25 years of Panos Pictures: “It’s about who you’re working with and why”

By Helena Williams

For 25 years photo agency Panos Pictures has been covering stories the mainstream media won’t. The commercial arm of the development NGO the Panos Institute (now Panos London) has had photographers documenting history as it unfolds, with a focus on social and development stories globally.

“We like to poke around in corners other people don’t go,” said Adrian Evans, Director of Panos Pictures.

“Photography is the idea of ‘don’t look over there, look over here’, and we’re not afraid to take a stand. 
“We step aside from the main news and can pursue stories when they are not under the media spotlight. We cover stories we think are important.”
The work of Panos photographers Andrew Testa and Chloe Dewe Mathews was showcased at last night’s event and gave an insight into reporting for a unique organisation that operates somewhere in between the profit and the non-profit world. 
Testa, who has covered a wide range of topics including the war in Kosovo, explained that staying in an area a little longer than most can sometimes produce the most fulfilling stories.
“In media terms, there is this attitude that once the UN goes in, everything finishes. I think staying longer in a place and covering the aftermath [is important].
"After the war in Kosovo there was an orgy of violence.”
The brutal war saw 5000 Kosovar Albanians go missing. Today, 1800 are still unaccounted for. It is these losses that gave birth to his collection, ‘The Missing’: yellowing photographs of those who disappeared, and portraits of the mothers who are unable to move on.
“It shows the passing of time, and how things are not being resolved in a quick way,” Testa explained. 
“In Kosovo everything has moved on, but for these mothers they are frozen. For the soldiers who killed [the missing] it only took a second, for the mothers, time has stopped.”
Mathews initially operated closer to home, with her collections ‘Banger Boys of Britain’ – portraits of young Brits who make up and smash up their cars at the Destruction Derby, and ‘Hasidic Holiday’, which depicts orthodox Jews holidaying in Aberystwyth – before she traveled across Europe and Asia to capture China, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan through a lens. 
In Azerbaijan, she documented locals plagued by cirrhosis and rheumatisms bathing in crude oil.
“It felt like the world had gone mad,” she said. 
“With ideas of oil companies being corrupt and evil, to see it as a health remedy… well, a photograph can make you reassess your views.”
With budgets tightening and competition becoming increasingly fierce, Evans admitted that Panos are “always looking for funding” and photographers “have to support themselves.”
“Photographers are like little NGOs themselves, they have to be able to write proposals and go out there,” he said, adding that many photographers now look to displaying their work in galleries for a fee. 
But the tireless work of Panos was summed up by award-winning photographer, Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of the Arts and moderator Paul Lowe.
“Nowadays it’s not just about the photographs. It’s about who you’re working with and why. 
“We communicate to the world our interest, our passions, our desires. I’d like to think Panos does this.”