For nearly 50 years, the city of Arles has played host to an annual gathering of the world’s photography-lovers for a summertime celebration of photographic inspiration and community. Since 1996, an essential component of the festivities has been Voies Off, a beloved counterpart to the established programming of the Rencontres d’Arles.

At its helm since the festival’s founding, Voies Off’s director Christophe Laloi is a rare soul who has pursued his dreams and his passions with an uncompromising vision for over two decades. Beginning as a student at the nearby photography school, Laloi has since established Voies Off as a fixture in the Arles community and an essential gathering point for photographers and the wider public from around the world. LensCulture is immensely proud to be partnering with the festival this year to help organize their Prix Voies Off 2018—the top winner receives a 5,000€ grant and 60 photographers are chosen for a highly prestigious evening projection in the heart of the festival.

In the interview below, Laloi traces the history of Voies Off while offering invaluable advice about how to balance passion with professionalism in pursuing and sustaining a career in the arts—

Prix Voies Off 2010: Michel Le Belhomme, France. Awarded for the series “La bête aveugle” © Michel Le Belhomme

LC: Can you describe the origins of Voies Off? What were the festival’s founding motivations? And what had been absent from the landscape of the existing festivals that pushed you to create your own event?

CL: It was my last year as a student at the Arles School of Photography—my last semester, even—and I was supposed to be preparing my graduation project. Meanwhile, there had been a long-running tradition of an Off Festival in Arles, alongside the already-famous Rencontres d’Arles. The Off program was beloved and an important part of the community. But it ran out of steam while I was studying and ceased operations. In its absence, it was sorely missed: suddenly, the community was lacking an event that addressed not only the specialists and the professionals, but the wider public.

“…try to recognize those moments in life when you must force your luck.”

At that time, as a student, I was passionate about photography and completely immersed in it: looking at photographs, making photographs, listening to photographers, taking workshops, discussing it all the time. One summer during my studies, I had the opportunity to work with the company that produced the evening projections for the Visa pour l’image festival in Perpignan. As an assistant producer, I saw the operations of the festival from the inside. The experience really made an impact on me: putting together a fun but also charged event that gathered people together to view photography—I found it extraordinary.

After all, even in very successful exhibitions, there is very little community between the viewers. Each person stands, alone, in front of an image. The same is true with a book: one reader, alone, in front of its pages. But if cinema is truly the 7th art, that is for two reasons: because it recounts stories and because it touches people in large groups.

Prix Voies Off 2007: Mohamed Bourouissa, France. Awarded for the series “Périphériques” © Mohamed Bourouissa

Having had all these experiences, it was during my final semester that our professor said, “I don’t understand: there’s an enormous gap here. You live in a city where there is no Off Festival to the world’s greatest photography event. You are passionate about photography and yet you do nothing. You’re letting life pass you by!”

That night, I went home to my girlfriend. Though I had my diploma to finish, I told her, “I am going to relaunch the Off Festival here in Arles.” She asked me if I had gone mad. But this is how it goes. Good fortune and circumstance play a part—but most importantly, try to recognize those moments in life when you must force your luck.

When you asked what was missing from the landscape of festivals, I immediately thought of the photographic community and what was missing from their experience at events. I have always thought of our festival as a venue for the people. Specifically, I wanted Voies Off to be a place for the work of students and emerging photographers on the one side, and the general public on the other. Photography has its stars, but it is the many, many people who are using it every day who help it evolve and change. Photography is a democratic medium and it should speak to the wider public—not only to the big shots and industry insiders.

Prix Voies Off 2016: Daesung Lee, South Korea. Awarded for the series “Futuristic Archaeology” © Daesung Lee

LC: When you launched Voies Off, social media was nothing more than a distant idea. Even the internet was not well established. How has photography changed its course over the past 20 years, and how has Voies Off evolved to keep pace?

CL: Since the beginning, my aim for Voies Off has been to find amazing work from very far away. In the early years, we used to send 7,000-8,000 postcards around the world to announce our call for entries—we truly wanted to find great photographers from all corners of the globe. In response, we would receive over 200 kg of photography. Notice I use the weight: we would often need a whole room to spread out the mass of material we received.

Since then, everything has changed. The craft has changed, the media has changed, and the very practice of photography has changed most of all. From my point of view, the principal driver of this evolution has been the internet and the networks that have been created as a result.

“Today, a photographer is either international, or they do not exist.”

These days, the changes are happening so fast that experienced photographers are running after the young ones to understand what is happening. The old guard, who have so much know-how, can be held back by their assumptions. Meanwhile, ideas travel like wildfire via these interpersonal networks. Thanks to these new means of communication, people have bypassed the experts—we no longer depend on them to dispense their knowledge to us (for better and worse).

Further, today’s modes of exchange blur the line between broadcasters and receptors. The two have become one and the same—we can all broadcast, and we can all consume. Think of YouTubers. The most popular YouTubers are the ones that are simple and low-tech. The ones who address their viewers directly and humanly are the most beloved.

Prix Voies Off 2013: Boris Eldagsen, Germany. Awarded for the series “Poems” © Boris Eldagsen

The dropping of barriers is one reason why photography has become so international. Everyone has a Facebook page, an Instagram account, a YouTube channel, and an email address. And out of this come organizations like LensCulture or Voies Off—we are both looking to pass across borders and languages to find the most talented visual communicators. Today, I believe that a photographer is either international, or they do not exist.

LC: Where do you think formal education fits into this landscape? Do you think school is necessary for photographers?

CL: For me, the final goal is expression, not expertise. That means it’s not necessary to go to school. But still, many great artists (from the entire history of art) have had some kind of education. You don’t want to be a parrot of your teachers and the past, but you also need a strong foundation from which to build something new.

Education can take many forms outside of formal schooling. LensCulture, for example, is closely tied to this idea of education. Through LensCulture, there is both discovery of other people’s work and professional feedback given through the site.

This is another aspect that is special about photography: making a photograph is easy; all I have to do is press a button. With a phone, I can make endless images. But without education, I can make and look at photos for hours without understanding what these images are saying and what they mean. Ultimately, photographers must be responsible for their creation—and that’s impossible if they don’t have an understanding of what they are doing.

Prix Voies Off 2017: Arko Datto, India. Awarded for the series “Will my mannequin be home when I return” © Arko Datto

LC: Besides photography school, you were never formally trained to direct a festival. And yet, Voies Off has been around for two decades. To what do you attribute its longevity?

CL: I’m not sure it’s a quality or a fault—it’s called obstinacy. For over two decades, the festival has taken an enormous place in my life, and in the lives of those around me, in order to survive. My personal definition of success is longevity. Each year, the photographers’ work comes in and the public comes to see it. And after 20 years, we can say, without pretension, that we have made many people happy.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

But obtaining success, however you define it, is not easy. In my case, from the very beginning, I always strove to consider myself a professional. This was important. I had to learn every aspect of running an international festival: management, finances, technical aspects—I even learned to speak English—all in order to be a proper professional. This lesson applies to anyone pursuing a creative career: in order to be successful, one must have a bit of talent and then work very, very hard.

I have many friends who have established careers in photography: they open their email at 7 in the morning and stop working at 11 at night. Those who are represented by galleries, are published in the magazines, present their projects at big festivals—they all work incredibly hard. That’s the life you must be prepared to face. As Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

When you begin as a photographer, you might be content to only make pictures for yourself. But if you want your work to be recognized, if you want to be paid for it, if you want to make it circulate around the world, you will have to spend a lot of your time on things besides photography. Ultimately, the amount of time making pictures is maybe 20%. The rest is communications, meetings, applying for grants, marketing. The same ratio is true for our festival. At first, we spent 80% of our time talking about photography. Now we can spend only 20% of our time discussing photography because there is so much more to manage.

Any professional who does not want to manage all the aspects of their career will never succeed. Even if you run the most humble business, if you don’t have the motivation to do your own finances on a Sunday, you’re in trouble. Hard work will determine whether you fail or succeed.

LC: What are some specific successes you can point to since Voies Off’s founding? For example, some photographers whose careers you helped launch or advance?

CL: One of our proudest moments came at the start: we were among the very early supporters of the work of Antoine D’Agata, as he was given our inaugural Prix Voies Off. As part of the prize, we showed one of his projects as an evening projection. Even then, we all knew that he was going to be something special. At the time, though, he was doubting whether he would even continue working as a photographer. He had lost his confidence; he felt directionless and that his work was mediocre. So I am proud that we were able to give him emotional and creative support at such a critical juncture, playing our part in helping him become the artist he would one day be.

Prix Voies Off 1996: Antoine D’Agata, France. Awarded for the series “De mala noche” © Antoine D’Agata / Magnum Photos

Besides stars like D’Agata, we have presented the work of many artists who have gone on to make important contributions to photography. I know that their experience with Voies Off was a helpful step. A few recent examples who come to mind: Boris Eldagsen (Germany), Michel Le Belhomme (France), Henk Wildschut (Netherlands), Daesung Lee (South Korea), Charles Freger (France), and many more.

There are some artists that we have followed from the very beginning; others are not chosen initially but return later with stronger work. We believe in promoting artists’ evolutions and development over time, both financially and with our creative support.

LC: You mentioned the key role that Voies Off has played in supporting artists (both financially and creatively)—but what about you, how have you maintained your own passion and the founding spirit of the festival?

CL: I am not sure I have! I have tried my best, but I recognize that we are under constant and varied pressures. Yet if I felt I had nothing left to defend, I would leave. So some essential flame has been kept alive.

The basis of everything continues to be our original passion: we would not be around today if not for our enduring love of photography. Also essential: we have never compromised on our vision or quality.

But one other important thing I have learned: if you treat your passion only as a profession, it will be hard to keep going for 20 years. Yet you also need to maintain high professional standards to survive. This is a constant balance: being professional but also staying in touch with your dreams. I always try to remember my perspective from when I was young; I try to keep my thirst.

I often think back to the first time I saw the work of Francis Bacon: you truly learn something about life by seeing his work. This is what I’m looking for: art that can help us live, that can help us understand the world. That can put words, or feeling, on the previously unknown.

This search is what has kept me running after artists, musicians, and photographers after all these years.

—Christophe Laloi, interviewed by Alexander Strecker

Laloi is on the jury for the Prix Voies Off 2018, which are now open for entries! Submit your work now to have it seen by a distinguished jury panel and for a chance at a 5000€ grant and to have your work projected in the heart of the festival during its opening week!