By Melanie Light, Director, Fotovision:
The Photojournalism Festival at Perpignan was exciting, intense, disturbing and fun. 3,000 professionals converged on this lovely town in southern France for a week. 45 agencies had booths, throngs of photographers were showing their work and important deals were being cut. There were symposia and press conferences. 30 photographers had shows in venues about town and every night there was a slide show of even more work by yet more photographers. They were held outdoors on giant screens. Numerous prizes were awarded to photographers.
Much of the work involved crisis photography and so, despite the idyllic setting of this town, the subject matter was very intense and very disturbing, at times. A certain portion of the stories would never be printed because the subject matter is much too grisely. It seemed that the quality of the images were somewhat affected by pressure to shoot the sensational shots. When I compared a lot of the contemporary work to that of the two retrospective shows of work by Willy Ronis and Charles Harbutt, it seemed that a certain lyrical, or simply earthy quality has been lost in favor of a dramatic aesthetic.
The industry, as judged by this festival, is under stress. In the same way that the music industry has become monopolized, so has the media. Consequently, there has been a big squeeze on the photographers and the agencies. There is a ton of great talent out there and competition to get printed is fierce, with most work done by freelancers. Even the most heralded and highly skilled photographers have a hard time getting their long-term projects funded and published. They do a lot of assignments they don’t necessarily want to do in order to shoot their “real” projects on the side. I also noticed a trend for many photographers to live in Asia because it is so much cheaper than living in Europe or the U.S.
After a week of immersion in this environment, I realized the two best skills a photographer can have are to be able to edit his/her own work really well and to get a grip on the business side of the industry. So many of the young photographers I met had spent a lot of time and energy getting to Perpignan, but really were not prepared to negotiate and operate like a professional. One of the least popular symposia was probably the most important one for this group. It was a lecture by an international copyright lawyer who works for Corbis. There were a handful of middle-aged, mid-career people who were there because they had had first hand experience with the many pitfalls of copyright infringement. A photographer’s pictures are all he or she has. That creative body of work must accrue over time and will become a source of passive income and a retirement plan, if protected. Most young photographers are desperately trying to get their foot in the door, but it just doesn’t make sense to sell oneself out for a tear sheet.
The other thing I realized after a few days of viewing all of this crisis photography is that I was beginning to feel battle fatigue. Story after story of unbelievably graphic human suffering washed over me and through me until I felt emotionally numb. And then, it hit me. These photographers must be profoundly affected by this work. I began to ask some of the well-known photographers how they handled the stress. At first, most of them said it didn’t bother them, or that their families were a safe refuge. But slowly, they admitted that it was very difficult. One photographer said that after his first assignment in a war zone, he kept waking up at night in a full sweat. He thought he was sick, until he realized he was having nightmares and suffering the aftershock of his experience in war. Another photographer says that she will be flooded with images at unpredictable times, like when she is brushing her teeth.
These photojournalists and their counterparts, writers, should have some help dealing with these symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The military has a psychological unit on the frontline to assist the soldiers and treatment available for them when they return. But the media workers have nothing. If they are freelance, they might not even have health insurance at all. Not only are they pressured to file one story and start another, but the whole culture of journalists is to be very macho.
How would anyone even begin to set up counseling services for them – journalists are a herd of cats. My husband jokingly suggested that I set up a new foundation called Therapists Without Borders and it became a running joke for the entire week at Perpignan. But, in fact, it wasn’t such a bad idea. Instead of the trailer that Doctors Without Borders set up so we could all experience a refugee camp (very, very cool, but very, very redundant), Therapists Without Borders could have set up a trailer to educate journalists about coping with trauma: symptoms they might experience, how to prepare for a crisis situation, resources for their return.
All in all, this was a fascinating experience for me, as an observing outsider. I learned a lot, met some really wonderful people and really hope photojournalism finds its way through these dark times.