Photo: Bulent Kilic (AFP). A Syrian Kurdish child eats near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province after crossing the border between Syria and Turkey on October 2, 2014.

Exclusive Interview with Jean-François Leroy, Director of Visa Pour l’Image

As the heavyweight photography festival enters its 27th year, what should we expect this summer?

Once again, it’s that time of year for photographers, agency reps, editors and groupies to descend on the French city of Perpignan to celebrate the world’s oldest international photojournalism festival, Visa pour l’Image.

Founded by Jean-François Leroy, Visa — as it is commonly known — has been a hub for the global photojournalism community since 1989. During professional week, held from August 31 to September 6, a stream of eager young photographers look to show their portfolio line up at the Palais des Congres, while at night, the emblematic Cafe de la Poste transforms into a meeting point for those simply wanting to catch up.

Perpignan buzzes, debates ignite and the images stream. Ahead of Visa 2015, Blink’s Kyla Woods quizzed Leroy about the past, present and future of the festival.

Kyla Woods (KW): You were a journalist before you started Visa pour l’Image. Can you talk about how and why you started Visa pour l’Image?

JF Leroy (JFL): Yes, I started as a writer and then tried my hand at photojournalism, but I quickly realised that I was terrible, and that’s when I started something that was quite new at that time — Visa pour l’Image, a photojournalism festival that has become as much a part of me, as I am part of it.

“We are a photojournalism festival and we take pride in exhibiting images that have been taken honestly.”

The incredible thing is that photojournalists really witness the world. For the longest time, I wanted to be one of these people — though, I quickly realized that I was better at promoting the work of these individuals. So, my passion turned into the creation of a gathering point for industry representatives; where professional photographers, and photo editors could meet with emerging talent, discuss and support current photojournalism.

Photo: Nancy Borowick. The photographer’s parents shown here concurrently going through treatment for cancer. In 2013, Borowick’s mother fought breast cancer, while her father fought pancreatic cancer.

JFL: It always fascinates me as to how receptive the general public has been to the festival. People crave new information, things that haven’t been published or have had very little visibility. We live in a society that has accepted and relishes in the disposability of the news content. This festival overcomes that cycle as it becomes a stable platform for reliable and free information.

KW: Can you speak about this year’s festival?

JFL: We try to combine emerging talent with established photographers — this year, eight upcoming photographers will have their first exhibition at Visa pour l’Image, and they will be shown in conjunction with renowned photographers like Lynsey Addario and Bülent Kilic.

Photo: Lynsey Addario / Getty Images Reportage for The New York Times. Syrian refugees pass through a gate as they begin the registration process the morning after crossing into Jordan from Syria, at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees reception center in Zaatari Camp, in Jordan, September 16, 2013.

JFL: We have always exposed new talent to the world. For example, Visa was the first festival to give Stanley Greene and Laurent Van der Stockt an exhibition. This rich history of the festival proves that this festival still has relevance and will continue to do so. It is exclusive to the way it exposes and gives a voice to extraordinary talented individuals.

“We live in a society that has accepted and relishes in the disposability of the news content. This festival overcomes that cycle.”

KW: What are your thoughts on photojournalism today? What is the value of it?

JFL: I think you can gauge the value of photojournalism by how receptive it is to the world. For example, when I speak to students during the education week, I am in awe of their inquisition and eagerness. Photojournalism is expanding everyday with inundation of new online platforms and easy access to stories.

Photo: Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times / Getty Images Reportage. Health workers enter the high-risk zone as they make the morning rounds at the Bong County Ebola Treatment Unit in Sgt. Kollie Town near Gbarnga, Liberia, Oct. 6, 2014.

KW: Please tell us about the conference with Lars Boeing, the Director of the World Press Photo?

JFL: This year, we decided that Visa would not to exhibit World Press Photo. We are a photojournalism festival and we take pride in exhibiting images that have been taken honestly. This is not to say I don’t respect Lars or the World Press Photo. In fact, this is why I am having this talk with him, so that we can discuss the future of photojournalism and the honesty that these images should depict.

Photo: Alfonso Moral, from the series ‘Shadows of Tripoli’

KW: Can you speak about Visa’s Transmission?

JFL: Transmission pour l’image was created because of the need to transmit information, ideas and concepts from one generation of photojournalists to another. We have hosted it since 2010.

It lasts three days, and consists of two programs; one held in the morning and then another held in the evening. This year’s instructors include Christopher Morris (who will be running Transmission), Alice Gabriner, João Silva, Stephan Vanfleteren and Bülent Kiliç, all of whom are incredibly talented professionals.

However, it is not a portfolio review, or a “how to take photos” lecture. It really is aimed at delving into the deeper issues as these professionals talk about how to create an individual visual identity, the changing dynamics of the industry, how to deal with tough situations, ethics, etc. to over a dozen participants.

Photo: Edouard Elias / Getty Images Reportage. August 2014, Operation Sangaris, the French intervention in the Central African Republic, included Foreign Legion troops.

KW: What advice would you give to young photographers who visit Visa and are interested in pursuing a career in photojournalism?

JFL: You have to work hard to be a successful photojournalist. Read and immerse yourself in this world. If you are thinking of a subject, research it and make sure that you find a new angle.

For those of you are coming to Visa, and want to see picture editors, please try to schedule an appointment. At the same time, understand that these people are only human, and the professional week is busy and stressful. Don’t be alarmed if a scheduled appointment is cancelled. Re-schedule it with a polite and non-aggressive approach.

Photo: Sergey Ponomarev. Abu Hisham Abdel Karim and his family load their belongings into a taxi, Khalidiya district, Homs, Syria, June 15, 2014.

KW: What do you see as the future of Visa? How will this year’s festival be focusing on engaging new audiences?

JFL: One of the most important things for me is securing the future of Visa. I understand that the only way to do this is by bringing in young minds that know the industry, understand photojournalism and how it could progress. We are in an age of infinite possibility, and I am optimistic about those who I have chosen to help see Visa into the future. I am interested in passing the reigns onto someone else, and I have a few candidates that surpass the necessary criteria, but we are taking immediate steps to reach a new audience.

“One of the most important things for me is securing the future of Visa. I understand that the only way to do this is by bringing in young minds that know the industry, understand photojournalism and how it could progress.”

At the same time, we have hired a team of digital strategists to work on our social media presence across platforms.

We are also collaborating with interesting projects — ones that push the boundaries of photojournalism, as well as holding innovative conferences that will then be broadcasted for those who could not make it to the festival.

Photo: Stephanie Sinclair for National Geographic Magazine. The Kumari of Tokha, nine-year-old Dangol, became a living goddess as an infant. A kumari’s eyes are believed to draw the beholder into direct contact with the divine. For religious festivals her forehead is painted red, a sign of creative energy.

KW: Do you have any plans for the 30th year anniversary?

JFL: Hopefully, and I say hopefully because many things can change in three years, we will be introducing more interactive displays. We will also be hosting discussions with some of the first Visa-exhibited photojournalists to celebrate the rich history of the festival.

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Kyla Woods works as a freelance writer specializing in current affairs, photography, and design. Her work has appeared in Long Cours, Le Figaro, Le Point, This is the What, and Foam Magazine. She writes for Musée Magazine and Peril Magazine. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Kyla is based in New York.

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