Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Tala Skari, Director of Photography at the International Herald Tribune, was at a loss to explain the number of Italian photographers queuing to show her pictures of Gaza at this year’s Visa Pour L’Image. Festival Director Jean-François Leroy was in despair after receiving 263 CDs of Tahrir Square photographs as exhibition submissions. Rubbernecking in the areas set aside for portfolio reviews by agencies and editors during the professional week of the annual celebration of photojournalism in Perpignan suggests that to maintain your street cred, you really do need to have a set from somewhere in the Middle East, preferably Libya. I exaggerate – but not much.
The narrow range of subject matter on show was striking. Of the 24 exhibitions hung in churches and other buildings in the old city centre, 19 were on third world subjects. The remaining five included a group show on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, a very fine B&W essay on the devastating effects of gang warfare in Los Angeles, and two on UK subjects: a comic Martin Parr-style take on the English by Peter Dench, and a set on an East End gangster family by Jocelyn Bain Hogg. And there were the fish – a wonderfully colourful show of 30 years of underwater photography by Brian Skerry that stood in complete contrast to everything else, presumably selected to offer a little light relief.
Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with third world subjects. Fernando Moleres’s photographs of children in African prisons, for instance, together with his campaigning work around the issue, are totally admirable. Many of the other exhibitions were very powerful, often shot with great sensitivity. I particularly liked Jonas Bendiksen’s essay on climate change in Bangladesh, which captured the great dignity of his subjects. But there was nothing on the global economic crisis. Or anything much at all of real significance about the so-called ‘developed’ world: the enormous changes in working lives; the staggering contrasts of wealth and poverty; the pressing social issues.
Why is that? Why such extensive exploration of third world problems, and none of our own? Perhaps photographers (almost exclusively from the industrialised countries) are being realistic when they go for the ever more exotic or violent. Publishers have their own priorities, and this is what sells. Or perhaps photographers are just not looking hard enough at what is going on around them.
In fact, there are photographers working on other issues, but their work rarely appears in the high profile publications whose editors are so eagerly sought out by aspiring globetrotters in Perpignan. Visa Pour L’Image is a great institution but, although it sees itself as the standard-bearer of international photojournalism, it really only represents one, rather limited, sub-genre.