Magnum Photos’ Alex Majoli shot his latest project in Venice, with Leica’s financial support. His images are now being used across Leica’s marketing material as part of the manufacturer’s deal with the celebrated photo agency. Image © Alex Majoli / Magnum Photos, courtesy of Leica.
Photo agencies have always had close relationships with camera manufacturers - VII Photo has a deal with Canon, while Noor works closely with Nikon, especially on its educational programme. But in most cases the deals are limited to the use of equipment, often made available free to the photographers in return for the right to use their names for marketing purposes. Now Leica has entered the fray - with a twist, because the Germany-based camera manufacturer has opted to finance entire photography projects.
In February Leica announced its first partnership with Magnum Photos. Building on their "shared history", the two companies agreed to work on a series of multimedia essays "that will take a deeper look into the stories behind the photographs". Leica agreed to finance the essays in their entirety, the first of which was produced by Alex Majoli.
Five months later, Leica has signed a similar deal with Facing Change: Documenting America, a non-profit collective of photographers and writers founded during the early days of the Obama administration to record the consequences of economic and social change in the United States.
The idea for this new kind of relationship first came from Magnum, reveals Leica's chair, Dr. Andreas Kaufmann. "It came from a conversation I had at Les Rencontres d'Arles photo festival in 2010," he tells BJP. "Jonathan Roquemore, [Magnum Photos' brand and external relations manager] approached me with the idea of a collaboration between our two companies. It made sense since Leica and Magnum have always been very closely associated with each other, but it had never been something official."
The deal was "all about new content and new work. It's a way to produce new essays," Roquemore explained to BJP back in February. "It's editorially driven, and is not an advertising campaign." It makes for fantastic indirect advertising for Leica, though, which gets the right to publish the essays on its websites and use the imagery in its marketing material and stores across the world. In total, five essays will be produced this year - Majoli has already released his, and Dominic Nahr has just finished covering the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami, armed with an M9 camera [see his images at the end of this article].
Magnum, which did not return BJP's requests for comment, hopes to continue the deal in 2012 with more essays financed by Leica.
"It's my personal belief that good photography should be more popular with newspaper and magazine editors, and with the public in general," says Kaufmann. "A good picture captures the eye. But photojournalists are getting fewer and fewer commissions now. For Leica, these reportages - as the French call these stories - makes a lot of sense. This is where we started from. Also, with our retail programme, we already commission a lot of pictures to use at our points of sale. This made sense."
Anthony Suau, one of the cofounders of the Facing Change collective, first met Kaufmann in Vienna in 2009, at the opening of the World Press Photo exhibition. "After a few minutes of talking with him about Facing Change, he immediately understood what we were about," Suau tells BJP. "We quickly became friends."
Facing Change also includes photographers David Burnett, Alan Chin, Danny Wilcox Frazier, Stanley Greene, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Andrew Lichtenstein, Debbie Fleming Caffery, Carlos Javier Ortiz and Lucian Perkins. The collective launched in 2008.
Leica was attracted to the group because of its commitment to supporting photojournalism, says Chin, and he's clear that it's a two-way deal. "We're very honoured that they are supporting us, but we have to be honest: we know why they're doing this. It makes them look good."
Facing Change has received a number of Leica M9 cameras as part of the agreement, plus a few S2 medium format models and, in the coming months, they will be working on new projects financed by Leica.
The manufacturer will also fund the production of a series of books and travelling exhibitions - details of which have yet to be finalised. "We just got the cameras," says Chin. "I'm now using the M9, and I have to be honest, I would not have been able to afford it without [this deal]."
Suau adds that the cameras have already had an impact on the photographers' output. "The M9 works really well for us," he says. "The camera is small enough to put in a bag and take it wherever you go. It's always with me now, which means that the amount of images I produce, and that we produce as a group, has increased enormously."
But the biggest impact has been on how the photographers are seen by their subjects, he says. "People don't respond to it in the same way as they do with digital SLRs. The camera has this amateur look, which means people just don't respond to it. It allows you to become somewhat invisible, which is great given the current culture of photography. It has a huge impact on projects we do. In fact, it changes the overall vision of the project."
As for the S2, Suau says it's the "most extraordinary camera ever made", offering photographers "amazing details" in very large files. In fact, he adds, using the S2 is bringing Facing Change one step closer to what the Farm Security Administration of the 1930s was all about. "Their photographers went from working with large format cameras to new and very expensive 35mm colour cameras. We're kind of doing the same thing now - we're staying at the cutting edge of technology using the S2."
But Chin is quick to point out that the group's relationship with Leica will not change their message, or the subjects they approach. "Whether we're working with The New York Times, Newsweek, or even for NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders, nothing changes," he says. "The whole point is that these organisations are paying for our work. At the end of the shoot, the images serve different purposes. As long as we know that we're not working for the News of the World - as long as the organisation is honest and true, nothing changes for us. Our main point is to have our work published.
He adds, "I think it's important to have different ways of funding our work. And in this case, Leica is a corporate sponsor and they're funding our projects." Suau also believes that being associated with the Leica brand is beneficial for the collective anyway. "Camera companies have always been involved with agencies and collectives such as Facing Change, but Leica has been extremely enthusiastic about it," he says. "This company is very active in engaging a wider audience, something, I would say, that the other companies are not doing. They have truly embraced this project."
For Leica the partnership provides the company with a way to win back photojournalists, after a period in which it gained a reputation for making expensive cameras for wealthy amateur photographers. "I think this opinion [that Leica's cameras are just for rich amateurs] is slightly wrong," says Kaufmann. "Leica's cameras have always been associated with reportage photography, with photojournalists." Now, with this deal, it's become an official marketing strategy.
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