VII’s Questions Without Answers: An evolving legacy

By Merryn Johnson

Photography agency VII’s latest publication, Questions Without Answers, not only spans over two decades of world history, but it also spans the evolution of photojournalism and the photographers who have pioneered their own take on the industry.

The book reflects the independence that the VII founders established for themselves when they set up their agency in 2001 – the ability to change and develop and evolve. Three out of the original seven founding members were on the panel for Monday’s event, Gary Knight, Christopher Morris and John Stanmeyer. All have been able to escape the constraints of the major agency, setting their own agenda and timetables.

Three years in the making, Questions Without Answers covers a broad spectrum of reportage. Chairing the event, Alexia Singh, Editor-in-Charge of the Wider Image Desk at Thompson Reuters, remarked on the contrast of Gary Knight’s coverage in Iraq – “a terrifying blood, sweat and tears story” – to his slower paced, contemplative documentation of poverty in India.

Knight said: “I got a lot more than I bargained for. . . . I really grew a little tired of the violence and I started to think of ways to move away from that kind of photography.”

But non-conflict work also brings its horrors. In 2004, John Stanmeyer’s reached the tsunami-torn shores of Sri Lanka within 24 hours of the waves hitting, before moving on the cover the impact in Aceh.

“I’ve been in a lot of natural disasters, of course a lot of conflicts, but natural disasters have a different psychological effect,” said Stanmeyer. “In a natural disaster there is no one to blame. Who are you going to blame? Are you going to blame God? Allah? Buddha? It was a calamity of a scope that is beyond human scale. It was beyond photography, it was beyond a camera, it was beyond me.”

Christopher Morris has also made a move from conflict photography, which he initially considered “the ultimate in photography – man trying to kill another man – the ultimate evil in humanity”. But that move away from conflict photography has allowed him closer focus on the decision makers:

“For me it’s fascinating to cover politics because you cover conflict all your life and these are the people that actually carry it through, these are the people that make the decisions.”

The agency seems to have created the space for its members to explore the space that surrounds the actions of war and conflict. The fourth panellist, Lynsey Addario, said that she was always drawn to “the issues surrounding war – on the margins”.

Addario is one of the seven women who now make up the agency of 23, helping to tip the scales in this once male-dominated industry. Admitting that the work can be “physically gruelling and emotionally draining”, she said that a person’s reactions depend on their own sensitivities: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman.”

Knight expanded on this point:

“Too much can be made of [the gender issue] – they’re out there and they’re doing it, and they’re doing it very, very well. . . . Over the course of my career, you see many, many more women photographing, one of the problems is you don’t have many ethnicities photographing.”

To try and rectify this imbalance, VII launched a mentor programme to try and encourage photojournalism globally, giving budding photographers a chance to develop and find their own voice and audience.

In Stanmeyer’s words, this is the kind of “empowerment” that VII has brought to its members, a freedom to act independently, which Knight likened to the lunatics taking over the asylum. But Questions Without Answers is a testament to the lunatics’ success. “The challenge now,” said Knight, “is building something that will last . . . a legacy.”