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|| News Item: Posted 2008-09-18

Gray Matters: Jean Francois Leroy's vision
Jim Merithew went to Visa Pour L'Image to see the photographs and enjoy the festival.

By Jim Merithew, Wired News

Photo by Kevin German

Photo by Kevin German

I am ushered up the grand staircase and into the anti-chamber of the Hotel Pams. The hotel is on a cobbled street in the center of town and all the windows are thrown open in an attempt to get a breeze on this sweltering day in Perpignan.

Through the next door, you can just barely make out a man pacing back and forth. It's Jean Francois Leroy, the mastermind behind Visa Pour L'Image ( He's working, talking, editing; the master at the helm of his ship.

Visa Pour L'Image is a photojournalism festival that for years has been the definitive expose for some of the world’s most important photojournalists. It's a festival that is often defined by the deadly serious nature of the work.

I'm here to see the photographs and enjoy the festival. I was also lucky enough to score an interview with Jean Francois thanks to Wired magazine photo editor Zana Woods who hooked me up.

When we’re eventually led in to meet Francios, they do the kiss, kiss, and then I sit down at a desk half the size of the room. I can't help thinking it must be a little bit like meeting with Castro, or John F. Kennedy, or Charles de Gaulle.

He pulls a chair to the corner of the desk, pushes a massive pile of paperwork to the side, plants his elbows, brushes his stylishly scruffy hair aside and starts right in.

"I was fed up with all those festivals that were alive in 1989 and were mixing everything, you know art, portraits, fine art, reportage, fashion," he starts. "I wanted to create something that was just dedicated to the photojournalist. I was very pretentious at this time to create like a Cannes for photojournalism, a gathering point for photographers who are producing the images, agency who are distributing the images and magazine who are supposed to be printing the images."

20 years after the humble beginnings, Jean Francois' vision has turned into an industry behemoth.

In 2007 more than 3,500 photographers and photo editors from 69 countries and some 250 agencies were at the must-attend photojournalism event of the year.

"As a photographer, a photo editor, even if you don't have anything shown at Perpignan you have to be here. You have to be here to find an agency, to sell your photographs in California, Australia, South Africa... They are all here," he says.

When it comes to Perpignan, Jean Francois is king. He has first, second, third and final say about who and what gets presented at Perpignan.

"I don't want to pretend my taste, my choice of exhibitions is the best, but even if you don't like my taste you have to be here," he says.

And they have come. At one dinner during the festival I found myself sitting next to Wired magazine photo editor Zana Woods and United Nations photo editor Sherri Dougherty. Seated within spitting distance were Geographic photographer David Alan Harvey and photo editor Kurt Mutchler. A couple tables away were Eugene Richards and his lovely wife Janine Altongy. On the way out the door I ran into Sports Illustrated shooter Bill Frakes. Down at the Castillet I spotted Lynsey Addario, Chris Anderson and Gary Knight.

Still, Francois admits his work and influence can only reach so far.

"Unfortunately, I am not the tastemaker. I am trying to be a tastemaker. If I were a tastemaker magazines would start to publish more and more photojournalism," he says.

Jean Francois does not believe photojournalism is dying or in turmoil. Instead, he believes that magazines and other media outlets have lost their way.

"They like to print Britney Spears. Angelina Jolie has twins isn't that amazing news, oh my god. Michael Phelps wow what a star, I don't give a shit," is how he put it.

He points to Stanley Greene's work on the "Silk Road" in Russia ( as a perfect example of how photojournalism is still alive and kicking.

Greene shot the work on film in July. Jean Francois did an edit of the work at the end of July and the exhibition prints arrived just in time for the festival.

"Twenty years ago, the media was owned by journalists. Now it is owned by bankers. They want to make some money, more and more money," he says.

And what about the promise that online was going to save reportage?

"The Internet was supposed to save many, many things. Ten years ago the Internet was not making any money. Now the advertising market is increasing like this," he says as he motions with his hands like a rocket ship. "But websites still have no money for photography. This is a problem. No?"

"I would be very ashamed now, today, to be a journalist. Having to answer to the politician to the sports to whatever you want is not normal for the journalist."

He continues.

"The problem is with the photo editors. Twenty years ago the director of photography at Time or Newsweek or Life was directing something. Now they have to save some money. That is their job. And please try to find some copyright free pictures while you are at it. You know 20 years ago nobody was asking the journalist or director of photography to make a planning budget. Because you can expect the movies stars in Hollywood for the awards ceremony, you can expect the Tour de France and you can expect the Olympics, but who can plan for Georgia, Chechnya, Sudan, Darfur, Colombia or whatever you want. So how is it possible today to ask a director of photography to make a planning for his expenses? Ah. It is bullshit. It has nothing to do with journalism."

During the discussion he makes some remark about me being from California and I might be offended if he smokes. I, of course, grant him the freedom to do so. It turns out to be one of the great pleasures of the interview. He pulls out a pack of Lucky Strikes and fires one up. He proceeds to smoke it just the way you might expect a passionate, exhausted Frenchman to smoke a cigarette. He hunches over, and takes quick drags while arguing his point, all the while trying to keep his stringy hair out of his face.

"If I was not hopeful I would stop immediately fighting for photojournalism," he says between drags. "I have been fighting 20 years to make this bigger and bigger."

I ask about how technology has changed both his festival and photography as a whole.

"Nobody cares about the technology. It is easier. Now you have auto-focus. It is becoming very difficult to make a bad picture, very difficult. But who cares about technology. Did he use digital? Did he use film? Who cares?" is his response. "If Stanley Greene is using the same camera as you or I, he will make a better picture, because he has the eye. I can say that because I was such a bad photographer. The most important thing is the way you look."

I also want to know what he thinks about multimedia being the future of photography.

"Many people are coming to me and ask me if my mind is open to opening your festival up to multimedia and I say "hey asshole did you see my screening show", I am making the best multimedia in the world. Pictures are moving, zooming, but my screen is 24 meters by 8. This really is multimedia and we have been doing it for the last 20 years."

And to put one final exclamation point on our conversation Jean Francois pushes his hair out of his eyes one final time and leaves me with this:

"Look at David Douglas Duncan's photograph from the exhibition ( It was made 58 years ago. I don't care about the camera used. I don't care about what the kind of film he used. This picture is a fucking good one."

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and the author alone. They do not represent the views of his employer, co-workers, friends or family.

(Jim Merithew is a picture editor at Wired News. Jim invites you to direct your questions and comments about this column and other issues involving photojournalism ethics to him through his member page:

Related Links:
Merithew's member page

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