7 questions with VII
The VII Photo agency was born 15 years ago, started by some of the best photojournalists in the world, just as film was on the way out and digital was about to change photography forever. Capture spoke with some of VII’s founders to gain a valuable insight into the future of the collective, and the future of their industry.
Like all genres of photography, the world of photojournalism, editorial, and conflict photography has changed significantly in last two decades, to the point where it’s practically unrecognisable. The influences of citizen journalism, the ‘World Press aesthetic’ and the epoch of iPhone photography have drastically influenced the discourse of professional reportage, and in place of aesthetic documentation, a mass of shock-value imagery saturates the media. But fifteen years ago, at a time when digital photography was slowly taking hold, a group of the world’s leading photojournalists got together to form a photo agency dedicated to empowering photographers and preserving the art of reportage in the face of technology, and all the changes it would herald.
The VII Photo agency was founded in 2001 by seven of the world’s leading photojournalists (Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, Christopher Morris, John Stanmeyer, Alexandra Boulat, James Nachtwey, and Antonin Kratochvil) and has since become an institution for maintaining quality in reportage, while their archive of images represents a stunning synopsis of the late twentieth century’s defining moments. The future for the agency is looking very bright, and the future of the craft secure, with the revered VII Mentor Program, and a new CEO, Andy Patrick, at the helm.
Capture: Why was VII formed?
Ron Haviv: VII was born in a time of dramatic change in the business of photography. The initial impetus to start VII was the consolidation of photo agencies by Corbis and Getty in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The realisation that photographers were not having enough of a say in the way their work was managed from start to finish led Gary Knight and John Stanmeyer to look for a solution.
The advent of digital technology was beginning to allow photographers to manage the distribution and archiving of their work; something that had never really existed before. In short, the combination of the market and technology, along with the realisation that we needed to be more in control of all aspects of our photography, cemented the need for the creation of VII.
John Stanmeyer: To empower our work during the beginning of the era where we saw many photo agencies being purchased by large entries. Also as a means to collectively unite with like-minded people with the same purpose – passion.
Capture: How has the world changed since the beginning of VII? And how has this impacted your work and approach to photography?
Ron Haviv: The world continues to spin and VII continues to document the motion. Our audience has changed since our inception. We have moved more towards being publishers than content suppliers. VII uses the changing tools of visual storytelling to find different ways to reach our audiences.
Gary Knight: The main challenge for the agency is the change in the market, not politics or society. Storytellers have to deal with the world as they find it, and that is part of the magic of this job. The market changes have been dramatic and we are still managing them. The two principle daily challenges are the means of production and the sale of product. We could never have anticipated how enormous those changes would be. The means of distribution have also changed: the obvious benefit is of course that we can reach our audience directly, but the cost of that has been that revenue from image sales has dropped significantly.
We now work more in partnership and collaboration with others. The new economy has been interesting for me. I decided that I wanted to stop photographing war during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, about the time the media really started to struggle. I was lucky, and was able to leave that world early and migrate to a space where my photographic, academic and entrepreneurial interests could all be developed.
John Stanmeyer: Changed exactly as envisioned, where the power to communicate has never been more profound and purposeful, especially for small collective groups. Profoundly, in a wonderful way. Expanding and communicating in astonishing ways we only imagined when starting VII, today actually seeing those wheels turning. It is an exciting, empowering, engaging time for photography and humanity.
Capture: What is the key advice given to those partaking in the VII Mentor Program? What does VII try to encourage in up-and-coming photographers?
Ron Haviv: There is a great belief in the idea of helping the next generation of photographers. Many of us benefitted from formal and informal mentorships in our career. The mentees are guided both in their photographic path as well as the business path, to help them not only survive, but thrive once they leave the program.
Gary Knight: I think anyone involved in that program needs to be bold and really demand a lot from the person mentoring them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The value of the experience depends on how you manage the relationship with the mentor. I think the greatest value is structural – how to structure your work, how to build a career – rather than aesthetic.
John Stanmeyer: There isn’t one universal piece of advice for those in the Mentor Program. Each is a creative, impassioned individual in their own right. We (the members who are support and collaborate with other photographers and the mentee) try to nurture and expand that individual’s vision and purpose, and help and guide them to foster their careers and fire. There isn’t one universality.
Capture: What are your views on the current state of the industry? What is of concern to you? And where are we making progress with photography?
Ron Haviv: The industry remains in flux, as it has been since I started more than 25 years ago. Sources of funding and ways to reach audiences remain challenges. At the same time, great opportunities exist for photographers to have impact with their work and make a living while doing so. And ultimately, it must be remembered that visual storytelling is crucial in keeping the world community connected, so there must be constant support for this work.
Gary Knight: I just take it as it is and try to adapt. I think that is the best way to survive or thrive. I think creating value in specialisation is the key for agencies like VII.
John Stanmeyer: No concerns whatsoever. Limitless potential. It’s just completely different to 15 years ago, and utterly different to one year ago. Even six months ago is very different, and a year from now things will be astoundingly different too. Concerns would only be for those who do not realise the enormous possibilities taking place.
Capture: How would you suggest photojournalists/documentary photographers survive in these challenging times?
Ron Haviv: Survival today is accomplished by having smart ideas in combination with a great visual voice. It’s that simple.
Gary Knight: Work vertically rather than laterally. Become known for deep knowledge of something. Think of yourself as a specialist in an issue first, and a photographer second.
John Stanmeyer: Adapt. Embrace. Work relentlessly, passionately. There have never been more opportunities in photojournalism/documentary photography than there are today. Again, it is simply utterly different from 3–6 months ago, as if 15 years ago was the Palaeolithic era.
Capture: How is technology impacting the industry? And how should photojournalists be looking to interact with this?
Ron Haviv: Photography has always intertwined with developments in technology; the two go hand-in-hand. The relatively new tools of VR, along with the somewhat older tools of video and audio should be incorporated when needed. Photographers have never been afraid to push to the next level.
Gary Knight: Like any business or craft, it is important to understand all the new technology advancements and chose what you want to use and engage with, but you probably don’t need it all. Ultimately, the technology is a tool, not a strategy. Use the tools you need to execute the strategy. My main focus is critical thought, analysis, research, understanding, and communicating ideas – and then using the technologies I need to achieve those aims. I don’t start with the technology and then see what fits.
Capture: What does the future look like for photojournalism and documentary photography? And how will this influence the direction that VII takes in the future?
Ron Haviv: The future is always going to be about working out how we can reach our audience. I exist to tell a story, and I want it to have impact. As our audience becomes more fragmented, we face more challenges in being part of the conversation. This constant struggle of how to rise above and stand out will shape the direction of VII as we move into the future.
Gary Knight: I have no idea what the future holds. What I think is critical is this: VII needs to have the best management team that it can afford to adapt to the market. It needs to be entrepreneurial and light-footed, and we need strong photographers who produce insightful and thoughtful work. With those things in place, we can adapt and have a chance of surviving – and hopefully thriving!
Andy Patrick: Photojournalism and documentary photography are under continual pressure. Whether it’s the collapse of the editorial market, the collapse of the re-sale market, the impact of digital and the Internet, or that nearly everyone now has a camera in their pocket – the fact is that to be successful in the photography business requires a broad and agile approach, combined with a lot of hustle. Broad as in looking at the full spectrum of the market to identify business opportunities. Agile as in being flexible with your business, reassessing frequently so as to make adjustments to your approach. And hustle as in working your tail off, keeping your eyes open for opportunity, and leveraging your networks. As applied to VII, this means you’ll see us experimenting with new ways of reaching audiences around the world, learning in the process and adjusting as we go.
With the billion or so images uploaded to the Internet every day, it is now even more important that a distinction be made between being able to ‘snap a picture’ and being able to develop a visual story that has intimacy with its subjects, authenticity in its approach, and heart at its core. The younger generations in particular now use images as their primary means of communicating. Details of this vernacular are still evolving, but the requirement for authenticity is a key element. As some of the most authentic humans on the planet, photojournalists and documentary photographers are central to our understanding of what it means to be alive. In this sense, there could not be a more important time for our craft.