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Group mentality: How photographers can join forces to tackle the market

Faced with a tougher market and increased competition, some photographers are banding together to produce more ambitious bodies of work. Olivier Laurent speaks to three of these groups

The Farm Security Administration photography programme, despite being more than 75 years old, continues to influence photographers today. It not only fostered photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks, but also put into focus the consequences of the most devastating financial crisis the US had been subjected to at the time.

Five years ago, as the US and most of Europe faced a new financial meltdown, a group of photographers and writers led by Anthony Suau launched Facing Change: Documenting America. The collective was funded in the early days of the Obama administration to record the effects of economic and social change in the US. It has produced more than 50 stories, attracted photographers such as Stanley Greene and David Burnett, and signed a deal with the Library of Congress.

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A growing number of photographers have developed similar approaches – bringing together talents around a specific theme or project. Laurence Butet-Roch is one of them. The Canadian photographer and journalist at Polka magazine has, for the past three years, been documenting the relationship between indigenous communities in Canada and their environment, government and heritage. “As a photo editor at Polka, I realised that a lot of Canadian photographers had similar concerns,” she tells BJP. “I felt that we could provide a more comprehensive overview of what is going on in Canada if we pulled these projects together to create a stronger body of work.”

Canada, she says, is so large that people living in British Columbia might not be interested in what’s going on in a reservation near Ontario, and vice-versa. “But, by combining and paralleling these works, you can find stories that are unique to these reservations, and you can also talk about the issues that link them all together – poverty, environmental contamination, discrimination and racism.”

To launch Our Home on Native Lands, Butet-Roch put together a synopsis and started contacting photographers who dealt with similar issues. “I called them, explained the idea and met some of them,” she says. “Everything went quickly from there. Their response was positive. I think that’s because photographers are looking to work with one another, especially with stories such as these – three of them were already working together as part of the Boreal Collective. We could have been fighting against each other to be the one story published about these issues.”

While Our Home on Native Lands is still in the planning stages, Butet-Roch’s team of photographers, which includes Aaron Vincent Elkaim, Jonathan Taggart, Ian Willms, Johan Hallberg-Campbell and Yoanis Menge, has ambitious plans. “The idea is to create a trans-media website and tablet platform, in English and French, where we will combine the work of the six photographers and allow people to look at these essays in a traditional manner or by exploring certain themes. They will be able to explore childcare in native reservations or discover what environmental pollutions are affecting these reservations, for example. We will use audio and video in addition to the images. The goal is to offer three levels of access to each photograph.”

The group also aims to organise exhibitions and, of course, to be published in traditional media outlets. But right now, Butet-Roch is applying for grants. “We have a production studio that’s committed to the project, so we already know what the platform will look like, but we need to find the funds. We’re applying for grants every week from public and private sources.”

Jocelyn Bain Hogg used his ongoing project about British youth to launch Sea Change, a pan-European study of the impact the current economic crisis has had on younger generations. Image © Jocelyn Bain Hogg / VII Photo

For British photographer Jocelyn Bain Hogg, getting the necessary funding came at the start of his Sea Change initiative. Modelled on Facing Change: Documenting America, the project is documenting the effects of the economic crisis on young Europeans. “Skyrocketing debt, mass unemployment, economic recession and political turmoil is not a theoretical outcome but a sad and pressing reality for millions of European citizens,” he says. “It all started at a photo festival in Norway last year. I was talking about my British youth work and it just made sense to put the idea of photographing young people into a larger context that’s not limited to the UK. The next generation across Europe is having a hard time. It was logical to make this happen.”

For the first phase of his project, Bain Hogg selected eight photographers – Benedicte Kurzen, Espen Rasmussen, Donald Weber, Robin Maddock, Maciek Nabrdalik, Cecile Mella, Declan Browne and Yannis Kontos – to document respectively Latvia, Norway, Romania, the Czech Republic, Poland, France, Ireland and Greece.

“I wouldn’t know where to start in Greece, for example,” he says, “and I was interested in getting other voices involved. If one photographer was doing the work across all these countries, it would  become a bit one-sided and it would take years. So I liked the idea of getting photographers to look at their own countries or visit places they were familiar with.”

Bain Hogg expects the first phase of the project to be completed by the end of the year. “Each project will have around 50 images and we’re planning an exhibition in Norway near the end of the year, as well as a book. After that, we want the exhibition to tour Europe. We’re not producing an exhibition for the photography community – we want it to be for everyone because we’re all concerned by these issues.”

The project needs to get these kids’ voices heard, he adds, and one way to do this is to invite people to participate via the website.

“We have just created our website, and we don’t have a lot on it yet, but we want people to buy into that in the near future. For example, we want Latvians to come to the site and send us their own work. We want them to tell us what they’re doing and what’s going on in their lives. We want Sea Change to live on for 40 years.”

While the photographers behind Sea Change and Our Home on Native Lands came together to tell a specific story, Sophie Gerrard, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, Colin McPherson and Stephen McLaren joined forces to capitalise on an upcoming opportunity. “The ethos behind Document Scotland was that we all feel as Scots that 2014 is going to be a great year for Scotland,” Gerrard explains.

Sophie Gerrard is part of the collective producing Document Scotland. Image © Sophie Gerrard

“It will be the year of the referendum, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the Year of Homecoming. It’s one of the most important years in Scotland’s history and the entire world will be looking at our country. As documentary photographers, we felt we had to respond to that.”

The four photographers set up Document Scotland as a company late last year, built a website, self-published a newspaper and formed communities on Twitter and Facebook. “We felt there was strength in numbers,” says Gerrard. “If you put together four relatively known photographers with four different bodies of work, you can create something that is stronger than the sum of its parts. I think the incentive to do it is really strong. You need that energy. You need to want to do something different.”

Gerrard is quick to point out, however, that unlike other group projects, where photographers follow the same brief, all four Document Scotland photographers are free to pursue their own plans. “We each have individual styles and working practices,” she says. “We’re all doing projects that we’re interested in, and this is feeding our passion for the overall project.”

The group is slowly building a community, asking other photographers – Scottish or otherwise – to send in their own work about the country. “We’re feeding in the conversation about photography and Scotland,” says Gerrard. “We’re talking with some of the big photography institutions and galleries in Scotland with the goal of working together. We’re also giving talks in colleges and universities. One of our objectives is to show what’s out there, what people are doing about Scotland and what is being done collaboratively.” Especially, she adds, since Scottish photographers are often struggling to get their work seen.

The same goes for Canadian photographers, says Butet-Roch. “Canada was never recognised as having a strong photographic tradition, even though it has some great photographers. Our Home on Native Lands will bring more visibility to Canada’s photographers.”

Whether or not she succeeds, Butet-Roch believes working as part of a group is more important than ever. “Many of us are concerned with similar issues and it shows how important these issues are. Having several projects that address the same concerns can be more effective in reaching a wider audience. I really feel that by working together, we’ll make it possible – at least more so than if we had done it all on our own.”

Gerrard agrees: “One of the bad sides of photography is that you can end up being isolated, but when you get together with others who work in this industry, you find energy. The experience has been really inspiring. I now have more project ideas than ever before.”