Jean-François Leroy launched Visa Pour l'Image, the international photojournalism festival, in Perpignan in 1989. Before heading up the festival, Leroy was shooting reportage for the agency Sipa Press and also working for Photo-Reporter, Le Photographe, Photo-Revue and Photo Magazine. He is the chairman of the company Images Evidence. Anne-Celine Jaeger, author of Image Makers, Image Takers, spoke to Leroy about the festival, photographic talent and journalism as it stands today.
This year is Visa Pour l'Image’s 25th Anniversary. Congratulations on a festival that has spanned a quarter of a century. When you think back over this time, what has been the most memorable experience for you?
I want to remember the first years. Everybody said I was totally foolish to launch a festival dedicated to photography, that I was never going get anyone going to Perpignan. But that first year we could feel there was a need for this festival. It was before the digital era, photographers were transmitting prints by Fedex. It was good to have a gathering point every September. But we never thought it would be such a success. In the first year, we had 123 accredited badges and seven agencies from two countries, last year we had 3000 accredited people and more than 1200 photographers from 68 countries.
Will you do anything special for the 25th anniversary?
Even though the 25th anniversary is really important for us on a personal level, this year, like every other year, we want to promote good photography and good stories. There will be no fireworks, no birthday cakes. Especially during this time when the profession is in such bad shape.
Essentially, like every year, we will aim to do three things. Firstly, we want to show emerging talent. Many great photographers, such as Lise Sarfati, Paolo Pellegrin, Laurent Van der Stockt, Robin Hammond, Sebastian Liste… had their very first shows in Perpignan. Secondly, we aim to confirm well-known photographers, such a Nick Nichols or Pascale Maitre. And thirdly, we want to “rediscover” the greats. This year, we are doing a huge retrospective with Don McCullin, the last giant who never came to Perpignan. I obviously don’t need to rediscover him, I know his work well. But a few years ago, I did a show with David Douglas Duncan, one of my masters, and so many young photographers said, “Where did you find his work?” I think young photographers are often very talented, but they don’t know anything about the history of photography. It’s very difficult to do a reportage about prostitutes in India, if you’re not familiar with the work of Mary Ellen Mark. They lack some references.
Do you think this is out of laziness?
Maybe it’s a lack of curiosity? The problem, today, with the young very talented photographers is they know everything happening on Facebook or Twitter, but they don’t go into the bookstore to find the old masters of photography.
In the past you have said that about 3000 out of the 4000 strong submissions you get are “shit”. You said, “You think you are Spielberg, or Cartier-Bresson. You are not.”
I see more and more good photographers, but at the same time, they don’t know how to tell us a story. You can’t imagine how many portfolios I got about Syria this year… But when you open the folder, you just have some pictures and they only info you get is: “I was in Syria.” But where? When? With who? The basis of telling a story is missing. When the only info is, “I was in Syria”, sorry baby, that is not a story for me.
What does it feel like when you have come across a Cartier-Bresson?
When you have a diamond in front of you, you can see it from the first photograph. It’s a feeling. I don’t know how to express it.
More and more people think they are photographers or photojournalists because they have a digital camera or even an iPhone. The technique has become easy…
It’s not because I have a pencil that I’m Victor Hugo or Shakespeare. It’s not because you have a camera, that you are a photographer. There is currently a trend in photography to cover specific communities, like poor people in Ohio, or very poor people in Connecticut, or really, really poor people in Arkansas etc. Where is the story? The other favorites are: my mother has breast cancer, my father has Alzheimer’s, my brother is a schizophrenic. I know these kind of stories. It’s personal, yes, but I’m not sure it makes good work.
But one person taking pictures about poor people in Arkansas might have a story and another photographer might not…
How can I describe what is a good story or not? There needs to be a good distance between you and the people you are photographing. You have to be close, but not too close. I want to feel the empathy between the photographer and his subjects. When I see the story, I can either understand it or not. But there is not an academic rule.
Do you ever get criticized that it’s just you going through the portfolios, as opposed to a panel?
I remember when 20 years, ago, the head of Paris Match, Roger Thérond, told me when he runs a photographer’s images on a double page spread, he is god, if he doesn’t he’s an asshole. It’s the same for me. If I run a show, I’m god, if I don’t, I’m an asshole. But I’m proud of that. You can like my taste or not, but at least you can see that there is a strong line.
How do you feel photojournalism has changed in the past 25 years, in both the story-telling aspect and the financial aspect?
The financial aspect is a disaster. Less and less assignments are given by magazines. Photojournalism is in a very bad shape. When we started Visa Pour L’Image I knew a few hundred photojournalists who were living decently from their job, now I know about 20.
In what way has the dramatic disappearance of photo editors and agencies affected the work of photojournalists working today?
I think the disappearance of photo editors is the worst. It’s because of this that photographers don’t know how to tell a story. They don’t have anyone saying, “Hey, I’m missing this or that.” A month ago I had a call from a photographer coming back from Mali, who was upset because he couldn’t place his work, so I said, “Send it to me.” He sent me 600 pictures! If he proposed that to a magazine, there is not one editor who could make that edit.
What advice would you give to young photographers embarking on a career in photojournalism?
Work, work, work. Read everything done before you, if you want to run a personal story, look at Uncle Charlie by Marc Asnin, look at The Julie Project by Darcy Padilla, go see Upstate Girls by Brenda Ann Kenneally. Watch what was done before you. Try to find another angle.
What do you think the current trends are in photojournalism?
There has always been a debate about whether or not an image can make a change. What's a realistic assessment of photography's value today?
If I was not deeply optimistic, I would have left Perpignan years ago. I’m still fighting because I’m convinced there is something to be done.
You have said, “photojournalism isn't dying, the press is dying.”
What do you make of the fact that so many magazines have lots of money to spend on a royal wedding but claim
they don't have enough to send journalists out into the field?
Anne-Celine Jaeger is the author of Image Makers, Image Takers, available through Thames & Hudson.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Conn-Hollyn, Bridget Harris, Eugene Reznik and Vaughn Wallace.
The following winners are not included in the slideshow above: Pascal (1990), Sebastiao Salgado (1990), Philippe Bourseiller (1991), Luc Delahaye (1993) and Georges Gobet (2003).