Southern French town hosts photojournalism festival

The southern French town of Perpignan is home to the 21st edition of "Visa pour l'image", photojournalism's biggest annual festival, this year featuring an inaugural Web documentary competition co-organised by RFI and FRANCE 24.


AFP  - Photojournalism's biggest annual festival opens this weekend, throwing an unflattering sharp focus on a profession in crisis, struggling to adapt to the new media landscape.

Organisers hope to pull big crowds this week at the 21st edition of "Visa Pour L'Image" in the southern French city of Perpignan, if only because "the public wants to come and see what the press no longer publishes."

Enterprising photographers certainly do not lack for subjects -- the world has rarely had a richer crop of wars, natural disasters and bitter political crises -- but fewer media can afford to hire freelances.

"The years 2008 and 2009 will be marked with a black cross in the history of photojournalism," festival director Jean-Francois Leroy said, complaining of the dearth of editors ready to invest in costly long-term projects.

"Before, we were inundated with news features, that's no longer true. Is photojournalism dead? The answer is 'no' -- photographers are doing quality work, but the press isn't buying."

Across the world newspapers and magazines are going out of business, hit by competition from free content on the Internet and by a slump in advertising revenue during the broader economic crisis.

Photoreportage on conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan is time consuming and costly, while offbeat subjects in far flung exotic locales must compete for editors' attention with paparazzi celebrity journalism.

New York-based shooter Alexandra Avakian, who is in Perpignan presenting a retrospective of her work, said: "I feel lucky, I'm an established photographer. For someone starting now, it is very difficult.

"Magazines are sending fewer photographers into the field, for less amount of time and they have fewer resources than before. Even the photo stores where photographers buy equipment are suffering," she said.

Among the victims of the crunch have been the agencies that promote and market freelance work. France, once one of the leading seedbeds of photojournalism, has been particularly hard hit.

One of Paris' remaining big names, Gamma, went into receivership in July.

Unable to afford to commission work of their own, newspapers and magazines are now more than ever reliant on the global wire agencies.

"Magazines are no longer contracting for long period. Agencies like AFP, AP, Reuters and Getty have become so good that the media are reluctant to commission freelancers. Why bother?" said British photographer Andrew Testa.

Testa, a previous prizewinner at Perpignan who has notably worked for The Guardian and The New York Times, also complained that some clients are trying to change the terms under which they buy the rights to pictures.

"Some papers now want to reuse the pictures for ever, for free. Even if it is a bad deal, some guys will accept it. There is little solidarity, it's very individualistic work," he told AFP.

Despite the grim mood, however, the festival still attracts hundreds of professional photojournalists and, for Leroy, the star of the 2009 edition will be Italy's Massimo Berruti.

"He's the the archetype of the photojournalist I want to promote. He had to spend his own money to get to Pakistan, and came back with a report that will blow you away," the festival director declared.

The historic buildings of the ancient Mediterranean city have been decked out with large-scale prints and slide shows, and rooms have been reserved for debates on how best to push the profession forward.

"We have to fight against these guys who say: 'That doesn't interest our readers' or who talk in terms of attention spans. We want to prove that people care about Darfur and Afghanistan," said Leroy.

"I hear people say, 'Celebrities sell papers, news doesn't'. It's disgusting. Before, celebrity reports financed reporting. Today, we know everything we need to about Carla Bruni's hats, but where's the news?"


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