In spite of having a bad national press in recent years, Perpignan has also something to shout about to the rooftops: in 1988, it created and has since nurtured the world-famous festival Visa pour l’Image.

“Perpignan has become the Cannes festival of photojournalism. Nowhere else does one find such a concentration of professionals [about 3,400 this summer] … Of our 27 prize winners this year, twelve are young new talents. All this testifies to the vitality of the profession even if the press is in a bad way.”
[Jean-François Leroy, founder of Visa pour l’Image]

PACO: A DRUG STORY, BRASIL, MARCH 2010. Paco, a new and highly-addictive drug, is sweeping through the ghettos and shanty towns of South America. This exhibition follows the cocaine-based drug from las cocinas (the kithens), the production laboratories, through the hands of the traffickers and into the lives of its victims, who are mostly teenagers. © Valerio Bispuri
Paco, a new and highly-addictive drug, is sweeping through the ghettos and shanty towns of South America. This exhibition follows the cocaine-based drug from las cocinas (the kithens), the production laboratories, through the hands of the traffickers and into the lives of its victims, who are mostly teenagers.
© Valerio Bispuri

Perpignan has often fared badly in the press. In 2008, it became the nation’s laughing stock over the affair of the smelly socks. During the municipal elections, voting slips were found in the socks of Georges Garcia, president of ward 4 and the brother of a confederate of the mayor. Garcia was arrested on suspicion of electoral fraud then remanded under judicial control. However, his offences remain on the files and his trial is expected before Christmas. Read all about it on this site in the four links below.


In a long depressing article in Le Figaro (30/07/2010), the journalist Raphaël Stainville began thus (freely translated):

Myriam, a young woman liked by everyone, wished to believe in the very best that Perpignan had to offer. But with aggression, uncivil behaviour, drug trafficking, the rising waves of gang warfare, racial tensions and tribal violence… Victims in such a situation, families move out.
Myriam remembers all this like it was yesterday.
She remembers lots of shouting in the street, rising insults, swelling crowds gathering under her windows and throwing stones and tiles that threatened to enter the room where her child was sleeping. Yobs were kicking against her front door after 15 youths had broken down the outer door …..
….. It all became intolerable. We left.

Fortunately, the current mayor Jean-Marc Pujol (UMP) readily recognises the seriousness of Perpignan’s problems and is already taking necessary combative steps.


After this dismal account, thank heavens there is something that Perpignan can be truly proud of: Visa pour l’Image. I take this logo to mean something like “Passport to the Best in Photojournalism” – but I am open to better translations.

Perpignan has been presenting Visa pour l’Image to the world for the last 22 summers. Two of its main venues are a mere 200 metres or so east of where the unfortunate Myriam lived with her family: the Couvent des Minimes and the Eglise des Dominicains. Also included in the 8 venues are the Couvent Sainte-Claire, and the Caserne Gallieni.

Visa pour l’Image was founded in 1988 by the “militant” reporter and photojournalist Jean-François Leroy, with the backing of Perpignan’s dynamic former mayor, Jean-Paul Alduy. Ever since, Leroy has organised this, the world’s only festival devoted to photojournalism. You can read a potted biography of Leroy [here->]. He’s certainly “been there, done that”. His career has included the deputy editorship of Photoreporter, collaborative projects with Photoreview, book and exhibition reviews for La Vie, the editorship of Photomagazine, work for the Sipa photo agency… The list goes on.


A little number crunching.

The astonishing success of Visa is justifiably trumpeted by the festival’s president, Jean-Paul Griolet, in this year’s brochure:

In 2009, the exhibitions recorded a total of 187,000 visits, more than 12,000 people attended the evening shows at Campo Santo, and the last three of these were screened simultaneously on the Place de la République for an audience of approximately 8,000. There were 6,800 school students, leading photo and press agencies with desks and booths at the International Press Centre, some 3,000 accredited professionals in the photography business, and 300 agencies and collectives with a total of 59 countries represented. Since the first Visa pour l’Image, the festival has had more than 3.3 million visitors.

Why does this exhibition remain so important after 22 years? The profession of photojournalist [writes Griolet] is now under threat, with a rising pressure from buyouts and mergers in the media, and also the development of digital technology as it takes away a sense of distance or proportion and fosters high-speed news which is not always checked. Agencies have closed down, collectives run by photographers have had hard times. Photojournalism and journalism have to find new ways of living with the Internet, broadband access, Facebook, Twitter and more…

Proliferation can lead to trivialisation and passivity. Here are parts of Leroy’s comments in the brochure:

It is not particularly original these days to talk about pictures being in oversupply. They are everywhere. We live in a world full of photos and videos – in the street, in public transport, and now quite often in our own pockets, displayed on cell phones. We have become the passive recipients of pictures with more and more being sent faster and faster. We no longer take the time needed to analyse or rank them. Usually we are in a state of inertia at the receiving end of this vast quantity of visual material.

A festival such as Visa pour l’Image is here to run counter to this trend, making choices, asserting them and taking a stance; seeing different stories with varying degrees of importance, for exhibitions and evening screenings, asserting again, as always, that they are the best in the world; showing how important a caption can be, and leaving everyone free to choose a favourite shot.

Crucially, almost all the photographs exhibited at Visa are in identically-sized grey aluminium frames:

In a magazine, the decision to print a picture as a double-page spread or a thumbnail is a matter of editorial choice. A photo printed across a double page is obviously more important than a picture the size of a postage stamp, or at least that is the message conveyed.

If one picture in an exhibition is printed on a scale two or three times larger than the others, this is artifice. We need to give consideration to the people viewing the photos and who come from a range of backgrounds. And it is quite obvious that different juries with different members will invariably choose different winners.


With their obsession with celebrities and touched-up images, says Leroy, popular newspapers and magazines are no longer run by journalists but by bankers. Budgets have been cut by a half or a third. Only in such quality publications as the New York Times and the National Geographic are thought-provoking images with a real impact to be found.

50 years ago Life magazine published photos of the courageous Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on tour in Korea during the war. In the 70s the equally brave Jane Fonda was photographed in Vietnam wearing a military helmet and climbing onto an anti-aircraft cannon.

Today, claims Leroy, you can only ever find glamour shots of “Carlita” (Bruni-Sarkozy).

A good photo, says Leroy, isn’t merely simple “illustration”. Nothing can replace the selective, choosing eye as evidenced in the work of agencies such as AFP (which provides rapid, verified and complete information on current world events), Reuters, or the powerful photos exhibited this year by Palestinian photographers in the Gaza strip.

“Le monde est violent”

Leroy has often been criticised for exhibiting so many grim scenes and events. But as he says, “le monde est violent”. And in any case there are a good many life-enhancing, and sometimes amusing photos to leaven the gravity of so many others.



The French Minister for Culture and Communications, Frédéric Mitterand, attended the Visa exhibition this year and recognised the importance of preserving the best in photojournalism. He has set up a special department for photography (Mission de la photographie) to work on questions of “safeguarding and use”.


Leroy’s 10 “shock” photos.

Luckily for novices in this field like me, Leroy selected for the [website->] what were, for him, the 10 “shock” photos of the exhibition. Almost an impossible task, I would have thought, with so much high quality stuff; but we are fortunate he has given us some clear clues as to what he means by fine photojournalism.

Here are Leroy’s ten choices with his illuminating comments on each in French. I have added below some condensed translations in note form. If you open a second internet page you can easily toggle between my notes and the photos.

– William Albert Allard: FRONT MATTER. Dating from 1968, this photo is from a series on the Pays Basque: during 2 months Allard caught people as they were, with his perfect mastery of colour and “incredible, indefinable light. Is it dawn or evening?” … Like a Dutch painting.

– Antonio Bolfo: NYPD. Coppers at the funeral of a colleague, killed accidentally by another copper. At the age of 30, Bolfo left the police to photograph his colleagues. Here he has captured the “seriousness and perplexity” on the faces of a few of them.

– Cédric Gerbehaye: FLEUVE CONGO (Baptism by immersion). At the age of only 33, Gerbehaye already demonstrates the hallmarks of the masters. This “super classic” shot, taken on the river Congo at Lisala, “seems to be above the world, floating and timeless.”

– Guillaume Herbaut: TCHERNOBYL. Radioactivity here, near the famous nuclear reactor 4, is 20 times above the legal normal. Workers are cutting up metal with no protection.

– William Klein: MOSCOW. Klein (aged 82) is the master of composition and cut-diamond restraint. By way of proof, look at “this dignified old lady wrapped up warmly but moving”. Leroy wishes more young photographers could get acquainted with Klein’s work.

– Grégoire Korganow: CARNET D’URGENCES (Record of the emergency services). Saved from the brink of death after a horrible motor accident in Paris, Korganow paid tribute to the emergency services by compiling a telling dossier of their work. Korganow respected the anonymity of the victims in order to focus more effectively on the intense concentration of the doctors.

– Andrea Star Reese: URBAN CAVE. Reese’s photo-reportage on New York’s homeless is “mind-blowing”. Here, one man is reading on a railway line in a disused metro tunnel. “In the darkness, light descends and illuminates.”

– Stéphanie Sinclair: POLYGAMIE. At the age of 37, the New Yorker Sinclair became interested in a sect authorising polygamy: The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saints. Here is an 88-year-old cowboy from Utah with his 5 wives, 46 children and 239 grandchildren. We could be looking at a western by John Ford!

– Tomas Van Houtryve: COMMUNISTES. Houtryve has undertaken a photoreportage project taking him to the last communist countries, including the inaccessible North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. In this photo a group of young Chinese female communists are seen smiling like air hostesses in front of a statue of Mao. What dazzling redness! (Referring to their uniforms.)

– Munem Wasif ISLAM. This Bangladeshi photographer won Perpignan’s Young Reporter Prize in 2008. This year we are pleased to exhibit his work in black and white on Islam. In contrast to all the fundamentalism continually shown in the media, here is “a happy Islam”. Even if the context is an outpouring of grief in memory of the battle of Kerbala, Wassif has captured “a positive emotion in spite of everything”.


My own choice of one photo

I don’t know about you but I soon reach saturation point when going to crowded exhibitions. However, at this year’s Visa – my personal first I’m ashamed to say – one photo will be riveted in my mind’s eye for all time. Sadly, I don’t even remember whose it was but it captures a tall, bony emaciated African youth breathing his warm breath into the vulva of a cow to stimulate an increased milk yield.

Truly for me a “shock photo”. And proof enough for me of the overwhelming importance of Visa pour l’Image! Merci à vous Monsieur Leroy!

© 2010 Basil Howitt

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