When the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photo staff in June, it revived what has become an all-too frequent argument in the media: Do we really need photojournalists?
For some, the iPhone era has ushered in the notion that everybody is a photographer — and sometimes it feels true. Some of the first images of major news events such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the uprising in Egypt came via photos posted on Twitter and other social media sites, where hundreds of pictures are posted every second.
But Jean-François Leroy is on a mission to remind the world that the most enduring news images still come from photojournalists, people who know that documenting the stories the public needs to see often involves more than simply clicking a shutter.
“If you are a photographer, you rarely make a picture by accident. You are working, you are making inquiries, you worked to find your subjects, you worked to get into the position where you could make that picture, you are trying to tell a story,” Leroy said. “You are a journalist, someone people can trust. The world needs that. I need that.”
And that’s the driving principle behind Visa pour l’Image, an annual photo festival founded by Leroy to celebrate the art of photojournalism. The two-week festival, now in its 25th year, kicks off Aug. 31 in Perpignan, France, honoring the best in photojournalism, including photographers who often put their lives at risk to capture horrific images of war and human suffering.
Among those being honored at this year’s festival: Joao Silva, a longtime combat photographer, who lost both legs below the knee when he stepped on a landmine while covering the war in Afghanistan in 2010 for The New York Times.
The festival also will feature images from Reuters’ Goran Tomasevic, a veteran war photographer who has been covering the constantly shifting front line in Syria, and Phil Moore, a photographer from Agence France-Presse who has been documenting rebel groups in the Congo.
Visa pour l’Image, which is considered one of the most important photo festivals in the world, launched in 1988 when Leroy sensed a lack of appreciation for photojournalism. At the time, there were festivals celebrating fashion and art photography — but none, he thought, that were exclusively dedicated to bringing news photographers together to view each other’s work and simply mingle and learn from one another.
At the time, Leroy was a photographer for the French photo agency Sipa Press — though today he insists he was the “worst photographer on earth.”
“Ask anyone,” he said, with a laugh. “I quickly realized that I was much more talented at promoting work other than my own. … My only talent was creating that gathering point for people.”
That first year, 123 photographers and editors showed up for the festival — prompting some to label it a failure. But over the years, the festival has become increasingly popular. Last year, more than 3,000 photo professionals, including 1,200 photographers from 58 countries descended on France for the event — a number that is expected to be on par with this year.
“Everybody was telling me that was I was totally foolish, and that I would never succeed, but we are still kicking,” said Leroy, who whittled down several thousand photos to an exhibition that includes a few hundred.
Over the years, Leroy has seen major changes in the industry — among them a shift from film to digital photography and changes in how images are shared around the world. Photos that one used to have to wait to see in newspapers and magazines are now readily available almost instantaneously on the Internet.
But with that accessibility has come serious questions about the long-term viability of photojournalism. Long before the Sun-Times canned its photo staff, newspapers and magazines already were cutting back sharply on photo budgets in favor of images snapped by freelancers or even amateurs armed with cell phones.
The developments have alarmed photographers who try to make a living shooting the news, amid declarations by some in the media that photojournalism is simply a dying profession.
But Leroy sees his role as something of an evangelist for the industry, using Visa pour l’Image to offer proof to the public that photojournalism is not dead but is rather thriving in spite of those who view it as the most disposable part of the ever-shrinking media landscape. As in years past, he calls the images he’ll feature at this year’s festival as evidence that photojournalism deserves to be valued.
“Every year, people have said ‘Photojournalism is dying,’ but every year, we’ve proven the opposite,” Leroy said.
Amid the rise of iPhones and tools that have made taking photos easier, Leroy acknowledged the industry has been flooded by pictures and admits he can’t predict where the industry will go in coming years.
But echoing an argument that has been made about reporters, he repeatedly emphasized a need to be able to “trust” the sources where media comes from — whether it is photos or writing — in an era where information could be easily corruptible by governments or people trying to push their own narratives.
“My point, my fight is to remind everybody that we need real journalists, not only photographers, but real journalists who are witnessing and who I can trust,” Leroy said.
See related Visa coverage:
25th anniversary of Visa Pour l'Image: A glimpse of some exhibiting photographers and their work (Slideshow)
Scenes from the 25th Visa Pour l'Image: International photojournalism festival (Slideshow - Updated daily)