Magnum celebrates its 65th Annual General Meeting in Arles. Image © Rene Burri / Magnum Photos.
Magnum Photos celebrated its 65 years by holding its annual general meeting at Rencontres d'Arles. It was an opportunity for photographers to come together to discuss Magnum's future in an ever-changing market. Olivier Laurent reports from the conference
Photographers Christopher Anderson, Susan Meiselas, Alex Majoli, Richard Kalvar, Donovan Wylie and Abbas joined François Hebel, director of the Rencontres d'Arles festival, who led the conference, as well as Magnum's CEO, Giorgio Psacharopulo, and Lorenza Bravetta, the agency's head of continental Europe, to discuss what makes Magnum relevant in today's market.
Kicking off with the announcement of Magnum's new nominees – Zoe Strauss, Jerome Sessini and Bieke Depoorter – Majoli says the new recruits represent the "future of Magnum and what we're pursuing with our agency in the current climate".
Joining Magnum can be daunting, though. "When I became a member of Magnum, I was really young," Majoli adds. "You see the pictures of the founders and then you say, ‘Fuck. What am I going to do?' But then you realise there's this fantastic community of photographers who are here to help you find your own way. From the old generation, we learn what they know, and we try to bring a new vision, a new language, a new spirit. There is a bridge between the old and the young generation."
Meiselas agrees. "Magnum being 65 means that some of our members have been with the agency for almost 60 years. There are five different generations of photographers at Magnum – from people in their twenties all the way to their eighties. That's a real richness," – a richness that can be beneficial at a time when the industry is undergoing drastic changes.
"The world has become hard to navigate for photographers, and I think we need the agency now more than ever," says Kalvar. "We have to evolve, of course. We're searching for new ways to show images and earn money from them. The agency serves as a brainstorming collective to find these answers."
At the centre of the debate is whether Magnum is, in fact, a press agency. Wylie isn't so sure. "Magnum is certainly an agency that still reports on the world, actively, and in new ways – in a great variety of ways. But I think it's more appropriate to say that we're a reporting agency." This is confirmed by Abbas, who says: "We've covered the news for the media, but we've never been a press agency. We always cover the news a little bit before everyone else, and a little bit after as well. We have a few photographers who cover the news as it's happening, of course. The waves are important, but often the traces left by these waves are more important."
Magnum has never really worked for the press, adds Meiselas. Instead, its members have been working "in ways in which the press might use your work". For Meiselas, who also heads the Magnum Foundation, the question is, "What do we see, and what do we do with what we see? The challenge is to go beyond what we used to have as a platform and a producing partner, [someone at the magazine who] took the risks with you. They supported you to take the risk. The big change for us now is that we take the risks without these partners," says Meiselas.
As a result, photographers have to create new and different kinds of partnerships. "Many people have been working with non-profits and NGOs. But the question is, how else do you distribute the work? The Postcards From America project is a different model, for example. The challenge for us is to come up with creative collaborations as photographers and with communities."
Postcards From America saw five Magnum photographers travel from Texas to California in two weeks, photographing their journey and sharing the results on Tumblr and Facebook. When asked whether Magnum's photographers could have collaborated on such a project 20 years ago, and Meiselas isn't so sure. "For Magnum to survive, I think it has to relate to a larger community and find ways to do that. Postcards, maybe we wouldn't have had that in our imagination 20 years ago, because [our distribution channels were more structured]. [When we worked on Postcards and] when we moved from Texas to California in 10 days, stopping in one place for a day or two, I had to rethink what I could do. You have to conceptualise what you can do under different conditions. That's a challenge [for me]."
The idea at the heart of Postcards, says Wylie, is the photographer taking initiative. "That's what it's about. It's about going out to make work for the sake of making work. And you encounter these huge challenges. I remember when I arrived in Rochester, I had no clue what I was going to do, but I wanted to be there. I had to find a strategy and a voice quickly, and the dialogue we had amongst ourselves was extremely exciting and stimulating."
Of course, projects like Postcards from America don't mean that photographers have to forget about the financial aspect of the market. "If you want to pursue your personal projects, you have to give up other things," says Majoli. "You have to reduce the cost of your life and dedicate a lot of time to what you want to do. It's a compromise you have to find within yourself – the family you live with and within the market and the resources you can find in that market." In his case, Majoli has to apply for grants and accept commercial jobs to put money aside for his personal projects. "I have to reinvent myself every day."
When you take the economics out of the equation, though, things aren't so bad, says Anderson. "This is going to sound strange, but speaking just as a photographer and not as someone who makes a living from photography, I feel happy because, in many ways, I feel more free from the chains of the press."
He adds: "As a photographer making images, I feel less controlled by making images for a market. The other side, the professional side, is much more difficult to make a living in and make ends meet. But, purely from the point of making images, it's somewhat liberating that there's no market left."
But however you juggle the money issue, the deeper question is what it means to be a photographer, says Meiselas. "How do you find the work that engages you and sustains you? What do you contribute? Because the landscape is so much broader now, we see a lot, but it doesn't necessarily last long. For me, it's those dialogues. It really is the relationship with the subject that sustains me."
Wylie agrees. "I think one of the priorities today, especially for a young photographer, is really engaging with your own voice. How do you find your own voice? Photography has changed dramatically since its beginnings. [Now we have Google Earth and cameras everywhere], so we ask ourselves, 'Why photograph?' You photograph because you want to make work. It's like writing a novel. You make work that has layers, that contributes to a collective history, a broader history. The challenge is to get to that point."
Abbas, on the other hand, doesn't believe we should complicate everything. "Yes, there are issues in the market," he says. "And we spent four days discussing these issues at Magnum, and when I got out I went to see Josef Koudelka's images and it reminded me why I'm part of Magnum. I know that some photographers have big egos, but photography is simple. In the morning, you put a roll of film in your camera – today you don't even have to do this with digital – you take to the streets, you come back home, edit your photographs and show them. It's that simple."
With all its talk about unity, Magnum is aware that it's far from perfect. For example, it knows full well that its membership doesn't represent the realities of today's global market. "Magnum is still Euro- and US-centric," Anderson admits.
Kalvar adds: "We can't say we've found African photographers, or photographers from other third world countries. It's true we have a tendency to look for people we already know, and these people tend to share the same culture. We have the hope of finding something different, but we haven't been able to achieve this yet."
Similarly, men largely dominate the agency, and this is an ongoing struggle, says Meiselas. "But it's very exciting this year as two of the new nominees are women."
Abbas goes further: "Frankly, when we look at portfolios, if we had two projects of equal quality by a man and a woman, we would choose the woman, because we're very conscious of the fact that there are many more men than women at Magnum. Similarly, there are more white people than black people, and more Europeans than Asians." But, he assures, it's not deliberate.
For more on the agency, visit www.magnumphotos.com.
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