Stephen Mayes on the future of photo journalism

VII Photos boss on being mission driven, how audio is changing everything and the need for a good smart phone.

Members of the VII photo agency were in London this week to give a talk at the Frontline Club. 

We were there and we’ll bring you a video from the event tomorrow. While they were here though we took the opportunity to catch up with VII’s CEO Stephen Mayes and ask him a few questions about the agency and the changing face of photo journalism. 

We also got a very limited number of our new VII book Questions Without Answers signed by photographers Ron Haviv, Ed Kashi, Gary Knight, Joachim Ladefoged, Christopher Morris, Franco Pagetti and John Stanmeyer. For now, over to Stephen.

Stephen Mayes

How has the message of photojournalism changed since VII’s inception? People’s consumption of photography has changed enormously. You see a lot more of it and in a lot more varied subjects. I think at VII we’re not trying to change what the photographers do because we’re mission driven. We’re identifying the subjects we feel strongly about and are reporting on them to our best abilities. And it’s our intention to use photography for positive change. So we’re not trying to change that but what’s happened in the last 10 years is that our audience has grown more online and particularly people who are actively interested in a subject are able to find what we’re doing moe easily. 

I see our main challenge not to change the content but to change thecontext, and in many ways Questions Without Answers does that. Taking the story out of its original context, which was magazines newspapers and the like, and showing it to a different audience, giving it a different frame in which to understand the work. That frame is twofold: chapters arranged by subject which guide the readers through issues they may be interested in; and also by photographer, and each photographer has a very particular voice or thumb print which allows people to understand how they’re interpreting the subject. Photography looks subjective but of course it isn’t. It’s always an interpretive medium. One of the things that Questions Without Answers does is that it gives the photographer that little bit of space to express the issue as they see it, the way they see the world in what they choose to cover and how that has changed over the years. Obviously there’s a lot of conflict in the book because we’ve been living through a period with a lot of conflict.

How are the kinds of photos you’re being shown or the pitches you’re getting from photographers changing? That’s an interesting question. To be honest I have to say I’m not seeing a different kind of picture. I say unfortunately because a lot of the same kind of stuff keeps happening. But the work I see from each individual keeps changing. So as their lives and practice develop, they’re photographing different kinds of work. Maybe the most dramatic example of this is Christopher Morris who was, in the 1990s, up close to conflict. He took very dramatic pictures from Chechnya and then he transitioned into political coverage and he had that still reportage style he developed. Most recently he’s moved into fashion.

One of the questions I’ve had with the photographers here has been around the repetitious nature of the photographs. The question is I’ve seen it before why do I need to see it again? Show me something new - which is kind of a common attitude. And one of the things they convinced me quite successfully is that it’s not about novelty. The quality of the work is not in the artistic description, it’s in the interpretation and the visceral impact of the images. So they’re not aspiring to create artwork they’re aspiring to report on the world and to create the maximum impact.

That doesn’t mean the most shocking. It can be an emotional reaction which can be heart warming as well as heart breaking. So they’re not looking to decorate the situation in any way. Having said that, across the last 10 years particularly in the last two or three years, there has been a more stylised approach from photographers. In Libya last year particularly there were a lot of photographers experimenting with very different styles of work. I’m glad to see people push the boundaries and experiment but at the same time I wonder if that’s really respectful to the subject they’re covering. If you’re covering a really serious issue your primary responsibility must to be to cover that issue and if you want to expand your photographic practice or your visual style maybe there’s other places to do that.

How does the technology available impact on what photographers are choosing to cover? I think in photo journalism it’s taking a little longer than it is in other forms of photography and that’s because there’s a particular need for authenticity in the images. In other words it becomes quite dangerous to start manipulating your images in this context and therefore there are certain ethical issues around integrity and credibility which oblige photo journalists to be relatively direct in the styles they take.

As the internet has developed over the last 10 years. There has been a desire for video. That meant photographers carrying a stills camera and a video camera. The breakthrough came a few years ago with the introduction of the Canon 5D Mark II. This was a very particular camera that came into the market which allows the photographer to do stills and video and that in a single stroke transformed the practice of photojournalism.

The ways of using audio are many and varied. One can create a slide show of images with a voice or audio over for instance. It’s an area we’ve only just begun to explore and there is a huge expansion in how we’re approaching it. The impact of actually hearing the voice of a subject is enormous. Something that a photo journalist has done for years is take down quotes and document the words of the subject but to actually hear the subject speaking them is very powerful.

And, more recently, the smartphone is having a huge effect on the way photojournalists work. Partly because of the mobility of it, partly because of the invisibility of it. If you’re a photo journalist in a sensitive area nobody pays much attention if you pull out a phone. People definitely pay attention if you pull out a big camera and start looking like a professional photographer. And of course the aesthetic it brings with it is also very different. Different format filters are applied. It’s something that’s so very current, it’s very now we don’t know quite where it’s going and very definitely changing the way we work. We are producing cell phone pictures and they’re being published both in print and online.

What I would say to that is that what’s happening with mainstream photography is that it’s becoming much more about experience than documenting. It’s about sharing current experience and rather than creating a document for record there is something very different about posting an image on Facebook and either making an album of your family that sits around for years, or creating a document in a journalistic archive such as Questions Without Answers which is then referenced as evidence of history. Posting images on Facebook becomes this stream where tomorrow it’s gone, in the next hour even it’s gone. It’s just about participating in the moment so it’s a very different form of coverage. But again it doesn’t replace the old.”