Once a year in Perpignan, an otherwise tranquil city in the south of France, the quiet September air erupts with the sound of thousands of footsteps, rolling suitcases, and blinking camera shutters. This is the world’s largest photojournalism festival: VISA pour l’Image 2009. Thousands of photographers, journalists, press representatives, agencies, freelance reporters, eager amateurs, and sponsors participate in this event every year. Working as an intern for Agence VU’, a renown French photo agency, I discovered the realities of commitment, photojournalism, and the great risk these people take for the sake of their work.
I took the five hour trip on the TGV bullet train from Paris to Perpignan with my boss, which allowed me to learn about the importance of this event. However, only when I arrived did I fully understand its scope. We made our way to the New Hotel Christina on the Cours Lassus, a mere hundred meters from the Palais des CongrÃ¨s on Cours Palmarole, the convention center where booths of many agencies such as Getty Images, Corbis, the Associated Press, and Agence VU’ were located. Our booth was more modest than those of our neighbors, but our reputation was enough to bring us dozens of motivated freelance photojournalists, eager to have their work distributed or represented under the turquoise VU’ banner. Although a humble intern, I am bilingual, so my job was to determine in which order these English-speaking photographers would have their brief interviews with VU’s iconographer.
Although it seems mundane, it was through this repetitive task that I was able to appreciate the differences between photographers . I made good friends with Harikishner from India, who photographs the slums of the New Dehli and depicted the every day life of its children and Naoki, an Italian-Japanese photographer, who traveled to Afghanistan to report on its growing heroin problem, and the ineffectiveness of its rehabilitation centers, and to Gaza to report on the aftermath of its recent conflict. American photographer, Stanley Green, an icon among photojournalists, published a book called Open Wound about the conflict in Chechnya. He attended his own exhibition wearing a giant Chechnyan flag over his shoulders, a political statement as powerful as his book.
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This saying grew more meaningful as I felt the emotion of each artful photograph I saw. They conveyed happiness, hope, loss, sadness, physical effort, and more. Green’s book, Open Wound, for example, features silhouettes in the snow where bodies once lay, scurrying civilians evading dropping mortars, and hopeful gazes through window panes coated in condensation. Additionally, we were reminded that photojournalists risk their lives when they report in conflict areas, be they political or social. The news that Christian Poveda, a well-known photographer who was reporting on San Salvador’s Mara gangs was found assassinated in the front seat of his car late at night in San Salvador’s most troubled neighborhood, sent a ripple through the entire community. I did not know this man, but I could feel the change in atmosphere, the dilating pupils and slowed breaths among his colleagues.
Though grave this trip may seem through my discovery of multiple realities, the overlying emotion is one of happiness and respect. Through one trip, I was able to travel to many more places than simply the South of France. This simple excursion taught me much, as is possible with any trip I believe, so long as one takes the pain and effort to throw one’s self into an undiscovered world.
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