“The true face of war would inevitably be anti-war,” said James Nachtwey in almost a whisper to a packed audience at the Royal Geographic Society in London last week.
Nachtwey was speaking at the the VII Photo Agency’s first European seminar, a two day event featuring talks and multimedia and video presentations from all ten of the agency’s members, plus panel discussions, question times, and for a select few a third day of portfolio reviews at the Frontline Club in Paddington.
Opening the event Gary Knight spoke of VII as a continuous experiment that the members wanted to share with the photographic community, and how the agency was founded (on the eve of 9/11) because of a growing dissatisfaction with the way the industry was changing.
Media savvy and committed to the cause of reporting and communicating the injustices of the world, VII has harnessed the virtual world in its mission.
“You were moving, moving, moving and seeing people’s faces and making a picture and then moving,” said Eugene Richards recalling the time he barged into a psychiatric hospital without permission accompanied by a team from Mental Disability Rights International, now called Disability Rights International.
‘A Procession of Them’ Richards jagged, close-up scrutiny of his contact sheets reflecting the fractured lives of the inmates of a Mexican mental hospital is one of his recent departures into multimedia. Yet, Richards admitted to EPUK, “It’s not a choice you want to make necessarily, but this is how younger people are learning today and part of being a photojournalist is to provide historical material and to be an educator. If in a short production you can grab people for five minutes on a web site then your work does have value.”
John G Morris, key note speaker whose canny eye picture edited many of the most powerful images of the 20th century, sees the moving image eroding the power of the still image, and worries about what he calls the disturbing tendency of newspapers to take stills from video. A veteran of Life, The New York Times and The Washington Post, Morris added that the survival of all newspapers is now dependent on the web.
After seven decades in the business, John Morris is stunned by the ease of modern communications and does see it as a powerful tool for democracy around the world.
“That’s where photography gets exciting,” said Lauren Greenfield talking of how her work on the emotional and social life of American girlhood has broken the confines of the photographic and art communities. When her first book Fast Forward became a museum show and then part of the educational curriculum in Arizona, she realised how acceptable photography was to young people and how it could be a jumping off point for educators.
Named by American Photo magazine with VII colleagues Nachtwey and Richards as one of the 25 most important photographers working today, Lauren has recently expanded her double award winning web site laurengreenfield.com by adding THIN and Girl Culture forums that encourage participation in discussions on the issues of body image, gender identity and eating disorders. “Girls use their bodies as voices,” she said.
In 2006 Lauren completed a feature length documentary to make a THIN trinity of book, web site and film and was excited to hear from Nachtwey that the documentary was shown on his Virgin Atlantic flight into town.
James Nachtwey arrived in London between an assignment for Time magazine and overseeing major exhibitions of his work at the United Nations and the 401 Projects in New York. His photographs are also currently being exhibited at FOAM in Amsterdam and the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin.
During his presentation, Nachtwey spoke of being one day at the Mandela inauguration – the most uplifting thing he had ever seen – and the next in Rwanda where 800,000 people were slaughtered. How he then evolved from war to social issues, to industrial pollution and to global health and the linking of tuberculosis and Aids. Of 9/11 he said he didn’t see either of the planes hit, but realised on that day in New York, that what he was photographing was the same story he had been covering for 20 years. ‘The Passion of Allah’ was his moving response, and his work received a standing ovation. The first to their feet was 90 year old John Morris, friend of Capa, Cartier-Bresson and committed photography.
On multimedia (a term he thought dated ill-defining) the world’s greatest living war photographer told EPUK “something is lost and something is gained,” elaborating that there are definite changes in the way a moving image and a still image are perceived and felt by the viewer. But Nachtwey believed that eventually all photographers working in mass media would incorporate their work into multimedia.
Alexandra Boulat, the daughter of Life magazine photographer Pierre, added music to her images for the first time with ‘Women of the Middle East’, a multimedia presentation that lifts the veil on the condition of women in the region. With access to women’s groups in Palestine and women-only areas in mosques throughout the region, it was apparent many of the painterly images she captured would have been impossible to a male photographer.
On being a woman photographer Lauren Greenfield told EPUK “in the time that I grew up there was an interest and an audience for new voices and different voices and different points of view, so if anything I feel like coming from my own perspective as a woman was an advantage”. Photography today is an incredibly competitive, but equal field where people need to be on the edge of what is new and latest and greatest, she said, adding “there is no luxury of discrimination.”
Antonin Kratochvil, Joachim Ladefoged, John Stanmeyer and Ron Haviv made moving presentations with work on Iraq, Albania, the Asian tsunami and Bosnia.
One of the biggest cheers of the two day seminar was for the work shown by Time magazine contractor Christopher Morris on Saturday morning.
When Morris informed Time that his young daughter was more important to him than risking his life photographing “another idiot with a gun” the picture desk assigned him to the White House of George W Bush, a man in a suite.
For the next five years Morris found himself living in a Republican world of the very proper, very straight, very clean.
Reflecting this in his book My America Morris shot “as the eye sees”, without distortion on the upper range of a 24-70 zoom. Mouths gawk, security stand, flags blow and motorcades drive, but always the clothes fit, and the ties stay tied.
Images from My America were followed by a short black and white film ‘The Dear Leader’. It may never be shown in public as Christopher Morris worries about the copyright of the music and Time would be unlikely to ever put it on their web site. Which is a pity. [In 2008 ‘The Dear Leader’ was released on Dispatches.]
Gary Knight showed his compassionate side with images of the Lifeline Express in India, then spoke of life on the road during the invasion of Iraq. His meeting in the desert with Col McCoy of the US Marines “media savvy and gung ho” led to some of the best images of the 2003 invasion. On getting to the Marines in the first place and avoiding the press pack mentality, Knight told the audience “think for yourself”.
Later Knight laid into the British press saying the setting up of photographs was endemic. “It was a disgrace”. In support John Stanmeyer stressed the importance of educating photographers of all ages, saying “the strength of reality is the greatest power of photography”.
So what about VII ? What makes this agency’s photographers different, and what might we learn from them ?
For Kate Edwards of the Guardian Weekend and panellist on the Picture Editors Speak Out session, the success of VII’s photographers lies in their commitment to their specific areas. “They don’t try to be exhaustive in their coverage, but exacting and meaningful in the areas that they care about,” she said. “Great, committed photography will always be valued and desired. It’s important for photographers to find a subject that they really believe in, as that commitment comes through in their work, making it stronger and more affecting”.
Fellow industry experts Francois Hebel and Jon Levy, sitting on The Role of Photography in Effecting Change panel, agree.
Hebel, Director of the Rencontres d’Arles Photo Festival, said photographers are now in a world where they have to have a strategy.
For Levy who created foto8 as a story telling vehicle, the task is always about engaging an audience. On change he said “Why should a photographer worry any more about change than an engineer ?”
But even Eugene Richards admits it can be hard getting good work published, “a lot of the work I want to do – like women’s breast cancer many years ago – no one would publish the story, so what are you left with ? It is an insult to the people you spent the time with, so you do everything you can to get a book out of it, at least it’s out, and that’s how I feel about multimedia.”
“About the war we are in now, I’m trying to do stories, I am having a hard time getting them published. I went to a magazine The Nation that doesn’t use photographs and they are using them, but what do you do next ? Actually, I’ve made anti-war posters and I’m giving them away. Whatever will do.”
“If you can’t use your pictures one way use them another way” said the man described by Don McCullin as possibly the best walking, living photographer in the world.
“VII is a group of very hard working people, and that’s what I like the best about them, they are photographers who are working their asses off in various ways,” said Richards. “And there is an energy.”
• ALEXANDRA BOULAT, founding member of the VII Photo Agency died on October 5th 2007 following a brain aneurysm suffered while working in Ramallah. She was 45. Boulat’s work, published at the highest level, won many awards including a World Press Photo award in 2003. VII colleague Ron Haviv, said Alex “will live on as an inspiration to other women conflict photographers and this – as much as the work she produced – will be her legacy.”
• Alexandra Boulat slide show on Photo Histories.
• James Nachtwey’s TED Award speech My photographs bear witness incorporates much of what Nachtwey said in London in April 2007.