Photo Week 2012- VII Photo Seminar on Making the media work for you

By Sophia Spring

On Tuesday the Royal Institution of Great Britain was flooded with both aspiring and established photojournalists who had come to hear 13 photojournalists from the prestigious VII Photo agency.

Vaughan Smith, the Frontline Club’s founder, started proceedings by giving a brief overview of the challenges facing modern photojournalism. He explained that the decline of the traditional news model means that photojournalists cannot expect the kind of investment they once had from the print media, but that this development can be viewed in positive terms because they “can define the future of journalism”.

Smith believes that freelance journalists can take a more prominent place within the media landscape through social media and the Internet, and the members of VII Photo are doing just that. An agency “by photographers for photographers” they are “helping to change the media landscape”.

The first discussion of the morning was lead by Max Houghton, editor of Foto8 magazine, who was joined by two of VII Photo’s founders, Christopher Morris and Ron Haviv, and long time members Seamus Murphy and Franco Pagetti.  

Firstly, Houghton wanted to know how their work has evolved over the years. They all agreed that they had become more thoughtful in their practice, but they had differing views on how they and their work fitted into the new media landscape.

Ron Haviv asserted that “new tools are enabling us to become full authors”, and that a lesser dependency on print media is liberating the photographer from the constraints placed by picture editors. 

Conversely Christopher Morris has “struggled with the new marketplace” and has had to reinvent himself as a fashion photographer. He explained that in the past large media corporations would fund lengthy projects abroad, whereas now photographers are forced to turn to methods including crowd funding and self-financing.

The second panel lead by the London College of Communication’s Paul Lowe was comprised of VII Photo co-founder Gary Knight, alongside Ashley Gilbertson, Anastasia Taylor-Lind and Ron Haviv. Their discussion began with the role of mentoring and education within the field of photojournalism. Ron Haviv stated that “its integral to all…photojournalists’ to give some thing back to the next generation.

Anastasia Taylor-Lind, who was mentored by Haviv, felt that she gained invaluable guidance from the experience and his “generosity of ideas”. 

Gary Knight expressed his hope that “a greater diversity of people and communities” would begin to engage with photography, in the hope of opening up the field of photojournalism to new perspectives.

Paul Lowe then asked the panel whether research prior to shooting a project was important. All agreed that it was essential, with Ron Haviv asserting that the journalism aspect of photojournalism is often ignored, but that in fact it is essential:

“the more knowledge we have of what we’re photographing the better”

Ashley Gilbertson agreed but explained that invariably all one’s research takes on a different meaning when you are actually in the field, and that covering a story ends up being very “organic process”. 

The discussion was concluded with a question from the audience on the importance of a formal education in photography. Anastasia Taylor-Lind explained that her extensive education – the completion of a BA, MA, numerous workshops and a mentoring scheme had been incredibly useful in her development as a photojournalist. While Ashley Gilbertson felt that his lack of formal education meant that his progression into a “thinking photographer” was slower than his peers, and that he had to force himself into academia later in life.  

Gary Knight emphasised the importance of a rounded education, because he believes that to be a good photojournalist “you need to be a thinking person”.

The final panel of the day, moderated by the director of VII Photo in New York Stephen Mayes, included VII Photo members Venetia Dearden, Ed Kashi, Tomas van Houtryve, Gary Knight, Donald Weber and Jon Jones, the director of photography at The Sunday Times. 

Mayes opened the discussion with an optimistic interpretation of the current climate faced by photojournalists. He believes that photographers are in a better place to get funding because they are liberated from the previous “monolithic model”. At present there is not just one “singular solution” but instead many ways to fund work. He concluded that “the greatest challenge” faced by photojournalists is “the challenge of imagination”.

The panel members then described their own wildly different approaches to funding projects. Jon Jones and Gary Knight collaborated on the compilation of a book of photographs from the Bosnian conflict. They described raising half of the $35,000 needed from licensing and the rest from crowd funding through social media and personal emails. 

Donald Weber explained that his approach to funding projects was through corporate and private sponsors. Consequently he has “complete freedom and control” over his work, something he would have to relinquish if being paid by a magazine. 

Tomas van Houtryve felt that he didn’t “want to be held hostage” by the constraints of a commission. He therefore looked to individuals to help him fund his book Behind the Curtains. Through his website and blog he was able to interact with his audience throughout the process of shooting the project, which gave his backers “a sense of investment beyond the financial”. 

The corporate world, as Venetia Dearden explained, has the resources to fund work. Therefore photographers need to look for companies that have “a natural fit” with their work. In her case it was the fashion brand Mulberry. Her relationship with them was forged after they saw her project ‘Somerset Stories’. Mulberry, which has strong connections with Somerset, have gone on to publish three of her books, as well as commissioning a book to celebrate 40 years of Mulberry. 

She urged fellow photographers to find “imaginative and resourceful” ways to fund their projects.