From DOCfield to Visa pour l’Image: A European Tour of Documentary Photography

Even though critics have been writing its obituary for years, documentary photography is not dead, nor is it in the doldrums, as evidenced by the many exhibits and festival events this summer at DOCfield in Barcelona, Spain, and at Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France. In fact, for any lover of documentary photography the perfect vacation would begin in Barcelona in mid- to late-August to catch some of the DOCfield exhibits and end in Perpignan for professional week, with a detour to the Rencontres in Arles, France (a four hour drive from Barcelona and two hours from Perpignan). In two or three weeks you can overdose on good wine, great food, and inspiring documentary photography.

DOCfield 2105, the third annual documentary photography festival organized by Silvia Omedes, the Director of the foundation Photographic Social Vision in Barcelona, highlights the social value of documentary photography and photojournalism. Although this festival opens in July, many of the exhibits remain up through August. This year, more than 38 exhibits were scattered around Barcelona, augmented with lectures and outdoor evening screenings. The theme, The Heart of the Matter, chosen by guest curator Jessica Murray, proposes that the “shortest distance between two people is an effective image and a good story.” Among the stories being told were Blue Sky Days, Tomas Van Houtryve’s project on American drones; Fernando Moleres’s monochromatic and silently beautiful images of the melting ice mass of Greenland and the Arctic; Guy Martin’s City of Dreams about Turkish soap operas, which draw tens of millions of viewers across the Arab World and the Balkan countries; and Laia Abril’s extended project, On Eating Disorders, created to clear misconceptions about, and to raise awareness of, the seriousness of eating disorders, which affect more than 70 million people worldwide. Finding the exhibits is part of the fun because it becomes a photographic scavenger hunt throughout Barcelona, including venues in the Gothic district, dating back to when the Romans dominated the city.

Among the many exhibits at the Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan was Pascal Maitre’s project, The Congo River, shot for National Geographic. The exhibit at the Couvent des Minimes also featured a large mural hanging above the images.
© 2015 Michelle Bogre

Visa pour l’Image, known simple as “Visa,” founded and led by Jean-Francois Leroy, is unquestionably the premier documentary photography festival in the world. Leroy announced that Visa, in partnership with the city of Perpignan, will be opening an historical archive of documentary images. This new International Center of Photojournalism will be open year round. In its 27th year, Visa draws more than 2700 photographers, editors, curators, educators, and critics during its “professional week” that runs from the end of August through the first week of September. Although the more than 20 exhibits are up for the full month of September, professional week is the most fun because some of the world’s best photographers are in town, hanging out at the Grand Café de la Poste at the Place de Verdun, near the Castillet, which in the 14th century was the entrance to the city. Simply referred to as “La Poste,” it becomes the meeting place during Visa with outdoor tables that sprawl into the square. You might see Eli Reed sipping Perrier with Bill Allard and Christopher Morris. Or you might see Stephanie Sinclair chatting with Lynsey Addario. Although the sheer density of the people hanging out at La Poste can seem daunting, it’s a rendezvous and it’s possible to politely interrupt the conversation to introduce yourself to, say, Eli Reed. That is what everyone is in town to do: meet, talk, and hang out often until 5:00 a.m. because La Poste is open 23 hours a day during the festival.

Grand Café de la Poste is the meeting place to look at photographs and hang out.
© 2015 Michelle Bogre

The exhibits are free, but if you want to attend the open-air evening projections, also open to the public, in the historic cloister of Campo Santo, it will cost 60 Euros for the week, but you can get headphones for simultaneous translations. The projections start at 9:45, but arrive early because if you are late, you won’t get in. From Monday to Saturday the program begins with a chronological review of the news, two months at a time, followed by reports and features on key events of the year. You will see at least 1500 images each evening, selected from more than 4500 submissions. This year the evening shows included a tribute to Charlie Hebdo; a story on Ukraine, one year later; Daniel Berehulak’s Pulitzer Prize winning images on Ebola in Africa; and police violence in the United States. On Thursday through Saturday, the evening shows also are projected at the Place de la République, one of the city’s many town squares where the nearby restaurants set up tables outside. Although you may have dinner and see the show, there is no translation, so depending on your French proficiency, you may prefer Campo Santo.

The festival program includes photographer talks at each exhibit, so with a bit of planning this year you could have heard Nancy Borowick talk about her award winning project on her parents’ losing battle with cancer, or Eli Reed on his retrospective, A Long Walk Home, or Gerd Ludwig on his project on nuclear tourism in Chernobyl. After a week of seeing the exhibits and the evening shows, and meeting the photographers, you will learn more about story telling, how to sustain a long term project, composition, technique, technology, and the profession of photojournalism than you will in any workshop. Each day the many photo editors and photo agents review portfolios, which you sign up for in the morning. This is highly competitive and the spots with premier agencies, such as Getty Images, fill immediately so you must get in line early.

Portfolio reviews with the industry’s top editors, curators, and agencies, held daily at the Palais des Congrès, are one of the many benefits of attending the Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan.
© 2015 Michelle Bogre

This year’s exhibitions included more women photojournalists. Three of the exhibits that I particularly liked were those by emerging women. Viviane Dalles presented her project on teenage pregnancy in northern France, funded from an 8000 Euro prize she won at last year’s festival from the Canon Female Photojournalist fund and Elle Magazine. Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi won the 8000 Euro Humanitarian Visa d’Or award from the International Red Cross for her images from the Minova Rape Trials in the Democratic Republic of Congo, her first “professional” photography assignment. American freelance photographer Nancy Borowick exhibited her most personal project, Cancer Family, Ongoing, the story of her parents who simultaneously fought and lost their battle with stage 4 cancer. “I am a story teller at my core,” says Borowick, “and I use images to understand the world. I never made a conscious decision to make my parents’ cancer my photography project. I wanted to spend more time with them when they were first both diagnosed and I was a student at ICP and needed a semester project to work on. If I had thought about it rationally, I might not have done it.”

Nancy Borowick explains her project on her parent’s unsuccessful battle against cancer during an artist walk-through of her exhibit at the 2015 Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan, France.
© 2015 Michelle Bogre

Formerly a humanitarian aid worker, Romanian born Diana Zayned Alhindawi seized an opportunity to photograph trials of Congolese soldiers accused of participating in a 10-day run of violence and rape in November 2012. More than 1000 women, children, and men were raped in Minova alone. Although a common war tactic, soldiers had never been brought to trial. While interested in photography, Alhindawi had never worked professionally. She was living in Minova when trials started and a friend turned over an assignment to photograph the trial because he was shooting video. “The fixer assigned was not so helpful,” she says. “But I speak French and as an aid worker, I knew how to work with local institutions so I knew how to become close to the prosecutor and one of the psychologists who gave me access to the victims.” That access produced quiet images with nuanced emotion as the women, veiled to protect their identity, told their stories.

Students flock around a van delivering women scheduled to testify in a makeshift courtroom set up in the auditorium of a Catholic school in Minova. Victims could not afford a trip to Goma, more than 30 miles away, so the court went to them in Minova.
© Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi 2014

One of her most startling images is a direct portrait of one of the accused men, staring confrontationally into the camera. “He called me over to take his picture because he was bored and because in the Congolese military there is such a culture of impunity,” she says. The impunity is not so misplaced. In the end, only two of the 37 accused were convicted and he wasn’t one of them.

© Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi 2014

Viviane Dalles, who photographed teenage pregnancy in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in France, knew she was choosing a topic that did not interest many publications. She pursued it anyway with the award money because she wanted to know why French teenagers chose to have children even though they are “…stigmatized by French society. I wanted to know more about why these young girls became mothers so young. We see stories like these in other countries, but not in France,” she says.

Viviane Dalles talks about her exhibit at the 2015 Visa pour l’Image festival on teenage pregnancy in the Nord-Pas-de Calais region of France, funded in part by the 8000 Euro Canon Female Photojournalist grant she won at the 2014 festival.
© 2015 Michelle Bogre

It took her months to find four young women—Laurine, Amelie, Stacy, and Melissa—willing to be photographed. “This is a very intimate story and they needed to trust me,” Dalles says. “I don’t think a male photographer would have been able to do this story.” She would usually spend two to three weeks at a time living with the girls, even though many days nothing happened. “For a project like this, you have to just spend time, be there, and be patient.”

Thiméo was born on September 22, 2014. Laurine and her son live with her father in a public housing apartment in Fourmies.
© Viviane Dalles 2015

Vicenzo has a temperature, and Stacy had to wait three hours to see the doctor. She is worried and has called her mother. Hellemmes.
© Viviane Dalles 2015

Dalles’ advice to young photographers: “It is easy to take a photograph, but not so easy to take a good photograph. Don’t go abroad if you don’t have the money. Stay close to home. Pick a project you are passionate about no matter what it is. It can be about your grandmother, your parents, the local grocery store, anything. Stick to it no matter what. Hang out with your eyes open and see how you can improve on each photograph.”

Next year’s festivals:

DOCfield: May and June 2016, Barcelona

Visa pour l’Image International Festival of Photojournalism: August 27th through September 11th, 2016, Perpignan
Professional week is August 29th to September 4th.

Michelle Bogre, an Associate Professor of Photography at Parsons The New School for Design is a documentary photographer, intellectual property lawyer, and author of two books, Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change and Photography 4.0: A Teaching Guide for the 21st Century, both published by Focal Press.

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