VII Photo rises to challenges of changing photographic landscape with dynamic new agency model

It may have had a tough few years – losing some members, shedding staff and closing its offices – but Olivier Laurent finds VII Photo ready to adapt to a fast-evolving industry

Olivier Laurent — 21 May 2014

VII Photo annual meeting, Paris 2014

Photographers Christopher Morris, Ron Haviv and Antonin Kratochvil in Paris, at VII Photoʼs annual meeting.

© Maciek Nabrdalik / VII

Independent photo agencies have been a staple of the industry for more than half a century. From Magnum and Gamma to Institute and Noor, photographers have sought to associate themselves with like-minded people, pooling their resources together to take on the challenges of an ever-shifting editorial market.

Now, as that market continues to suffer the effects of the worst economic crisis in more than 70 years, agencies such as VII Photo have been forced to rethink their business model and structure.

Founded in September 2001 by Alexandra Boulat, Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, Antonin Kratochvil, Christopher Morris, James Nachtwey and John Stanmeyer, VII Photo remains one of the most prominent photojournalism agencies in the industry, but for the past two years has struggled to reposition itself.

After its inception, and during the editorial boom that followed the September 11 attacks in 2001, the VII brand thrived, welcoming high-profile members including Christopher Anderson, Lauren Greenfield, Joachim Ladefoged, Eugene Richards, Marcus Bleasdale, Franco Pagetti and Ed Kashi. So when some of the members moved on, and with the demand for VII’s imagery still strong, the agency continually searched for more documentary photographers to join its ranks.

In 2008, in a bid to further expand its influence, it launched the VII Network. “Membership is constitutionally locked at 14 photographers,” Frank Evers, then agency director, told BJP in January that year. “We found that the brand had gotten so much bigger and we had a lot of clients asking us, ‘Do you have this or that?ʼ, and we didnʼt. We needed to do more to expand the VII brand and its reach, to correct the disconnect between our clients and ourselves.”

Six photographers joined the VII Network that year, including Stephanie Sinclair, who went on to become a core member in 2009, and many more were invited until the structure was dissolved in 2011. The Network photographers joined the agency as non-owning members, establishing a level playing field where each received the same amount of support from the agencyʼs staff.

Yet under the new structure, VII’s members remained divided into two groups: those who had created the agency or taken a financial stake in its future, and those who hadnʼt. One group made the decisions; the other had no choice but to follow them. To make matters worse, the agency had to contend with falling revenues from its traditional clients.

“The editorial market almost disappeared overnight,” says Donald Weber, who joined the Network in 2008 and became a full member last year. “VII recognised that, which is part of the reason why we decided to make everybody full members.”

Full membership meant taking a stake in the agency, which Weber admits led to lengthy negotiations after last yearʼs annual general meeting. “It has taken a lot of time but we have finally arrived at that point. Thatʼs why a few people left, because they chose not to become owners of the company.”

Venetia Dearden, Adam Ferguson, Seamus Murphy and Lynsey Addario have all left in recent months. Those who have stayed, including Jessica Dimmock, Ashley Gilbertson, Davide Monteleone and Tomas van Houtryve, have become owners. “If you have a stake, if youʼre part of the business, you have to be more vocal [about the agencyʼs direction and vision],” says Weber. That means finding new ways to move forward.

“It seems that the media landscape has been constantly evolving, with photographers playing catch-up,” says van Houtryve, who joined the agencyʼs board of directors last year. “It has been a very acrobatic last eight years. Iʼve had to reinvent myself, land on my feet. Iʼve been doing it for a while on my own and I thought I would try to apply some of that thinking to the wider group.”

The goal was to transform VII into a nimbler entity that could react to the marketʼs seismic changes more quickly, and with little overhead. So, earlier this year, VII closed its New York gallery and let go some of its staff members. “It was absurd to have an office space in this day and age,” says Weber. “VII has always been a very small company. I donʼt think we have ever had more than five or six employees over two continents. We felt that having a public place was kind of irrelevant. In New York, we had around four people working for us in that space, yet we didnʼt have meetings there. It was basically just a storage space. It was nice to have a gallery, but we realised itʼs not quite what we are. And, second, rents are high.”

Now VII employs Amy Connors as its US representative, plus two interns to take care of the agencyʼs digital archives. It has also closed its Paris office. Nick Papadopoulos resigned from his position as international sales representative and interim CEO, while the agencyʼs French sales representative, Dominique Viger, started working from home. “The sales staff rarely meet clients face-to-face, and if that happens itʼs usually them going to meet the clients,” Weber explains. “It was kind of an anomaly to have a physical space. Now weʼre completely physically unanchored.”

With a more flexible structure in place, the next step was for the agency to redefine its business strategy without abandoning its journalistic roots. “We have to build on the incredible reputation we have in the editorial world,” says Kashi. “We have built this great brand, for lack of a better term, in a world that seems to be crumbling from the inside, but yet still has so much importance and value. We want to use this as a launching pad into different areas.”

“If editorial is disappearing, we have to completely rethink who we are and how we behave, so to speak,” adds Weber.

“We donʼt want to say goodbye to editorial, but we realise that editorial is not ‘theʼ component, but rather ‘aʼ component. What weʼre really about is a collective of storytellers. Thatʼs what we do. The question becomes: how do we tell a story? In one case it could be through editorial clients, but it could also be about setting up an infrastructure so that if Christopher Morris wants to make a film he has the freedom, contacts and support to make that film.”

That support could come, for example, from one of his colleagues, Jessica Dimmock, who has made a name for herself in film. “Sheʼs heading a committee within VII on that subject and sharing what she has learned with the group,” says van Houtryve. “VII has become more of an incubator for new ideas rather than a place that dwells on ideas from the past. Weʼre thinking about social media, live events, video, and about the people we want to partner with. If we get momentum with any of these, it will be something that will become more permanent at VII, though some projects will just fall by the wayside.”

Another focus for VII has been education, which it hopes to develop into a revenue-generating business. “Itʼs not just about educating other photographers through our VII Mentor programme, for example. Itʼs about using education to talk about places and stories,” explains Weber. “We have 20 photographers travelling everywhere around the world. We create stories; traditionally, these stories would go into the archives after being sold a couple of times to Geo or Time magazine. With education, these stories could get a life of their own.”

VII has started two pilot programmes in high schools in the US and Canada, in which the agency packages some of its stories around a particular theme. “The idea is to develop a curriculum package for public schools, with our photographs and a guide to the issues, from which teachers can build a class,” says Weber. If it is successful, this initiative could be rolled out on a larger scale, creating a new source of revenue.

Another pillar is being built around VIIʼs work with non-governmental organisations. “Itʼs not something new,” admits Kashi. “Weʼve done a lot of that, but weʼre now doing it on a more structured level.” And that’s where the agency’s traditional editorial contacts can help, adds van Houtryve. “We’ve built really strong relationships with that market and we don’t want to throw that away. I believe more of our projects will become triangular deals, where one element is editorial, the other is the talent and the third is the funding.”

Kashi agrees and cites one of his recent projects as an example. “Last November, I went to Iraq and Jordan to do some work on Syrian refugees. The International Medical Corps [IMC] commissioned it. We worked for months to organise this, and then my wife and I made a film that Time magazine licensed. So, not only does IMC get a rich trove of material to utilise, but now we’ve created this piece that Time launched into the world.”

Kashi, Bleasdale and Stanmeyer, among others, were early adopters of this business model, but the agency now wants to put that framework in place for all its members. “It’s really about leveraging what has been built over the first 13 years into the next stage of our evolution, while taking into account the economic reality of this profession,” Kashi explains.

But is an agency the best structure to meet these challenges? Van Houtryve argues it is, because, for example, VII can reach a much wider audience than a single photographer could. “It helps to open doors and ease the start of a relationship. It has an amplifier effect, especially if we work together on the same project.

“It can be fairly unruly,” he admits. “It’s like getting a band of pirates into a collective – these are people who are always on the high seas in far-flung locations, ruled by their own laws. It can be pretty tough; it’s not the easiest group of people to bring together in unison.”

Fundamentally, says Stephen Mayes, a former VII director, the traditional framework of an agency could be a thing of the past. “The structure of a photo agency as we know it was devised for the 20th century,” he says. “The market was different, the product was different – it was all different. It’s out of date. It’s a different problem these days and it needs a different solution.”

He adds: “You get all these young agencies popping up – the idea is that having photographers together gives them strength, but I think that’s a mistake. The very first question I ask a photographer when they say they want to join an agency is, ‘Why?’ People haven’t really thought it through. They think it’ll be a one-stop shop. They think they can stop worrying about marketing, that the sales will come through and they’ll just have to worry about travelling the world and taking pictures. They haven’t thought about what an agency actually does and, more to the point, how much they are paying for it. That’s the other thing about traditional agencies – theyʼre expensive. Look at what Getty Images takes, and you still have to market yourself to your agent.”

And if photographers are looking at an agency for the moral support it can bring them, there are “far more efficient and effective ways to get that support”, Mayes continues. “You need to surround yourself with people who will support your thinking and your creativity, challenge you, push you forward. There’s so much support for photographers out there.”

For Mayes, the agency of the future isn’t just a collective of photographers. Instead, it would integrate photography into a richer practice, which would include videographers, post-producers, marketing and PR specialists. “These days, to make a communication business work, you need an array of skills. You need a range of very different interests, but within shared parameters.”

When it comes to VII, Mayes remains optimistic. “Each photographer, individually, is a fantastic brand, but collectively they have an even bigger thing that is somehow different. It gives them another profile, especially when you’re trying to reach out to people who have not been traditional photo buyers.”

Reaching new audiences is key – it’s precisely what VII will focus on now that it has streamlined its operations. “It’s a challenging time, but this was never easy,” says Kashi. “I remember writing something for Grazia Neri [the legendary Italian photo agency] in the mid-1990s, when I operated under a structure with 10 different agents around the world, and even then it wasn’t easy. People like to slam Corbis and Getty for bringing prices down – and there’s no question they have done that – but I wonder about the inevitability of where the market is heading. As I jokingly say, this will become a profession for people who should never become older than 25, never plan on having kids and never plan on owning real estate. Then, yes, I can work for $50 a picture. I don’t see why photojournalists should be robbed of having at least a middle-class life, economically speaking, but for that to happen there has to be some kind of mechanism in place.”

Weber thinks they’ve cracked it now. “Everyone at the agency is on board, and we’re now moving on to the next phase.”

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