Sep 14, 2008

On Perpignan

I was in Perpignan, France from Sept 2-7 for Visa pour l'Image, supposedly the biggest annual international photojournalism festival. I heard about it last year from photographer Adam Ferguson; at the time I had no expectation to go any time in the near future. Somehow I ended up in Amsterdam, working for a photo agency. Since the staff of the agency were attending the festival, myself, another intern, and an ex-intern were also invited to join, although on our own travel expense.
Fortunately, the agency had a house rented out where we were invited to stay, which is nice in a town where the hotels are pretty booked out a year in advance for the event. As interns, there wasn't too much we had to do there. I was pretty much there to enjoy it and absorb as much as I could; which was good, since I felt pretty tired and drained going in.
I didn't do much at all there. I checked out some of the photo exhibits, checked out some of the evening screenings, and attended one of the panels. I probably should have attended more of the panels; although they dind't seem that interesting, the debates could have been educational.
In retrospect, I could have done some more. Could have studied the exhibits more, could have networked more. I really wasn't in the mood for the latter, and it's hard to throw yourself out there as an advanced hobbyist when everyone else is either a photographer or an agent or an editor. Plus, there were far more ambitious photographers throwing themselves at editors, networking to sell, whereas I have no work to push or to motivate me to chitchat, although I guess I really could have done the "hi, how are you, you have any kids?" kinda smalltalk to at least get to know some people and get my foot in the door.
In the evenings there were photography screenings projected on a huge widescreen. The image was created by six projectors. Each evening would start with a slideshow of the news stories of 2007, broken down into a few months for each evening. After that, various photographers and their stories would be featured.
One thing really struck me about the nightly "news" - for a festival that celebrates photojournalism, a profession that idealizes "real news" over "censorship" or simply news pushed by commercial media outlets, there seemed to be a certain filter applied. There was a strong presence of African stories and very little North American, or developed world coverage. Obituaries presented were mostly of musicians, ones that I've never heard of and were probably mostly of interest to people in their 50s or 60s. Few were what I'd consider world news.
The screening on Friday night was focused on the 20th anniversary of the festival. At the end, the director of the festival, Jean-Francois Leroy, himself was feted and presented a gift of prints from the many photographers who are his friends and have benefitted from the festival.
Which brings me to the one thing that I didn't really like about the festival - which, should be taken as an opinion more than a criticism: the professional week has a certain cult of personality to it. There are important people, who all know each other. The festival is the time for them to see each other and catch up with each other. If you're in the clique, you get to hang out and drink with your friends. If not, you're a nobody, left scrounging around the Cafe de la Poste in the evenings in search of other nobodies who are trying to make it as photographers. That's not to say that there aren't friendly photographers, but as a generalization, that's the way it goes. I guess it's the same if you go anywhere where people already know each other and connections are already firm.
One place I lucked out on was to have a front row seat to watch photographer, Philip Blenkinsop, receive the Visa d'Or, one of the three top prizes given at the festival. As an oddity in the history of the festival, the final night's screening and closing party were cancelled due to rain/security, instead Jean-Francois found Philip as he was having dinner and dragged him out onto the street to present him with the award.
I was a little disappointed at the closing party being cancelled - it was famous for being a good time. I did, however, get to see the tiny closing ceremony, held for the benefit of the organizint staff, which lasted for maybe 20 minutes before everyone returned back to the Cafe de la Poste to hang out until the cafe closed.

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