Profile: Gary Knight
Sitting pretty on the list of history’s most influential photojournalists, British photographer Gary Knight has dedicated his entire life to the practise of bearing witness. But not limiting his career to personal endeavours, Knight has proven himself a true bastion of photography, establishing several of the medium’s most well respected institutions. Sam Edmonds had a chat with the man himself to learn more.
Google the word photojournalist and you will be met with a short list of the genre’s most influential people. Over the 20th and 21st centuries, Capa, Nachtwey, McCullin, Carter, and a handful of others have become as near to household names as photographers get, but of all those inscribed on photojournalism’s A-list, it is very difficult to point to a name more influential than Gary Knight. While maybe not possessing the same grandeur in the public’s eye as a Cartier-Bresson or a Steve McCurry, Knight has arguably done more for photojournalism than any other individual.
Covering several of the modern world’s most important humanitarian issues, Knight’s personal learning curve within photojournalism led him to found the VII agency – now an ecosystem of institutions at the forefront of advocacy for photojournalism and independent storytelling. Furthermore, his prevalence within the World Press Photo (WPP) organisation, but also his ongoing commitment to pushing the limits of photographic understanding, have both served as testament to his true belief in the ability of images as catalysts for change. And in 2019, with the announcement of even more philanthropic endeavours under the VII banner, Knight has surely cemented his place at photojournalism’s round table.
Born in 1964 in Oakham, England, Gary Knight’s childhood and upbringing reflect one not dissimilar to that of many of photography’s greats: some domestic turmoil and a longing to “engage in a world very far from the one I was raised in” spurred a deep curiosity sparked by seemingly limited opportunity. Coupled with an entrenched sense of “British colonial adventurism”, Knight cites both his family’s heritage and a small collection of photographic publications as the catalyst for his interest in the medium. “My family were first generation post-war middle-class, and horizons for young men like me were generally quite limited,” he says. “I came across Richard Whelan’s biography of Robert Capa, and Tim Page’s book, Nam. They inspired me to look at photography as a means to escape.”
Abandoning his formal education, in the late 1980s Knight relocated to Indochina to kick-start his career with a camera. Living and working at various times alongside such influences as Philip Blenkinsop, Emmanuel Dunand, and Thierry Falise, Knight based himself primarily out of Bangkok, Thailand, beginning the arduous process of acquiring work as a freelancer. But it wasn’t until January 1993 that a move to cover the unfolding conflict in former Yugoslavia marked the most formative years for Gary Knight.
Photographing the war until its end in December 1995, Knight recounts the sense of obligation to his editorial clients, but also a burning sense of failure to adequately address the central concern of the conflict: the blatant war crimes he had bore witness to. “I was very angry in former Yugoslavia, angry that too little had been done to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity. I wanted to be more engaged, be less of a journalist and more of an advocate. It felt more natural to me,” he says. “Gilles Peress encouraged me to approach Kosovo through the prism of war crimes. We had worked together since Sarajevo in 1993 and he told me early in Kosovo that it was time for me to decide what kind of photographer I wanted to be.”
Coming off the back of the Balkans War, and arguably his most formative years as a photojournalist, Knight – by those that inspired him as well as the process of photographing war itself – had been thoroughly convinced of photography’s ability to act as a conduit for change or social upheaval. “Personally, the entire war had a very significant effect on me. I felt very connected to the people there, naively perhaps, I felt that I was working with them, not just photographing them,” he says. “For photographers who see their work is part of civic discourse, or human rights activism, or who work in the secular humanist tradition, bearing witness is critical.” It’s in light of this ideology that Knight partnered with six fellow photojournalists to found one of photojournalism’s most emboldened pillars of thoughtful, contemporary practice: the VII photo agency.
Formed just several days before 9/11 by Knight, photographer John Stanmeyer, and a collection of their closest comrades, the agency set out to challenge the status quo and to provide a platform for independent storytelling – an M.O. that to this day sees it remain a “disruptive and innovative business unafraid to swim against the prevailing currents”. But as Knight explains, the agency’s strategy has vastly evolved over time, reflecting the needs and wants of photojournalists in a rapidly changing environment. After writing up the original plan for the agency in Stanmeyer’s studio during a storm in Hong Kong, just two years later VII was named as the third most influential entity in photography by American Photo magazine.
Presently, the group has expanded from its eponymous integer of members to a much more robust 39 – testament to the drastically expanding periphery of subject matter being tackled by visual journalists. “The VII Agency now bears no resemblance to what it was,” says Knight. “It is more diverse, and much more involved in a broader definition of photography than it was when it started.” Now a cluster of independent structures that partner with each other, the agency itself comprises only a small portion of the VII ecosystem with the VII Foundation and newly founded VII Academy representing the “most ambitious projects” Knight had personally ever undertaken.
A Changing Landscape
While the VII agency’s focus on traditional photojournalism has since expanded to cover a broader documentary approach to issues of race, gender, identity, and environment, many of the agency’s founding members, including Knight, are still very much known for their documentation of war and its surrounding issues.
Moving on from the conflict in the Balkans and in the aftermath of 9/11, Knight turned his gaze more heavily to the usurpation of Soviet occupation in Afghanistan by what would become the United States’ longest war. On the 13th of September 2001, Knight flew to Pakistan, in transit for Afghanistan, on assignment for Newsweek to cover the US retaliation for the Al-Qaeda attacks on New York, and made what is now a staple in his canon of war-related work: a series of panoramic landscapes that he says were the result of “a desire to escape the violence momentarily, rather than to create images for publication.”
Up until 2009, Knight would continue his work as a contract photographer for Newsweek, during which time his coverage of both Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq would become extensive. It’s here that Knight cemented his name as one of the world’s foremost documentarians of conflict, but it again provided a steep personal learning curve. On one hand, Knight learned to see beyond the clichéd expectations of war, but on the other laments the visual tropes perpetrated by one-dimensional journalistic demands from the West. “A lot of the work I produced in Afghanistan was very gentle, as that is often how I responded to the place, despite the violence around me. Wars aren’t only home to violence; there is a lot of compassion and beauty in the lives of people struggling to survive in that environment,” he says. “I think we all contribute to perpetuating the violence and savagery, so much of which has been imposed upon the Afghans by outside actors, or in response to outside actors. We – outside storytellers – have done little to reveal an Afghan society that is recognisable to Afghans.”
Building on this ideological trajectory within his chosen field, Knight has spent much of the last few years focusing on long-term projects and pushing the self-imposed boundaries of photojournalism. Facilitating this greatly was an opportunity in 2009 when Knight was awarded the prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University and moved to the United States – a period that would see the beginning of a “recalibration” of Knight’s approach to photography. Taking a number of fine art classes with Anne McGhee and another with Professor John Stilgoe investigating the built landscape, Knight says: “Just as the intellectual provocations by Gilles Peress had forced me to rethink what I was regarding, Professor Stilgoe’s class changed my relationship with the landscape which until then had really just been a stage where the actors in my images played out their lives.”
Feeling ground down by the repetitive nature of his assignment work over the previous decades, Knight sought a new body of work that would evoke an approach completely alien to his previous M.O. The resultant series, Inmigración Topografia, leaned heavily on aerial, landscape, and macro imagery to address the issue of illegal migration to the United States. In stark contrast to a traditional documentary approach, the series contains not one image of a person.
Creating the Future of Photojournalism
In many ways, one could interpret this recent work from Knight as symptomatic of a larger discourse concerning amendments to what is considered appropriate documentary practice. VII’s foundation as an agency whose ideology was most strongly rooted in a very traditional approach to photojournalism has since been almost entirely shed as practitioners, and indeed many of its founders, like Knight, have proven themselves as constant advocates for re-thinking and re-shaping photojournalism’s role in society.
Perhaps both a catalyst and gauge for him personally in this respect, Knight’s heavy involvement in yet another photographic pillar, World Press Photo, came at the early stages of photographers questioning the WPP’s ethics system and its perpetuation of photographic tropes. “Very broadly speaking, I think there have always been two kinds of photographer working in the documentary and photojournalism space, and they are often in philosophical conflict with each other,” says Knight. “Those for whom the issue takes precedence over the image and those for whom the image takes precedence over the issue. Awards cannot respond adequately to that, and we should not expect them to do so. Each award exists unto itself, and perpetuates itself, and their rules and regulations should be immaterial to the production of good work.”
When looking back on his career, it is tempting to define Knight’s approach to photojournalism through the lens of human rights. From his early days in Indochina to Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the common denominator has most blatantly been a heavy focus on the on-going ramifications of conflict. But in a similar respect, one could argue that Knight has done as much for his subjects by addressing the practice of photography itself.
As arguably the architect behind the VII, one could see the evolution of the photo agency’s official approach to documentary practice as heavily helmed by Knight himself and his on-going and thorough examination of his own discipline. “Human rights have been a significant part of my career, but I think much of my later career has also been focussed on creating institutions that help change the way the world is photographed, and by whom,” says Knight. “That is the legacy I am more interested in, rather than my own photography. My photography dealt with Human Rights in the broad terms laid out by the Universal Declaration, but there are broader definitions, and I think animal rights and environmental issues are just as important for men and women working now to address.”
Evidently, Knight’s legacy for photojournalism will be felt long into the future as the expanding ecosystem of VII philanthropy continues at a startlingly rapid pace. The organisation has just secured several million dollars to build schools for visual journalism in several non-G20 countries. Gazing back at the list of photojournalism’s most influential names, while a round table of human rights advocates and philanthropists emerges, a spotlight most certainly shines on Gary Knight. Having refined his personal practice as much as helped to form the ethos of modern photojournalism, the very face of contemporary photography has been drastically influenced by Knight’s community-focused endeavours in many respects.
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