The Best Documentary Photography Projects We Saw at Visa pour l’Image 2016
These were our favorite things in Perpignan, France
More than 3,000 photographers and representatives from 280 press agencies representing 50 countries descended onto the medieval town of Perpignan, France last week to meet, show work, look at exhibits, hustle, eat, drink (at the Café La Poste) and celebrate the importance and value of photojournalism at the 28th annual Visa pour l’Image. Visa (as it colloquially called), created and nurtured by Jean-Francois Leroy, a former journalist from Paris, is a festival, a conference, a celebration and a tribal gathering, a Burning Man of sorts for photojournalists.
Leroy, who runs Visa with a very small staff, personally reviews the more than 4500 proposals he receives, and trolls the Internet and Instagram daily to discover work he might want to exhibit, or screen at the nightly projections in the open air amphitheater setting of the Cloister of Campo Santo. He deliberately mixes shows from established and emerging photographers. “I am a diamond miner,” he says. “I go through piles of mud every day and then suddenly find that gem. I love that.” A few of the “gems” he’s discovered and exhibited first at Visa include Paolo Pellegrin, Stephanie Sinclair, Andrew Starr Reese, Robin Hammond, Andrew Quilty, Dominic Nahr, and the late Camille Lepage and Rémi Ochlik.
Visa is a celebration of the idea of the photograph as evidence and the photographer as witness. It is the bulwark against the mass of postmodern criticism that devalues traditional photojournalism. It honors stories and photographs that are thoroughly researched, honestly presented and important: gay rights in Uganda, ivory poaching that threatens the extinction of elephants in Africa, water rights in Israel and Palestine, child soldiers in Columbia, the housing crisis in Brazil, the last of the nomads in Iran, refugees escaping ISIS, the scourge of the drug Paco in Argentina and Zika, to name a few. It’s a current events lesson that we all need.
This year the refugee crisis and terrorism dominated the news, but the twenty exhibits at Visa were more nuanced. The exhibits were all strong, so choosing a few as my favorites is difficult, and picking a top one is almost impossible. In no particular order, what follows are my favorites, defined as exhibits that I returned to more than once.
Brent Stirton, Ivory Wars
Ivory Wars: How Poaching Funds Terrorism
Brent Stirton’s shocking images depict the ivory trade, increased this decade as armed rebel and other groups in Africa have turned to poaching as a new and lucrative revenue source to fund their various terrorist activities. Ninety percent of the illicit ivory becomes religious carvings in Chinese state run carving factories or sold in the Philippines and Mexico. With fewer than 400,000 elephants remaining and 30,000 killed each year, elephants are in the “sixth age of extinction,” notes Stirton, unless action is taken swiftly.
When asked about his images, he launches into a 30-minute detailed explanation of the sociological, cultural, economic and political underpinnings of the illicit ivory business. This is not surprising given that Stirton estimates he spends 90 percent of his time on research. “The ivory trade is a smokes and mirrors world,” says the South African born Stirton. “Everyone lies to you so you just have to talk to enough people until you find out what’s most true.”
Stirton’s interest in the intersection of conflict, the environment and animal preservation began in 2007 when he was in the Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo photographing the effort by park rangers to protect wildlife. While on patrol, the rangers found a group of mountain gorillas that had been senselessly slaughtered by poachers interested in protecting the illegal charcoal trade in this area. The group of images that Stirton made, particularly one of a dead gorilla being carried out on a handmade stretcher by a group of rangers, have become iconic. “Those photographs changed everything for me,” says Stirton. “These images got a much bigger response than anything I’d shot before.”
Since that time, Stirton, a Getty staff photographer, has focused on stories that focus attention on the possible extinction of animals in Africa. “Animals are sentient beings to me,” says Stirton, while acknowledging that the situation is complex. “The poachers are poor so to them it’s just survival.”
Ivory Wars: How Poaching Funds Terrorism
For this story, Stirton spent about 12 weeks, much of it on patrol with the rangers. It’s a boring experience, he notes, because he never knows when action will happen. “I go out on patrol with them for up to 21 days, carrying a 60-pound pack on my back, eating beans and rice and drinking water in the river, waiting for something to happen,” he says.
However long it takes, the resulting images are compelling as a narrative and as aesthetically interesting photographs of almost perfect composition and exposure achieved in part because in spite of the fact that he is shooting digitally, Stirton hand meters his photographs. “My contrast is happening in the moment,” says Stirton. “Harsh light is my favorite because it is the most sculptural. If you understand light, exposure and the capabilities of your sensor, Photoshop post production is not necessary.”
Stirton’s images are a range of very specific news type images—a four-ton shipment of ivory captured by authorities in Lomé, Tongo, with a group of soldiers standing in formation next to the seized ivory, to very nuanced and emotional images of dead elephants or of the low paid rangers who try to stop the poaching. “One of my favorite images is a ranger coming out of an ambush, slightly bloody with resignation etched into his face. He’s thinking ‘Just another day in hell’,” he says.
Andrew Quilty, Afghanistan: After Enduring Freedom
Walking into this exhibit which documents the aftermath of the ironically titled Operation Enduring Freedom launched in Afghanistan in the days following 9/11, I was surprised and delighted to see that the first four photographs had a blueish cast reflecting the actual quality of the light. It was refreshing to see that Quilty’s images celebrate light and color and that he allows harsh light to remain harsh and create black shadows. The photographs have a visual authenticity lacking in so many of the overly saturated, color corrected and sharpened photographs that dominate photojournalism.
“My rule of thumb is to maintain a natural look,” says Quilty. “I don’t understand why photographers want to auto white balance everything. Overly post produced work negates the elements of light and color that constitute a beautiful and elegant photograph. I guess I use my digital camera as if it is a film camera.”
The Australian born Quilty had been living in New York shooting for major news outlets, including the New York Times. He first traveled to Afghanistan in 2013 to work with a reporter producing a story on the aftermath of the American withdrawal. He only intended to stay for three months but three years later still lives in Kabul. “I stayed because I found new meaning in my work,” says Quilty. “Everything here is infused with the struggle between life and death and that is compelling material for a photographer.”
While Quilty photographs a lot of life and death matters—including the aftermath of the bombed Médecins Sans Frontières hospital—what distinguishes his work are the small moments, seen by someone who has spent a lot of time observing the culture. He builds a nuanced narrative from this place, mostly forgotten by media in the aftermath of the US withdrawal in 2014. His images, although strong, are sensitive: A child playing with a kite late in the afternoon on a hill overlooking Kabul; Afghan police at an outpost a few meters from a Taliban controlled area, sitting, just looking so palpably and weary of the Sisyphean nature of their situation; soldiers resting on a blanket in the mid-day heat of the desert, shielded by a bright red umbrella, the only real color in the photograph; or the other worldly look of a small child lying alone in a hospital room, swathed in a gold colored space blanket, tethered to a lifesaving IV drip after suffering serious burns from an oil heater at home.
Dominic Nahr, Fractured State (For Médecins Sans Frontières)
In a similar vein to Quilty’s work, Dominic Nahr’s project photographing the civilian victims of South Sudan’s civil war, also highlights a place ignored by mainstream media. Heralded as a victory when it became the youngest new country on July 9, 2011, South Sudan has been embroiled in a civil war since 2013, displacing more than 2.5 million people. It now faces a humanitarian disaster from three years of violence, famine and disease. Nahr, an award winning photographer who has been covering stories across the African continent since 2008, worked with Médecins Sans Frontières, often the only NGO providing food and medical aid for the displaced and malnourished across Unity State (one of the 10 states in South Sudan). Working with an NGO is essential in South Sudan to have access to transportation and move around more freely, notes Nahr. “The United Nations wants to limit foreigners to no more than two days in Protection of Civilian (POC) camps,” he says. “They don’t want us showing how horrible this situation is.”
Nahr avoids photographic clichés. We don’t see children with visible ribs, close ups of flies on children’s dirty faces or hordes of people clamoring for food. We do see a close up of a gloved hand writing “Died” and the date on a body bag. His images probe beneath the façade of the political conflict and focus on the people struggling to survive: mothers and children fleeing into swamps and savannahs or moving from island to island while trying to hide from the militias that torched their villages.
Nahr’s work has an original aesthetic. He uses color and light to create emotional nuance. His images are not overly post produced and retain a theatrical quality because of how he frames an image. The people appear as characters on a stage: a weary mother, her hand to her face, sits next to her malnourished child, surrounded by relatives peering through the white gauze of a mosquito netting. This photograph, dense with meaning, does not need a caption.
“When I first started shooting, I knew I needed a style,’ says Nahr, who earned a BFA in Photography from Ryerson University in Toronto. “I studied theatre so I rather think of a photograph as a theatrical set. You have a stage, lighting and characters. I try to find the right backdrop and lighting and then I wait for the characters to assemble themselves.”
Nahr, who carries both Swiss and Canadian passports, currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He, like so many others here, had his first show at Visa in 2009 on work he produced in the Congo. “It was a big break and propelled me into the industry,” he says.
Laurence Geai, Troubled Waters
La guerre de l’eau
Laurence Geai’s Troubled Waters tackles an issue that doesn’t easily lend itself to visuals: the water war between Israel and Palestine. According to the World Bank, on average, an Israeli citizen has access to four times more water than a Palestinian. In the West Bank some Bedouin communities only have five gallons of water per person per day. In the Gaza Strip, the situation is dire: 96 percent of the water is not fit for human consumption, either because it is polluted or has a high salt content because too much water is extracted upstream. Water costs up to six times more here than in Israel, particularly for desalinated water, which the Palestinians must buy from private dealers.
La guerre de l’eau
Geai who usually covers conflicts in places such as Aleppo, the Central African Republic and Syria, needed a break from conflict photography and wanted to tell a “peace” story. The challenge for Geai, a French photojournalist who has only been working professionally for about three years after studying business and working in the fashion industry, was how to visually represent the statistics. She knew it would be a complicated story to tell and took four trips between 2015 and 2016, spending one month at a time.
La guerre de l’eau
“I use photography to satisfy my curiosity, “says Geai. “I wanted to see how people used water in daily life in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, so I spoke to people about water and asked them to show me what it meant to them.” The photographs range from the factual to the daily moments of difficulty that suggest the preciousness of water: a woman washing dishes in a small bin with a trickle of water from a sponge; a child cooling off in a sink; children pushing water jugs in a small wheel barrow, jugs that need to be filled every day; a woman using bath water to flush a toilet; a man standing amid the rubble that used to be his house, drinking from a hose that he hooked up to a well even though the water is not potable. Geai contrasts these images with photographs of swimming pools at tourist hotels in Israel, or lush vegetation on Israeli farms.
The images are personal and intimate, Geai’s style. “I love the link a camera can create between two people,” she says.
Catalina Martin-Chico, The Last and the Lost: The Brave Nomads of Iran
Catalina Martin-Chico’s story on the last nomads in Iran from the Bakhtiari and Qashqai tribes is not a major story, but it is a metaphor for the cultural transitions that so many people face today. The nomads, now numbering only 1.5 million of the 78 million people living in Iran, struggle to maintain their traditional lifestyle under pressure from Iranian government policies aimed at forcing these nomads to settle in urban environments. The push to settle is education; nomadic children can only attend through primary school. Higher education requires a move to the city.
Martin-Chico, who has dual masters’ degrees in the History of Latin America and Communication, discovered her passion for photography at ICP in New York in 2003. “I just fell into the pot,” she says, using a bit of French colloquialism. A member of the Cosmos agency, Martin-Chico says she has more curiosity for under covered stories: a woman’s shelter in Yemen, female Imams in China or potato farming in Peru.
This story, funded by a private anonymous donor, required months of dogged research to find contacts to the nomads. She followed them on their pilgrimage and photographed the joy and the struggle of both those who stay and those who settle. “Modernity isn’t always better,” she says, but noting that the pressure to settle becomes hard to resist. “I am telling the story of the last nomads of Iran. Marking history is my duty as a photographer.”
Martin-Chico’s approach is to get close and find the humanity in a story such as one image of a group of young men, huddled around a cell phone, lit only by the light of the screen. Although she thinks about the arc of a narrative, “I let myself be surprised by what I find because it is important to tell how the story is, not what you thought it would be.”
David Guttenfelder, Coming Home
Guttenfelder, an award winning photographer, worked for twenty years in Asia and Africa as a roving photographer for the Associated Press (AP). He first used his mobile phone as a camera in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012 because he saw that the Marines he was photographing were using their phones to photograph each other. He decided he wanted to make photographs that had the look or mood of the keepsakes the Marines were producing for themselves so he shot with his iPhone and a Polaroid film filter app. That project, Through the Eyes of Marines was published in Time Magazine to much criticism from major photo trade magazines because of his choice to use an iPhone with a filter app.
“That seems like such a silly argument now,” says Guttenfelder.
He helped the AP open the first news bureau in North Korea in 2011, making more than 40 trips to photograph there. “I felt a very heavy responsibility because I was interpreting North Korean reality for everyone,” he says. Although his work was not censored, he was always accompanied by his handlers. He noticed they were far less suspicious of what he was photographing when he was using his phone, so he opened an Instagram account.
“Instagram had become a platform for photographs of personal life or experience,” he says. “I started thinking like that and it changed the way I photographed overall. There is much less distinction now between how I shoot on the margins and what I shoot as a professional.”
He photographed small pieces of culture: toothpicks made from antler bones or a soldier lacing up his ice skates at an indoor ice skating rink, still dressed in his uniform. He wanted to photograph what was unique to North Korea and things we wouldn’t imagine. The work from North Korea garnered a growing audience. Followers would comment and Guttenfelder, ever the journalist, realized he could communicate directly with his audience from his hotel at night. “There wasn’t much else to do.”
The images are simultaneously empathetic, quirky, funny, sardonic and at times maybe even judgmental. Guttenfelder is circumspect about his intentions. “Photographs register on several layers of meaning,” he says. “I try very hard to leave it up the viewer as how to interpret my photographs.”
Today he is a National Geographic Explorer doing in the U.S. what he did in North Korea. Instagram, he says, is the world’s largest newspaper. The National Geographic account has 60 million followers and Guttenfelder’s personal account has one million. He still uses it to create dialogue. For example, on an assignment in Florida to follow Donald Trump, he decided to select some of Trump’s list of voter issues, find a representative photograph, post it on Instagram and pose a question to create a dialogue, just as he did in North Korea.
“Every photographer should have an Instagram account,” says Guttenfelder. “It is so important to our business.”
Yannis Behrakis, Paths of Hope and Despair
This exhibit reflects the reality of the refugee situation over twenty years, putting the current crisis in perspective. “The refugee crisis today may not be the worst, but it is the most photographed,” says Yannis Behrakis, an award winning Greek photojournalist for Reuters who has photographed refugees from Bosnia, Somalia, Albania, Iraq, Croatia, Libya, Chechnya, Kosovo and Syria.
He has been a witness to the inevitability of refugees as an aftermath to war, simply a human condition in his opinion. “War is human nature,” he says, and with war, refugees follow, with so many remaining permanently displaced. In spite of this inevitability, which many would find depressing over such a long period, Behrakis remains optimistic because although he has seen the worst, he has also seen the best. “I cry and I have nightmares, but I always see hope, such as my image of a Syrian refugee kissing his daughter as he walks through a rainstorm towards Greece’s border with Macedonia. Men like him are superheroes.”
Behrakis’s photographs, while not ignoring the helplessness and misery, do focus on those very human and very hopeful moments such as a close up of a man, carrying his two children in his arms as he tries to make it from a boat to land. The man’s intense focus on keeping his baby’s head above water says it all. Behrakis chooses moments of strong emotion or a connection of humanity rather than clichés of crushed and despairing refugees. Even at the ubiquitous and oft shot crowded boat landing at Lesbos in Turkey, Behrakis captures a moment of relief and freedom as a refugee leaps midair from the boat to shore. “You know who a man is in difficult situations,” he says. “We know who our friends are or who has humanity. I see humanity in all of the ordinary people—farmers, shepherds or fisherman in Greece—who have reached out to help these refugees.”
Juan Arredondo, Born into Conflict: Child Soldiers in Colombia
Juan Arredondo shows us that the problem of child soldiers isn’t confined to Africa with his project on the children in Columbia who have fought with the guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia – People’s Army (FARC). Arredondo moved to Columbia, the place of his birth, to tell the stories he thought were not getting media attention. He photographed demobilized child soldiers, 25 to 50 percent of whom are women, recruited as early as nine years old. Although they receive the same training as the men in weapons, intelligence gathering and military operations strategy, they are also victims of sexual abuse by the commanders.
“Columbia has the second largest number of displaced persons due to the drug wars, but the media does not focus on Columbia,” he says. He chose to shoot this story in black and white because “the kids blended in so well in color that they disappeared in the image.”
His photographs are surprisingly intimate given the circumstance. “My approach is to get to know the subject well before I photograph because once I get to know them I will be able to get more intimate photographs,” says Arredondo, who apprenticed with noted photojournalists Lori Grinker and Eugene Richards. When working in these complicated situations it is always best to be “straight and honest and not promise what you can’t deliver,” he says. “My role as a photographer is to give people a voice.”
Peter Bauza, Copacabana Plaza, Brazil
Peter Bauza spent almost a year at the Copacabana Plaza, an abandoned and dilapidated unfinished condominium originally built to house middle class Brazilians, but which is now home to 300 families who squat here in extreme poverty without the basics such as water, sanitation and electricity because they have nowhere else to live. The environment is always damp, with stagnant water and human waste causing serious health problems. The residents share one working shower.
Bauza, originally from Germany, but now living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, lived on site two or three days a week to get to know the people he wanted to photograph. “I did sleep in a tent,” says Bauza, “because it was just so filthy and the rats were really big.”
The time commitment paid off because Bauza gained unfettered access to the daily lives. Shot in color with a Leica M, these images are soft and muted, almost metaphorically dark, which suits the feeling of the story. “By the end of the project, I was welcome everywhere and could move freely throughout the complex,” he says. The resulting images are remarkably intimate and sympathetic, yet not romanticized. The people in his photographs are people, not statistics or clichés: we see a boy coming home from school carrying his kite, or a woman who has set up a beauty parlor in her house; or a couple making love. But we also see filth, poverty, death and drugs. It is clear that just as Bauza respected his subjects and understands the challenges of poverty, they trusted him to be their voice. The only promise he made to them was to try to have the work shown as much as possible. “I don’t really have a political agenda,” he says. “I just want to defend their rights to have dignity and a decent place to live.”