Clément Saccomani, Dutch photoagency NOOR’s new managing director, says partner-sponsored group projects allow photojournalists to go way beyond traditional editorial assignments.
In 2007, when many prominent voices were lamenting the death of photojournalism, nine award-winning photographers came together to form NOOR. Launched at Visa pour l’image in Perpignan, NOOR – which means ‘light’ in Arabic – was one of the first agencies to be born in the digital era, allowing its members to respond from the get-go.
These photographers are at its core because, like other cooperative agencies such as Magnum and VII Photo, NOOR is owned and operated by its members. These currently include founders Stanley Greene, Pep Bonet, Yuri Kozyrev, Kadir van Lohuizen and Francesco Zizola, who were later joined by Jon Lowenstein, Nina Berman, Andrea Bruce, Alixandra Fazzina, Bénédicte Kurzen – and most recently Sebastián Liste and Asim Rafiqui, all of whom pay a monthly fee and have a financial stake in the NOOR agency and foundation. They’re an international bunch, and they have diverse visions, but share a commitment to producing independent visual reports on challenging global issues. Their main goal in starting the agency was to pool their resources, allowing them to make this work, get it seen and – hopefully – make a change.
Ideally, the flexible agency they’ve built will help them respond to the changes wrought by digital media – including its effect on the mainstream media. Traditional editorial assignments have all but dried up, but in their place NOOR has created an umbrella brand which allows its members to make group projects, sponsored by partners and distributed in multiple ways. “As a group, you’re able to do much more in a shorter period of time, and the bodies of work are strengthened by the diversity in visual approaches which comes from working with multiple photographers,” says Nina Berman. “You can then draw on the archive of an agency to broaden the context and fill out holes.”
This model is managed by a small supporting team based in Amsterdam. The inaugural managing director, Claudia Hinterseer, had a background in education at World Press Photo; her successor, Evelien Kunst, brought extensive commercial experience to the agency. Last year NOOR appointed a new managing director, Clément Saccomani, previously editorial director at Magnum Paris; he was recently joined by a new sales and assignments manager, Agata Bar, who has 10 years of experience with organisations such as Foam.
“I think one of the reasons NOOR is still here compared to other agencies is because they started by thinking about what mistakes they should try to avoid,” says Saccomani. “One of these is having a big agency and a big staff… It’s here in NOOR’s DNA; and maybe also because we’re based in Amsterdam, we have a really open atmosphere.”
This helps when it comes to the group projects, which are supported by a diverse but carefully selected group of partners. Its main supporter, Nikon Europe, has been on board for years, helping finance the NOOR Foundation’s educational initiatives by providing several free workshops a year, and also funded several large-scale group projects, such as Climate Change in 2009 and 2010.
Consequences, the first chapter of the Climate Change project, was shot by the entire NOOR roster, with Francesco Zizola working in Brazil, Pep Bonet in Poland, Yuri Kozyrev in Russia, and so on; the second part, Solutions, produced eight stories, focusing on those trying to live more sustainably. The Danish newspaper Information produced 50,000 extra copies of an image-driven edition dedicated to Consequences, launched in Copenhagen during the first week of the Climate Summit, and handed out to those attending the conference and the general public. An exhibition and a programme of public events followed.
Another group project, initiated by Berman and co-shot by Andrea Bruce, Alixandra Fazzina and Stanley Greene, culminated in an outdoor exhibition in Za’atari in northern Jordan, one of the largest refugee camps in the world. With help on the ground from partners UN refugee agency UNHCR and Japanese NGO JEN, the four photographers documented life in the camp and set up a photo booth for residents, allowing them to have their portrait taken and get a print. The project then evolved into a giant photographic mural that transformed the 120-meter concrete security wall at the camp’s entrance, showing residents at a monumental scale and, critically, allowing them to see the work as well as feature in it. It was, says Berman, a stark contrast to the aerial photographs of the camp that had initially spurred her on – and to the usual editorial approach.
“Even when I used to shoot a lot for editorial publications, I was never satisfied with pictures just being published,” she says. “The experience felt small and disassociated. I much prefer watching people see work, and listening to their conversations, and also talking about pictures, whether it’s at conferences or festivals. Strong work should never die, it should be continuously revived and recontextualised so experiences are not seen in isolation but rather connected across borders and time periods.”
It’s something Saccomani has noticed with all the NOOR members, he says, pointing out that having “spent years working on a story” photographers want to do much, much more than simply publish it in a few magazines. He points to Kadir van Lohuizen’s Via Pan-Am as a case in point, a huge story on migration in the Americas which was published on an interactive website and app, in the international press, in a book, and widely exhibited.
“You may have an editorial commission that could then move the project to another level and get some sponsorship, which has a different way of targeting people and disseminating the work,” he explains. “One project gets divided by these different avenues, again and again. Moving image is a perfect way of reaching people. From self-publishing you can go to a bigger and more prestigious book. Then there is the gallery and the art market… How can we target all the different opportunities on offer? Before, it was only coming through print.”
It actually presents an opportunity, says Saccomani, who’s hoping to maximise on this kind of approach in future. “We’re working with a few partners to really try to share experiences, to make Amsterdam become a hub and lab for photojournalism, for visual storytelling,” he says. “We have museums here, we have big organisations who are in the mix of culture, arts, experience and education. We are all in this, and it’s pretty exciting. The world has changed. Beyond talking about the ‘crisis’ of photojournalism, there are photographers and photojournalism everywhere in the world. Everybody is connected, everybody wants to be informed. How can we participate?”
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