« Shortcuts to greatness » ? Photojournalism festival Visa pour l’image

On august 31 started the 25th festival Visa pour l’image in french city of Perpignan. I was wary what would be coming when I went through the article in TIME magazine’s september 9 issue, written by french journalist and critic Anne-Céline Jaeger. The good news : it’s mostly images (what a surprise), seven Visa winning photos, three of them taken by photographers from the agency VII. Stephanie Sinclair‘s image of two 8-year-old girls married to much older men, taken in Yemen in 2010, occupies the largest space of the three double page article, along with a full page black and white portrait of Jean-François Leroy, founder of the Perpignan festival in 1989. The Yemen photography of Sinclair, who is a member of VII, has been chosen by the United Nations Population Fund for the campaign Too young to wed. The UNFPA tries to rise awareness for the practice of child marriage; the joint campaign with VII started in october 2012. Her Yemen photo shows that Sinclair has not only the technical skills of a great photographer, but also a « regard compassionnel« , a compassionate view on human beings. This is also the case of british born photographer Don McCullin who is given an important retrospective in Perpignan this year.

The bad news – and I knew there would be – are these : « 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. » And that’s not all. Leroy continues his analysis of things : « I think young photographers are very talented, but they don’t know anything about the history of photography. » Now this is interesting. For once, the decline of photojournalism is not only the publishers fault, the lack of money’s or the economic crisis’. It reveals something equally important : the lack of knowledge, of intellectual curiosity, of good education and the awareness that there have been others before. This is certainly not meant to criticise youth, and I don’t think that was Leroy’s intention either. Anne-Céline Jaeger says it in other words : « Technology (…) has helped convince a new generation that there might be shortcuts to the greatness the likes of McCullin and Duncan earned over decades. »

Here we are back again to some not very new but very true fact : time. There is no time for anything and anyone any more, not for publishers, not for picture researchers, not for photographers, chosen or suffered – and not for readers either. But time can’t be ignored or compressed, and there is no technical shortcut to greatness. So what do we do ? Can we – do we want to – stop this insane race to more productivity, more advertising, to more bad magazines, more stupid articles, more silly pictures ? Do we want our readers to pick an article or two ? Do we want to cut magazines and newspapers into small bits, as Jeff Bezos might want to do with the Washington Post ?

This year’s Visa pour l’image will certainly host more visitors than last year – more than 3000 accredited professionals from all over the world came to Perpignan in 2012. There are many people who like photojournalism, but it can’t be given for free. Quality needs time – and money. Anyone can shoot a good picture from time to time – by accident. It’s the « always quality » we should aim for, in every single photography. Good technical skills and material are needed, but they won’t make pictures that make us shiver. Technical skills might quickly impress, but won’t have any lasting impact on us. It’s that lasting impact only time and the photographers personality can do, what makes greatness.