Fotograf Magazine

The 21st international festival of photojournalism in Perpignan

Today photojournalism is in very bad shape. The internet has stolen a large number of readers from traditional print periodicals. A further calamity came with newspapers and magazines distributed free-of-charge. The economic crisis drastically cut ad revenues for all types of media: newspapers with century-old traditions are folding. One of the most prestigious global dailies, The New York Times, has debts amounting to roughly two billion US dollars and now runs in narrower format. Its competitor, the Los Angeles Times, now faces bankruptcy; they radically reduced their number of foreign correspondents and photo-reporters long ago. Only a handful of famous titles such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Süddeutsche Zeitung are trying desperately to hold on to their original format and quality.

It is sad to look at the current dailies in Slovakia, where few still appear, or in Austria, where the majority of so-called serious newspapers, through their content and graphic design, look more and more like tabloids. A large portion of newspapers, in a desperate attempt to stop their decline in readership, have become more vulgar and on grounds of cost savings they have reduced their format and scope and numbers of employees. Almost no one has an interest anymore in extensive photo-essays on everyday life, something that was the pride and joy of the golden age of humanistic photojournalism. Yet they all fight above all for the sensation and scandals of celebrities.

An increasingly small number of periodicals are willing to pay the expensive costs of foreign trips for their own photographers. This is because photographs are likely obtained much more cheaply via press agencies and photo banks, which increasingly offer their clients the option of unlimited usage once a subscription fee has been paid. And then of course there is the internet, which offers an endless amount of photos, whose authors do not seek royalties.

The International Festival of Photojournalism, Visa Pour l’Image, in Perpignan, directed by Jean-Fran ois Leroy, remains one of few havens for traditional photojournalism. In many ways it is similar to the festival in Arles – a smaller town in the South of France, which in the opening days of the festival is inundated by thousands of persons interested in photography, evening projections (shows) in the town’s historic centre close to the cathedral, exhibits in former monasteries and churches. Yet in many ways they are also different. Whereas Arles tries to present a broad range of photography, Perpignan remains open only to classic photojournalism. It attracts mainly photo reporters themselves and workers from photo agencies. And thanks to the fact that there is no entry fee for festival exhibits and projections (shows), it also draws a good amount of the local public.

Gallery owners, curators of top museum collections, photo collectors and art critics do not appear, contrary to Arles, among the visitors in Perpignan. The organisers also have a completely different approach to promoting the festival – while in Arles they send dozens of photo critics samples from the exhibits and detailed reports, in the generally unaccommodating press centre in Perpignan it is almost impossible to obtain any press print for free.

The 21st Annual Perpignan Festival, which took place this September, once again provided space primarily for photos showing the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine, ever-increasing terrorism, poverty and hunger in third world countries, racial and religious conflicts, the lives of refugees or the expanding influence of the narco-mafia in Latin America. Europe – with the exception of contemporary life in Russia – remained on the sidelines. There is no question that photographs from the world’s troubled spots are necessary as an irreplaceable source of information and as historical documents. Many reporters risked their lives to take them, some even lost theirs.

In Perpignan one could see many excellent photos of dramatic events – from the bloody suppression of demonstrations in Madagascar by Walter Astrada, to the brother-against-brother fighting in Lebanon by Fran oise Demulder, in Pakistan by Massimo Barruti, and in Congo by Dominico Nahro, or the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe taken by Robin Hammond.

But this time in Perpignan there were too many of these stylistically- similar, colour photographs, all uniformly blown up to a 30 x 40 cm format and installed side-by-side, without invention, in the same aluminium frames.

Therefore ultimately the strongest works, which escaped this cliché, were the suggestive black-and-white photographs by Eugene Richards, showing the tragic fate of US soldiers, who returned home from the Iraq war with heavy wounds to their bodies and minds; the suggestive photos by Alexandra Avakian portraying the brain-washing and promotion of terrorism in large parts of the Muslim world; the series by Callie Shell from Obama’s presidential campaign; or the visually exceptional colour photos by Pascal Maitre on the endless aggression and inhumane living conditions in modern-day Somalia.

The generalising scenes and artistic quality of these series stood out most from certain isolation in the context of contemporary photography, which the Perpignan Festival finds itself in due to its excessively narrow and often political inclinations. (The worst example of this was perhaps the closing propaganda projection of photos of Israeli terror in Gaza by local Palestinian photographers without one mention of the terrorist acts of Hamas.) Contemporary photojournalism does not, however, live in such a ghetto as one might (otherwise) think during a visit to Perpignan, but puts forward many works that – thanks to their emphasis on subjectivity and originality – move it (photojournalism) in the direction of actual trends in contemporary  creation.

Vladimír Birgus