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John Vink leaves Magnum due to post-investment contract

Farmers, very few of them from the younger generation, transplant rice seedlings in a recently ploughed and hearsed field. Damnak Chang Aeur (Kep), Cambodia, 09 July 2016. Image © John Vink, from the forthcoming book project A Thread

"I enjoy an incredible freedom in how I work, in what I photograph or when I do it," the 20-year Magnum member tells BJP. "By signing that contract I had the feeling I would lose so much more than what I would gain."

John Vink first joined Magnum Photos as a nominee in 1993; in 1997 he became a full member. Now he’s decided to leave the organisation, stating he “can’t sign the new contract” handed to the photographers after Magnum accepted outside investment for the first time in its 70-year history.

“It was presented to us to give some guarantee to the investors that they would see some return to their investment,” wrote Vink in a Facebook post published yesterday – the day after the new investment was announced, and the new subsidiary which it will be run through, Magnum Global Ventures. “There is no way I can or want to comply to the new rules. I believe it would curtail the incredible freedom I enjoy in my work. I want to keep going as I do. Wish me luck. I certainly wish Magnum good luck.”

Speaking with BJP, Vink said “I believe I cannot divulge the exact content of that contract”, but added: “Without going into specifics, it boiled down to signing a contract where photographers have to accept a certain number of jobs provided through Magnum, equivalent to a minimum amount of money. These jobs can be anything, ranging from editorial assignments to workshops, giving all the photographers an opportunity to make money for themselves, for Magnum and, most importantly, at the same time prove the photographer’s commitment towards the success of Magnum Venture to the investors.

“I did not sign the contract because I would not have been able to fulfil it, but mostly because I would have had to forsake a few things I crave. I do not give workshops, as a journalist I cannot do corporate assignments (and I don’t feel like doing these anyhow), I sell very few prints, I only very occasionally get selected by curators for exhibitions (try and find pictures of mine in the 70th events) and I did never make the required amount of money.”

The news apparently came as a shock to Vink’s fellow-photographers at Magnum, and the staff, with fellow Magnum photographer Martin Parr telling BJP that: “Given he was one of photographers that voted for this investment scheme, at the last AGM [held in London, June 2016], somewhat surprised that he decided to leave. We are also disappointed at the rather mean-spirited way he announced this in his Instagram and Twitter accounts, while not communicating at all to members of Magnum.”

However, Parr added: “Inevitably when changes are afoot, we may lose a few people and this is the case with John Vink.”

Born in Belgium in 1948, Vink studied photography at the fine arts school of La Cambre in Brussels in 1968, going freelance as a journalist in 1971. He’s focused on long-term projects since the mid-1980s, winning the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography in 1986 for Water in Sahel, a two-year project on water management shot in Niger, Mali, Burkina-Faso and Senegal. He joined Vu agency in Paris the same year, and from 1987-1993 worked on a project called Refugees in the World, shot in refugee camps in India, Mexico, Thailand, Pakistan, Hungary, Iraq, Malawi, Bangladesh, Turkey, Sudan, Croatia, Honduras and Angola.

In 2000, “wishing to concentrate on one country instead of continually travelling and wanting to move away a little from the ‘photographic scene’” according to Magnum’s site, Vink moved to Cambodia, where he now shoots stories on social issues, including the Khmer Rouge trials and their background. In 2012 he published Quest for Land for the iPad, a compilation of 11 years’ work on land issues in Cambodia, and he has since published five more e-books, all available via the iTunes iBookstore – Same Same, Royal Silence, 30 Years for a Trial, A Fine Thread and Hearths of Resistance.

Vink told BJP that living in Cambodia has meant that he had to “develop means of sustaining my activity with money not related to photography”. “I ended up producing 25 to 30 self-assigned, self-financed stories per year during more than 15 years, with just a couple of assignments through Magnum during that time,” he said. “Most of all I acquired a rhythm in my work schedule which suits me so well that I do not want to change it.

“I enjoy an incredible freedom in how I work, in what I photograph or when I do it. It is a valuable privilege not shared by many photographers. By signing that contract I had the feeling I would lose so much more than what I would gain. But that is probably only me…”

Magnum announced its new investment vehicle on 13 June, with executive director David Kogan stating that the new funds will allow the agency to “grasp the challenge of the digital age”. The investors are Nicole Junkermann and Jörg Mohaupt, and they will create the new subsidiary, Magnum Global Ventures, which will manage and control all of the photo agency’s assets, and “lead the agency’s modernisation and innovation strategy”.

Magnum’s members will continue to have control of their intellectual property, including copyright of all imagery and the admission of new members, and will own “the vast majority of the equity” in the new subsidiary. Junkermann and Mohaupt will join the Magnum Global Ventures board, along with Kogan and four representatives of the original co-operative; the co-chairs of the board will be Junkermann and the photographer Thomas Dworzak, who is currently Magnum’s vice president in Paris.

“I am sure work produced by Magnum members will continue to inspire us,” Vink told BJP. “The context in which it will be produced will be an adjustment to the world we live in. It is scary and seemingly inevitable. Luckily there are safeguards in the setup which ensure that Magnum will be around for quite some more time. And that is of course a very good thing.”

Read BJP’s story on the new investment, published on 13 June: www.bjp-online.com/2017/06/magnum-photos-announces-its-first-outside-investment-in-70-years/