Jean-François Leroy by Patrick Chauvel
Jean-François Leroy © Yan Morvan
“I wanted to be a doctor.”
Jean-François pauses, a twinkle in his eye.
“I remember, I was 11 years old. It was December 3, 1967, the South African doctor, Christiaan Barnard, had just performed the first successful heart transplant on a 55-year old man, Louis Washkansky. It was incredible. The operation lasted more than nine hours with a team of thirty people. Washkansky only lived another 18 days, but it was the start of something. Thousands of people were going to benefit from this stepping stone.”
Jean-François lights a cigarette, looking dreamily at this hands.
“They called him ‘The Man with Golden Hands.’ He was a legend. He brought people back to life! His third operation was a real success. The patient lived another 24 years.”
He says, exhaling smoke:
“Men never die!”
He stops and watches a girl pass by.
“Yes, men never die... That’s how they translated the name of one of his books. Did you know the heart they put in Louis Washkansky belonged to a young woman? Maybe that’s why he only lived for 18 days... Barnard was married three times. Nice guy, but talk about heart problems.”
He lets out a big laugh, the creases in his face light up. He tastes a glass of red wine like a connoisseur.
“I even studied medicine. Six months at St. Pères, on Rue Descartes in Paris. That really was my dream. But then life came along...”
His father died, then his mother, his sister, his father-in-law.
Alone at 26, the dreamer turned toward other things. The press gave him an outlet, a way to talk without talking about himself. He’s secretive, tormented and curious.
He went to work at La Vie, Sipa, Photo Reporter, freelanced for La Libération, and got turned away from journalism school. A nomad, Jean-François continued his search: fame, friendship, a cause? He’s a young man, after all.
His old friend, François Calamu, who did become a doctor, thinks back on their childhood:
“We’ve known each other since we were 10 years old and in school. We were at Les Bons Pères de St. Jean de Passy. That didn’t stop us from hiding out on the Rue Berton and smoking the ivy hanging off the walls near the Maison de Balzac.”
Unsurprisingly, Jean-François specialized in literature.
“He was the only boy in a family with three girls and it wasn’t easy. After his mother died, he took care of the little one. He was attentive, always there, but he was bored and wanted to do something.”
He thought about becoming a magician. He won magic prizes and hypnotized people in front of audiences of three hundred.
“He was a seducer. He was both worldly and rebellious, like when he was called up for military service and went on a hunger strike as a conscientious objector. They let him out three months later. Jean-François is tough, but he’s sensitive, too, and he’s an exceptionally loyal and generous friend. We still see each other. He didn’t become a doctor, but he found another cause to defend.”
In 1986, Jean-François had a scoop with the personal photos taken by President François Mitterrand of his dog. He was working for Photo Magazine.
That’s where he met someone who would change his destiny: Roger Theron.
They got along immediately. Roger believed in Jean-Francois. He liked the young photo lover who seduced girls with his long silhouette, with his very presence. It was the heyday of photojournalism.
Generous as always, Jean-François wanted to share his passion, and started looking for a way to share it with the whole world. He wanted to meet photographers who travel to the other end of the world, and wanted them to meet each other.
And whatever Jean-François wants, Jean-François gets.
He’s a magician, remember?
He made a proposition to the city of Perpignan, where Roger Thérond used to work.
“If we start a photo festival, we could prolong the summer season.”
And the magic worked—the answer was yes!
The young editor-in-chief of Photo Magazine founds Visa pour l’Image. He was 32 years old. His name is Jean-François Leroy.
It was his greatest trick yet. Year after year, he has fascinated visitors, professionals and amateurs, raising enough money to make sure the most important photojournalism festival in the world continues.
The king is naked. His hands aren’t made of gold like his hero’s, Dr. Barnard, but the King of Perpignan has his secrets, like all magicians, but Jean-François Leroy will never tell! Not everyone likes it that way. Some grumble about his monopoly of power, his resistance to change, his bizarre choices... Perhaps. But criticism is easy. The festival is a success, and that comes with the territory, especially when it’s so long-lasting. But be careful, certain “men will never die,” especially when they’re kings.
Unless it’s on the screens at Visa, so that we’ll never have to hear again:
“But we didn’t know!”
At Perpignan, Dr. Leroy, the patient is alive and well.