictures haven’t been selected for display. And absurdities like the PDN article are just another chapter in the long running saga of the World’s Cop versus the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys.
The greatest charge, that Visa’s exhibitions are heavily slanted to feature war, war, war, with the occasional natural disaster thrown in for light relief, is harder to refute. As one regular visitor commented after leaving the largest exhibition area at Couvent des Minimes: ‘I feel that everything I just saw in there I also saw last year, and the year before.’ But Visa’s organisers, in particular founder JF Leroy, remain adamant that a key role of the festival is to show work which remains unpublished in the mainstream media. And these same critics regularly comment on the dearth of ‘real photojournalism’ in today’s media. It’s hardly reasonable for them to assert this while simultaneously slating a festival that shows the material they claim is missing elsewhere.
More to the point, the critics rarely if ever suggest how they would change Visa, or if it ceased to exist – as it almost did last year for financial reasons – what they would replace it with. They also casually overlook one key Visa benefit for photographers. For the best part of a week every photo agency of note and many magazine and newspaper editors relocate to the same small area and are reasonably available, albeit after a fair amount of jostling, queuing and confusion. For photographers looking for an agent or seeking to pitch stories to clients no similar opportunity exists elsewhere.
It’s almost too easy to poke fun at an event which hosts seminars with titles like ‘Photojournalism: when the subject becomes an object’, and which feature seminar panels of ‘philosophers and researchers’. But every yin has a yang, and for every whiff of pretension there’s a breeze of common sense if you know where to look. This year the breeze was provided by an elderly gentleman shuffling around the exhibitions in the Eglise des Dominicains, tailed by a French television crew from Canal Plus. The presenter collared the figure, Elliott Erwitt, and immediately began quizzing him on his position as photographer and artist. But Erwitt was having none of it. ‘Photography is not art’, he insisted, in one of the few known examples of a modestly dressed emperor informing the courtiers that they’re walking around starkers.
Canal Plus, clearly unfamiliar with Visa’s website disclaimer regarding art photography, were not to be deterred. They launched into a question that sounded like it had been drafted by the board of the Tate Modern and featured lots of phrases like ‘mis en scene’. The World’s Greatest Living Dog Photographer looked baffled. ‘I simply don’t understand your question,’ he replied eventually. ‘These pictures are my hobby .’
Elliott Erwitt: send ‘em away laughing