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Interviews

June 2007

Jean-Francois Leroy

Jean-Francois Leroy, the outspoken founder of and driving force behind Visa pour L’image, has just turned 50. He talks to CPN editor Mike Stanton about his life-long campaign to promote powerful photojournalism.

Jean-Francois Leroy tells a story about meeting the great American photographer David Douglas Duncan a few years ago in a queue for an event at the Visa pour L’image festival in Perpignan, France. He greets the famous man and his wife warmly and leading them through the queue. One young photographer in the line complains, asking how it was that “this man” gets to be ushered to the front. Jean-Francois turns to the man and says, ‘Don’t you know this man? He is David Douglas Duncan and without people like him this festival would not exist.’

There is something in this tale, and the relish with which it is told, that reveals a little of the character of this 50-year-old Parisian and what he created almost a generation ago in a small southern French city.

The Visa pour L’image festival, the most important of its kind in the world, has grown from 123 registered professionals in 1989 to around 3,500 in 2006. Agencies big and small would not miss it for the world. Business is done and thousands flock to the city every September to see its transformation into a temple of the world’s most powerful press images.

But for Jean-Francois, his “baby” is still a ‘family’ thing. Most of the people who started Visa pour L’image with him are still working for it and there is a respect for those that have contributed to its heady mix and for those that have made their mark in its ancient squares.

Photographers have to know about the history of their profession if they are to produce powerful images, he insists.
“Many young photographers don’t know anything about the history of photography. When I was 19, I was buying books and if I couldn’t afford them, I’d steal them.

“How can you produce reportage about prostitution in India without knowing about Mary Ellen Mark or Lewis Hine? How can you do something on Chernobyl without knowing Eugene Smith? If you want to be a painter you have to know about Michelangelo, Picasso and Monet. Writers have to know about Shakespeare and Racine. Some photographers don’t even know about Salgado.”

© Jean Louis Fernandez

Jean-Francois Leroy at Visa pour L’image.

In many ways, Jean-Francois Leroy has become synonymous with Visa pour L’image. Indeed, both names even seem to trip off the tongue in the same way. He recalls a time in the mid-Eighties when the first seeds of the festival’s beginning were sown

“I was a little bit fed up with all the festivals mixing fashion and art with reportage, and reportage itself was dominated by Magnum and Contact. The others needed a place to show their work.”

In 1988 he and a friend heard that the city of Perpignan was inviting proposals to create initiatives to promote the city. The two put in a bid for their idea of a festival purely for photojournalists. At first they were turned down by the city, saying that it was not interested in photography. Then Jean-Francois mentioned that the proposal had received the backing of the magazine Paris Match and suddenly things changed.

He now receives around 4,000 proposals a year for the festival from all around the world. If a picture is not technically perfect but has real meaning, it will be in Perpignan, he says, giving hope to thousands who long to be part of the September celebrations. “At Visa pour L’image we are more journalistic than photographic. An art photographer and a photojournalist might use the same camera, but they have very little in common.

“I hope you will never hear me speaking only of ‘beautiful’ pictures, but also of ‘powerful’ pictures. If you see an image of a baby dying of starvation and you say, ‘oh what a beautiful picture’ then the photographer has missed his goal. I have to be moved by the baby, not by the photographer and his talent.”

© Gerd Ludwig

A screening in Perpignan, September 2006.

He outlines the approach that the festival takes to reportage. “If you are a picture editor, because you have no time, you’re expecting to see a story with 15 or 20 pictures. If a professional comes to see me with that, I won’t look at it because I know there is nothing I can do. But if I can see a story in 40, 50 or 60 pictures then I can make something of it.”
(He advises photographers to send him a photo narrative in JPEG format with a simple, short description of the story.)

He refutes a criticism of Perpignan that he has heard many times before the perceived obsession with simply showing war, famine, death and the other miseries of the world.

“Last year, among 30 exhibitions there were about 15 that showed dead bodies, poverty and starvation. This year we have a story of Antarctic and others [not about war and poverty]. But, I’m sorry to say, that a story about happy people living a rich country is so boring.”

When the festival came of age in September 2006 Jean-Francois wrote an open letter to editors, stating that “for as long as French football star Zinedine Zidane's head butt is reported in the media ahead of fighting breaking out between Israel and Lebanon, Visa pour L'image has a duty to get everyone in the photography business together and review the situation”.

And the conclusion to these reviews?
“People always say that photojournalism is dying. I say, come to Perpignan and see how it alive it is. Every year we welcome young photographers that nobody knows. A few years ago a young Italian photographer produced a powerful and sensitive story about kids living on the streets of Bucharest. The work was shown to all the magazines but no one published it. After it was shown in Perpignan and he had seven magazines offering to publish.”

What about the threats to festival? Would he show video in Perpignan? He shrugs a Gallic shrug. “Perhaps, but 20 years ago when video cameras became common, people said it was the end for still photography. This has not happened.”

© Gerd Ludwig

Veronique de Viguerie (centre of screen) wins the 2006 Canon Female Journalist Award in Perpignan.

But what about the power of the moving image in news? The footage of the hanging of Saddam taken on a mobile phone, for example?
“Yes, but this was nothing without the sound,” he says. “It is the sound of the soldiers shouting at Saddam, and Saddam shouting back, that made it interesting.”

His optimism about the future of reportage contrasts with some of his views on the commercialisation of agencies. He also bemoans the fact that publications now give less space to photojournalism than they did in 1989.

“Twenty years ago, non-governmental organizations were using pictures produced by the press. Now they are the producers. I don’t have a problem with this, but these photographers are on assignment and cannot go wherever they want. Twenty years ago, the photographer went wherever he wanted.

“Magazines always say they have no money [for serious reportage]. This is bullshit. They have a lot of money for pictures of Prince William’s girlfriend, but not enough to send two photographers to Chechnya? Bullshit.”

And what of the state of the profession of photojournalism? Has it changed in the last 18 years? Despite the many stories of photographers ‘improving’ images, Jean-Francois insists that all the professionals he knows and trusts know exactly where the line is when it comes to producing a truthful record of events.

“I hope there is not a single photographer who would put a foot on a dead body to get a better picture. We work in small field, and people who cheat are quickly found out. I could give you 10 or 12 names of people who were famous but crossed this line and then disappeared totally.”

Reflecting on the festival, he says that if it did not exist, the need for it would be even greater now than it was 18 years ago.

“There are 185,000 entries for the exhibition this year, almost 3,500 pros registered and 10,000 kids are coming to the festival. If we can change just one mind we have won.”

And his biggest wish? “To one day go to Visa pour L'image as just a regular visitor, just having fun.”