Cédric Gerbehaye's work in South Sudan received Magnum Foundation funding. Image © Cédric Gerbehaye / Agence Vu
The Magnum Foundation has distributed more than $375,000 over the past three years to help photographers produce new projects, stepping in where traditional media organisations once operated. Olivier Laurent speaks with the Foundation’s president, Susan Meiselas
In early 2010, Belgian photographer Cédric Gerbehaye started documenting South Sudan. "At that time the country was just starting to talk about holding a referendum to declare its independence," he says. "What interested me was showing that, even five years after the peace treaty had been signed, the country was still in [turmoil]."
The rest of the world was paying little attention to the division of Africa's largest country. "I wanted to investigate a region before its defining moment, before it became an independent country," says Gerbehaye. "I believe that's how photojournalists should be working. They should be anticipating the events. Unfortunately, it's harder for us to do this nowadays."
The photographer believes that if he had gone to see media outlets before producing the work "they would never have financed it". Instead, he produced it thanks to a grant from the Magnum Foundation.
The Magnum Foundation was launched in 2007 to coincide with the agency's 60th anniversary. "There were a lot of conversations about that anniversary," Magnum Foundation president Susan Meiselas tells BJP. "We were already anticipating changes in the market. The question was: ‘How are photographers going to produce their work?' We weren't just thinking about Magnum's photographers, but about the whole community of documentary photographers."
The agency was also aware of its multi-generational composition. "It was becoming obvious that some photographers at Magnum were wondering what they were going to do with their archives," says Meiselas. "We wanted to create a safe place for that work to survive. Beyond that, we wanted to explore what had yet to be discovered in these archives."
To achieve this, Magnum needed to work out a structure that would support photographers, while keeping Magnum's ideals intact. "The Foundation is drawn from Magnum's values, history and traditions," says Meiselas. "I think it would be a very different story if we'd tried to start something from scratch with a new identity. We're drawing on that tradition and hoping it can benefit a larger community."
And, despite its name, the Magnum Foundation is run independently from the celebrated agency. "While I'm obliged to report annually to Magnum's board, the decision-making is totally internal at the Foundation," says Meiselas. "That was really important. It's so independent that sometimes Magnum's photographers feel like they'd need to know more about what we do."
The Foundation received initial funds from Magnum Photos, as well as the Open Society and Atlantic Philanthropy, and its Emergency Fund is its core. "Magnum had something it used to call the Independent Project Fund," Meiselas tells BJP. "It meant that independent of whether the media would send you someplace, if you felt there was something important that needed reporting, the Independent Project Fund could be used as an advance against sales."
In effect, the agency would lend its photographers money to produce the work "if it believed the project was sound", she says. "Then you would repay the fund after you had sold the work. That worked when there was a capacity for resales, but today we're facing another crisis: you produce the work, but how do you sell it?"
That's where the Emergency Fund comes in. The idea is to invest in photographers who have a strong editorial project but little financial backing. Each year, a rolling roster of industry experts is asked to select up to 100 photographers that could benefit from a grant. "There is no call for entries," says Meiselas, and these nominees are then asked to submit a proposal with a detailed budget, which are then judged by an independent jury. Ten photographers are selected each year, each receiving part of a $125,000 cash allotment.
"This support included a per diem," says Gerbehaye, who was selected in 2010. A per diem is money that can be used to cover living and travel expenses and, says Gerbehaye, this kind of support is very rare today. "Too often, photographers are working on projects that are important to them, without receiving proper remuneration for it," he says. "Today, media outlets just don't fulfil their obligations. They don't produce work. In my case [because of the funding], I was able to produce the work and present it to magazines." It worked because Gerbehaye had anticipated the events and had a completed body of work to show for it. "Within days, my images had been published in Time and a host of other magazines around the world."
In the past three years, the Foundation has funded 32 photographers, including Rena Effendi, Sebastian Liste, Benjamin Lowy, Donald Weber, Stephen Ferry, Tomas van Houtryve, Yuri Kozyrev, Balazs Gardi, Bruce Gilden, Dominic Nahr, Krisanne Johnson and Kadir van Lohuizen, among others.
Van Lohuizen used the money to fund The Last 50,000 US Soldiers, a report on the troops who stayed in Iraq after the end of US combat operations in the country. But that wasn't his original plan. "At first, I was trying to do something very different," he says. "The original proposal was about contractors working in Iraq, which I had called the remaining forces. There are so many of them, but they are largely invisible."
This turned out to be a mission impossible. "I've done difficult stories in the past, so I assumed that with enough determination I would be able to get access to these contractors. In the end I couldn't."
As a result, van Lohuizen went back to the Foundation to discuss what he could do instead. "I shifted the story to the remaining 50,000 US soldiers, looking into what their role was and what their departure would mean. [I'm pleased] they were flexible. They could very well have pulled the plug on the project altogether."
This is an essential part of the Foundation's purpose, says Meiselas. "Photographers are not just suffering from a lack of financial support, they also are lacking editorial support. It was quite surprising for me. I think that's symptomatic of the decline of the market as a partner. Magazines are not editorial partners anymore. In the past, photographers could rely on journalists and editors to help them create narrative structures, for example. They can't anymore because that support is gone.
"At the Foundation, we've found we had a much bigger editorial role than I thought we would," says Meiselas. "We're supporting the thinking behind the work."
The Foundation's involvement doesn't stop there. Once the work is produced, the Magnum Foundation helps promote and, in some cases, distribute it. "We publish the work on our website," says Meiselas, "and we try to find partners." In April, the Foundation signed such a deal with Mother Jones to feature the work of 10 Emergency Fund recipients.
"What documentary photographers capture in pictures - those fraught human moments in the face of adversity, outrage or absurdity - is what Mother Jones captures in journalism," said the magazine's creative director at the time. "Everybody wins with this unprecedented partnership: photography supported by the Magnum Foundation gains an expanded network with a widely respected venue, and we get to share extraordinary photo essays with our readers."
For Meiselas, this partnership is more than just a simple distribution deal, it's also a way for photographers to receive further payment for their work. "With Mother Jones, we sort of give more light to that work, but also all the money goes to the photographers. The Foundation doesn't benefit from it financially."
Beyond the initial publication on the Magnum Foundation website, Emergency Fund recipients have free reign over the distribution of their images, which, Meiselas admits, isn't always understood. "I think there's still some distrust out there because of the Magnum name," she says. "When we give funds to somebody that is from another agency - like VII, Noor or Agence Vu - we usually encounter one question: ‘What does Magnum want?'"
Van Lohuizen says this was an issue for The Last 50,000 US Soldiers, but one that was easily clarified. "It was known this had been produced with the help of the Foundation, [but] it's obvious I'm not a Magnum member," he says. "I'm a Noor member. We couldn't confuse it. We had to be clear this was funded by the Foundation and had nothing to do with Magnum. It was Noor and myself - we were the distributors of the work."
Magnum wants nothing from the relationship, says Meiselas. "We don't have a distribution network. We're helping broker relationships, but we're not benefiting from the work. In fact, I'd say agencies are the ones benefiting most from this because they didn't have to invest anything in the production of the work, yet they got the return on that production."
The Magnum Foundation is not just about financing photographers, though, it's also about preserving and rediscovering their archives. Called Legacy, the programme is one of the Foundation's core objectives. The goal is to "preserve, interpret, manage and make accessible materials related to the history of Magnum Photos, and to the larger history of photography to which Magnum has uniquely contributed".
Using funds given by Magnum Photos, the Foundation has started republishing work by Erich Hartmann and Paul Fusco, for example. "For Paul, who is in his early eighties, we've been able to do specific research on his archive and republish work that had been buried in his archives."The Foundation is also recording Magnum Photos' place in photography for posterity. "It's what we call Magnum Time," says Meiselas. "We're looking at Magnum's tradition. How was the work produced in the 1950s, 1960s, etcetera? How did photographers work in the field? What was the editing process? It's not just about Magnum's members, but about the entire business of photography.
"We're doing audio and video interviews, which will be publicly accessible. It's a very big project - we've done 80 interviews already and, unfortunately, some people are no longer with us. There's so much knowledge that's been lost already."
Through all its activities, Magnum Foundation's fundamental goal is to preserve photography as a complex, visual language. "We want to know who speaks this language and how well it gets expressed," says Meiselas. "Maybe it's a language that doesn't deserve to be saved if we don't do a good job preserving its values. It's a great challenge for us: renewing the relevancy of that language."
For more information about the Magnum Foundation, visit www.magnumfoundation.org.
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