VII Photo Agency’s Stephen Mayes Discusses Photojournalism
With the advent of digital imaging–both in capturing and distributing–came the inevitable change in how people consume the events of the world. The days are dwindling in which the printed newspaper and magazine were the only ways to discover the happenings of society. The major shift in image distribution has left the world of photojournalism in a strange place. With a decrease in editorial clients, or at least hard revenues from it, some photographic agencies have seen new opportunities and, in fact, are shaping the future of what we see and how we see it. I have long been fascinated by the photographic agency VII, and Managing Director Stephen Mayes was kind enough to answer a few questions about the agency and its goals.
Pictureline: Tell us bit about the agency VII and its mission.
Stephen Mayes: VII Photo Agency was created in 2001 by seven of the world’s leading photojournalists committed to photography for positive change. Now representing 23 photographers, VII covers humanitarian issues, health and conflict – environmental, social and political, both violent and non-violent and we look for meaningful applications for the work in print, broadcast, exhibition and social media.
Pictureline: What has set apart the photographers that VII chooses to work with and how does this relationship evolve through time?
Stephen Mayes: New members of VII are selected by the collective who are looking for photographers working with the highest standards of journalistic and documentary integrity, who will extend the breadth of work we currently produce and who we believe we can work within the structure of VII. Quality journalism, photography and integrity are key.
Pictureline: How did you find yourself a managing director at a well known photojournalism agency? What has been your relationship to photography personally?
Stephen Mayes: I started my career as a press photographer in UK, but I quickly realized that my skills lay in other areas. I moved into creative management and spent several years running a British photojournalists’ collective called Network Photographers. Since then, my career took several twists. I worked in commercial photography as Group Creative Director for Getty Images, also for a while in the art world with eyestorm.com representing Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, Maurizio Cattelan, Jeff Koons and other A-list artists. Then some years in the fashion world with Art And Commerce (Steven Meisel, Craig McDean and archives of Guy Bourdin, Robert Mapplethorpe and more). Most recently, I returned to my roots in journalism when I took the position with VII Photo Agency in 2008. It’s been an interesting career, and I’ve seen and done much more than I could have as a photographer.
Pictureline: I am continually interested in those individuals such as yourself who steer some of the content that is distributed into the press. How do you see your own role in what the public views as journalism?
Stephen Mayes: I used to see my role as a gate-keeper with access to photographers on one side and to the media on the other and my job was to filter, effectively making information choices for people. Thankfully, this has changed and none of us can claim to be gatekeepers any more. Instead, we are participants in a world of shared information, and as such my skills are applied to help people find the inspiration that they need. This isn’t a top-down culture any more, and the days of experts telling what others what they should know are fading fast. Nowadays, the smart people in the communication business are listening as much as they’re talking, and my job is to facilitate conversation. If I’m successful, I hope that I also facilitate thought and learning. And on very successful days, maybe I provoke people to actually take action.
Pictureline: You mentioned in a PDN article last year that you wished some of the directions of photojournalism focused less on recognizable, sweeping tragedy and more on personal stories, perhaps more intimate reflections about what was happening in the world. Have you seen that change? Has VII instituted a move toward this mentality?
Stephen Mayes: I am beginning to see that change. As the traditional print and broadcast media loses its stranglehold on the definition of news, people are increasingly defining their own interests. We’re not waiting to be spoon fed, and we’re looking for stories that interest us, and indeed also distributing our own stories. Inevitably this means that we see a more varied world that is richer and more intimate, whether it be news of our neighborhood or witnessing the disaster in Syria from the cell phone of a participant. VII has always straddled the worlds of “big news” and personal interests, for example in the work of Ed Kashi documenting the last years of his father-in-law or Stephanie Sinclair dedicating her life to pursuing subjects close to her heart such as child marriage.
Pictureline: What are some of the projects coming up in 2012 from VII photographers? What do we have to look forward to in terms of subject matter and delivery from these photographers?
Stephen Mayes: Since we failed to cure all the world’s ills in the first decade of the agency’s life you’ll see us continuing to campaign for human rights, environmental justice and the eradication of preventable diseases. We’re proud to take a pause to also look back with the publication of a massive retrospective of VII’s work: Questions Without Answers which will be published by Phaidon in May. www.phaidon.com/store/photography/questions-without-answers-9780714848402/
Pictureline: What do you suggest photographers who are interested in photojournalism and want to work for an agency such as VII do to prepare themselves? Schooling, personal projects?
Stephen Mayes: The best preparation you could do is to ask yourself, “Why would I want to belong to an agency?” Too many people join agencies to affirm their ego or for some sort of romantic ideal. But the truth is that agency life is tough and expensive, so the first step is to clearly identify what you want and how much you’re prepared to pay for it. Then shop around until you find the best agency for your needs. Alternatively, for the money you’d give to an agency you could hire an assistant (or two) and carve your own path through the media jungle. All you need is a camera, a computer, and an Internet connection, and you’re in business. Actually, these days if you have a good cell phone you might not even need all that. Just be smart and determined and you can make things happen. Thanks for your interest in VII and our work.
Pictureline: Thank you, Stephen. Fantastic work coming out of VII. Best of luck. You can review all of the photography projects past and present for VII on their website, www.viiphoto.com.