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Inspiration from Focus Awards Lifetime Achievement Award winner Eliane Laffont

Eliane and JP Laffont and JF Leroy

Jean-Pierre Laffont, Eliane Laffont, and Jean-François Leroy on their way to the Focus Awards.

The Griffin Museum’s 2009 Focus Awards ceremony was held last week, recognizing “people who are not photographers, but who have been instrumental in increasing awareness of the photographic arts among the general public.”  A well-deserved Lifetime Achievement award was given to Eliane Laffont, who has been a driving force in the industry for over 40 years.

Those fortunate enough to be at the ceremony heard Eliane’s speech, but for the rest of us, she has graciously allowed us to reprint it.  It’s definitely worth a read:


“Photojournalism” is a word that evokes heroic stories and the call of adventure. It is a mirror of the world and a witness to its time. When Jean Pierre, and I — along with our French partners — created the photo agencies Gamma in 1968 and Sygma in 1973, we wanted to redefine the nature of photojournalism, reveal and explain the world’s great events and consciously built a new platform. And it was not by chance that these two photo agencies grew so quickly. We were successful because we invented a new way of reporting the news and a new way of working with photographers that, despite many challenges, is still alive today.

At Gamma and Sygma, we did not see the photo as mere illustration for a text. Photos stories were developed. Photographers emerged from their anonymity, and for the first time, their names were credited beside their photographs.  Photojournalists were recognized as creators. Furthermore, they were no longer employees of newspapers or magazines, they became co-producers of their images. Photographers and their agencies shared cost and revenue. With the closing of Look and Life Magazines, the agencies photographers, not the Magazines staffers supplied the International News and most of the printed media global needs. Paris and New York became the world capitals of photojournalism, the hubs that sent great images to editing rooms around the world.

During this time, I had the privilege of working with some of the greatest photojournalists in history.  I want to mention a few, because their stories and mine are intertwine.

First, I want to mention the late Eddie Adams who photographed the Vietnam war and years later spent months documenting a story that was even more important to him: the heart-breaking images of Vietnam’s boat people directly changed America’s immigration policy toward a people that we would have otherwise abandoned. When President Jimmy Carter gave visas to hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people, it was largely because of Eddie Adam’s photos.

I also had the honor of working with Douglas Kirkland, who gained unprecedented access to the world of directors, actors, actresses on and off the sets.

With Lauren Greenfield, who documents the contemporary landscape of American girls, sometimes in disturbing details.

With Gianni Giansanti, the unofficial photographer, who, for three decades captured Pope Jean Paul II private moment with artistry.

With JP Laffont, foreign correspondent whose photos of “child labor” around the world helped reinforce the UN laws on children at work.

With Allen Tannenbaum who, like Woody Allen, reminds us that there is always something exciting going on in NY City. Allen also gave us, just a couple of days before John Lennon death, one of the last photo session of John with his wife Yoko Ono.

With Helmut Newton, who revolutionized fashion photography and invited us into his strange dreams and fantasies.

Over the years, I am very proud to have worked with the greatest photographers, Paul Fusco, John Bryson, Steve Schapiro, David Hume-Kennerly, Pete Turner, the Turnley brothers, Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, Dominique Issermann, Diego Goldberg, Alain Dejean, and Alain Nogues and many more…

And in some ways, working with these photographers was the best part of my work, but I equally loved to cover the world’s most important news events.

Our book about the first Gulf War, “In the Eye of Desert Storm” published by Abrams, received the Leica Medal of Excellence for outstanding achievement in the category of Photographic Book in 1992 and the 24 photographers that covered that war, working outside the official chanel, were celebrated in magazines throughout the world.

Within five years we received four Pulitzer Prizes:
1991: Greg Marinovich (Spot News) Burning man in Soweto, South Africa
1994: Paul Watson (Spot News) Dead US soldier dragged in the street of Mogadishu, Somalia
1994: Kevin Carter (Feature) The unforgettable photograph taken in Sudan during the famine, it shows a small girl crouched in the bush and behind her a vulture waiting.
1996: Charles Porter (Spot News) A fire man holding an infant during the Oklahoma city bombing.

Ironically, while the 1990s and early 2000s were a period of great creativity and accomplishment, the ground was shifting beneath our feet. With great rapidity, the photojournalism business became less about photojournalism and much more about business.

Everything was turned upside down as the world’s news outlets de-emphasized international reportage in favor of fame and gossip. Following Princess Diana for a few hours brought in more money than six months in Africa covering the AIDS story. As most of the press was conglomerated into giant media corporations responsible to shareholders, budgets were cut, the price of the images collapsed, in-depth reportage was replaced by small interchangeable  photos and pictures of famous people were all that mattered.

The increasing value of celebrity photos had disastrous consequences:  increasingly aggressive paparazzi, then tougher laws regarding “respect for privacy” and finally what the French call “le droit a l’image” or a celebrity’s exclusive rights to own and control their own images. Today – especially in Europe – “le droit a l’image” has become a legal reality with enormous repercussions that hinder the freedom of the press.

Another more profound change took place:  Starting in the late 1990s new technologies – digital cameras, cheap storage and the internet – radically redefined the profession and led to important changes in the way photojournalism is produced, distributed and consumed. The digitization of photojournalism also opened the door to massive industry-wide consolidation.

The conversion to the digital image, the conversion of millions of pictures from film to digital and the transmission and sale of photos over the Internet was essential if we wanted to survive. Unfortunately, this conversion required what was for us a huge amount of money that we didn’t have. When we looked for outside capital, the banks balked. So, like many independent photo-agencies, selling out became our only option.

We probably should not have been completely surprised to discover that, in this new corporate Online mega companies, primary concern was not necessarily the art of photojournalism. Photographs were called “content,” and photographers: “content-providers”. A victory for marketing, finance and technology, but the world of photojournalism had shrunk into something less heroic.

Given this rather depressing state of affairs, is photojournalism dead? I would say: certainly not.

But in this brave new world, photojournalists need to reinvent themselves, need to understand how the public consumes images and identify new revenue streams that will allow them to produce the important stories that have become increasingly scarce in the mainstream media. There is a new generation of entrepreneurs and photojournalist who care deeply about the art of photojournalism. And make no mistake about it, great photojournalism is still happening every day. You just have to go to “Visa pour l’Image” in Perpignan to see photo stories of incredible quality from courageous photographers who are still managing to travel the world and inform us with their vision, less documentary more impressionistic.

We need to open new doors, the press alone cannot support such a heavy burden, there are new areas to explore: books, specialized reviews, galleries, festivals, auctions, prizes, the support of foundations, multimedia events and certainly museums.

These are difficult times. But no, photojournalism has not spoken its last words yet. The bottom line is this: As long as photojournalists believe in photojournalism, there is hope.

Vive le photojournalisme!

Eliane Laffont
May 7, 2009, Winchester

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