Celebrating A Quarter Of A Century

The world’s largest festival of photojournalism continues to attract large numbers of visitors, but the genre itself is struggling to survive in the mainstream media.
Alison Stieven-Taylor reports from the southern French town of Perpignan.

Rafael Fabres
Copyright Rafael Fabres

The 25th running of the world’s largest and longest running festival for photojournalism, Visa pour l’Image, kicked off in the southern French town of Perpignan on 31 August. To celebrate, the creator of Visa (and its current director general), Jean François Leroy, programmed an impressive collection of exhibitions spearheaded by the expansive Don McCullin retrospective, The Impossible Peace, curated by industry veteran Robert Pledge of Contact Press Images New York. Exhibited in the majestic Église des Dominicans, McCullin’s show is the largest single exhibition in Visa’s history and fitting for a photographer whose career has spanned 60 years.

This was my second visit to Visa and it was as jaw-dropping as the first with the breadth of work on exhibition and the number of professionals who inundate this picturesque town near the Spanish border. Not only does Visa attract those in the top echelon of photojournalists working in the world today., but it also is a magnet for photography lovers from around France, with thousands of enthusiasts flooding into Perpignan. Along with more than 20 main exhibitions, the Evening Screenings featured works from around 60 photojournalists.

This year’s panel discussions included A Day Without News session on the safety of journalists in conflict zones, where chilling figures on the number of reporters killed and the increasing risk of kidnap in Syria were of central concern.  The session Photographing War, facilitated by Rémy Ourdan, featured Don McCullin, John G. Morris, David Douglas Duncan, Patrick Chauvel and Yuri Kozyrev, and drew a packed house. Magnum Photo’s Paolo Pellegrin, whose oeuvre features some of the most iconic images of the human condition in times of conflict, told me it was “an historical moment”. He sat on the floor along with many others to hear these photographers’ stories.   
Visa is where the likes of Pellegrin’s work will be found on the bill along with Festival newcomer and the Rémi Ochlik Award winner for 2013, Sara Lewkowicz. Jean Leroy does not favour only those with mega-reputations, he ensures that both accomplished and emerging photojournalists have an opportunity for their work to be viewed by peers and the public.

Sara Lewkowicz
Copyright Sara Lewkowicz


Always pressed for time, Leroy grants me a quick interview. I launch into my questions, the first being how many photojournalists submitted work for
the anniversary?

“There were more than four thousand proposals this year,” he says. “When you see works from Rafael Fabrés and Muhammed Muheisen, you can see that photographers are still very, very energetic… I am blessed with the fact that there are so many young photographers that want to be photojournalists.”
We agree the number of new entrants to the field is curious given photojournalism is supposedly in decline. But Leroy is adamant that there is an audience for this work even if the magazines are not supporting it in the way they have in the past.
“You know, the market is more and more difficult for all of them even for the well-known photographers, but I am fascinated by their energy and their will to become a photographer. They want to be a witness.” He continues, “The marketing people at the magazines are telling us that there is no more audience, but go to see the exhibitions this morning and they are over-crowded. It is not as if they are paid to come, they are coming because they are interested.”
And he’s right. The venues are filled to capacity with photographers and enthusiasts. On the weekend numbers swell and, despite stormy weather, the lines are long and wind in and out of courtyards and vestibules, as people in raincoats or with umbrellas in hand wait patiently to reverently view images that document the best and worst of human nature.

No Censorship

Copyright Don McMullan 2013

This year the Professional Week, which kicks off the Festival, attracted around 1400, the majority comprising photojournalists either established or emerging… or hopefuls. A dwindling number of photo editors, agency representatives and journalists are also on the ground, the numbers of which are indicative of the state of the industry on a global level.

The event is sponsored by Canon, which announced it would continue its sponsorship for another three years. Leroy is visibly relieved to receive the news. In the main, attendees are from France, although many other countries are represented, including the USA and UK. However, the event draws few from Asia, Russia
or South America, considered the new photography markets.

Once again, choosing which exhibitions to cover is a tricky task. I spend the week running from one venue to another, from the Palais des Congrés – where the main action happens in terms of meeting photojournalists, editors and attending seminars – to the exhibition venues. There is something surreal about viewing images of death, destruction and human misery in the revered halls of the Couvent des Minimes and other hallowed buildings. In many ways, these venues add to the solemnity of the subject matter and, despite the significant crowds, the venues are surprisingly quiet.

Visa doesn’t suffer from censorship. The images on display are confronting and at times horrific, yet families file through, the parents explaining to their offspring the significance of the images, the plight of those pictured and why photojournalism is important in allowing us to know what is going on in the world. There are no signs stating that images may offend or contain sensitive subject matter, it is a given. Here photojournalists are acknowledged as the eyes of the world, and all should see what they have seen.

In selecting my highlights I’ve chosen three very different exhibitions – Don McCullin’s Retrospective, Éric Bouvet’s Burning Man and Life Goes On, an exploration of those who live with conflict by Muhammed Muheisen. Of course, there are many more deserving of attention, but I can’t take up the whole magazine with my review!

Éric Bouvet Burning Man

Burning Man – which is an annual festival held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada – is a departure in subject matter for Éric Bouvet, who is more well-known for his conflict photography.

Eric Bouvet 2013

With this Festival’s concept steeped in the radical-self, Bouvet says articulating Burning Man is like “…trying to explain war to someone who has never been on the frontline. It is so totally amazing, something else like I’ve never seen before. You are not walking in your own shoes. Every day is new, totally different. There is no money. You can’t buy anything, only coffee and ice. Everything else is an exchange”.

Primarily an event for artists, Bouvet says here there is “…no ego because everything created is burned each night, so it is ephemeral. Big sculptures, ten metres high, and then it’s burned. Nobody can sell it or keep it. I found this idea amazing”.
Bouvet says the message with Burning Man is “…enjoy the moment and that’s what I am doing now. I’ve changed my whole philosophy in the past two years. After 30 years of being on the frontline and covering war for stupid money, so many times I could have died. I had friends who did die. I was so fed up with the whole war reportage. I may go back, but not to the frontline — to cover other types of stories. But for now I am living in the present and working on a story about fairies.”

Copyright Eric Bouvet 2013

Fairies? “Yes, yes, fairies,” he laughs heartily. “Some may think – hey, he’s lost, we lost you man,” but Bouvet has rediscovered himself.
He recalls that he was at the first Visa pour l’Image in 1989. “There were only 120 of us that year. Visa is great, the only place in the world where you can see so many exhibitions, meet all the picture editors, where you can shake hands with Don McCullin. Can you imagine that? When I began [as a photojournalist] in 1980, McCullin was one of my influences. Never did I think I’d meet him. And he is very humble. This is a very good place to come and I am happy to be here again.”

Don McCullin The Impossible Peace

On the day of the McCullin press conference I duck into the Église des Dominicans early in the morning to have a look at his exhibition before fronting up with the rest of the press corp.

Copyright Don McCullin 2013

As luck would have it, McCullin walks in behind me. We have an informal chat then I photograph him in front of one of his most famous images, the emaciated 24-year-old mother and her child from his coverage of the Biafra famine in 1969. It is a haunting image, one of many that McCullin says he carries with him every day.
“My mind is sharp and I don’t forget”. He says he is burdened by much of what he has seen and in his twilight years – he’s nearly 80 – wrestles with the celebrity he is afforded at what he sees as being at the expense of photographing some of the most miserable people on the planet.

This retrospective is comprehensive, featuring iconic images from Vietnam and Africa, along with McCullin’s visual narrative on the homeless in his native England. As a first time exhibitor at Perpignan, McCullin’s show draws record numbers and this living legend gives his time freely, signing copies of his book for more than two hours. He also holds court with many photojournalists who claim McCullin as an influence along with the likes of Robert Capa. His presence in Perpignan is clearly
an auspicious occasion.

Muhammed Muheisen Life Goes On

“I was born in Jerusalem and raised in conflict, so it has always been part of my life,” says Muheisen. At college he studied journalism and political science, “…but my passion is photography”.

In 2001, he got a chance to work with Associated Press (AP) as a journalist. “But I also had my camera and I found myself taking pictures. For me a picture is worth millions of words…I don’t want to offend anyone, I studied journalism, but for me I found a connection with photography and storytelling.”
Covering conflict zones for AP as a photographer, Muheisen says he began to think about what happened to the people he’d photographed once the stories dropped from the news headlines.

Copyright Muhammed Muheisen 2013

“I started to take steps away from news events. I’d turn around and it was amazing how you would be in the middle of rubble and right behind you there is something happening that brings joy into your heart.”

The more he travelled, the more he was drawn to the human side of conflict, to the contrast, to those moments where life goes on despite what’s happening around it.
“In the middle of troubles there is a place for fun and for joy as well as misery. I now see it as my duty to show the life of those who are living in the middle of these conflicts. How happy they can be. How miserable. How difficult life is. There are issues that we need to be aware of and, working with AP, my images can be seen by millions of people and maybe they can create change.”

In conclusion he says,
“Life doesn’t stop, even in conflict, this is an endless story and it is also the story of my life. At Visa the visitors to my exhibition ask me about those pictured not about me as the photographer. And that’s what I want to achieve. I wish these people in the photographs were here so they could see that people are concerned and interested in their stories”.

Copyright Muhammed Muheisen 2013

Alison Stieven-Taylor is a photographer and writer based in Melbourne. You can read her weekly blog on www.photojournalismnow.blogspot.com and see her work at www.realityillusion.com

For information about the 2014 Visa pour l’Image visit www.visapourlimage.com