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Forged in Fire

by Peter Howe

The official announcement came at Visa Pour L'Image in Perpignan on Thursday September 6th 2001. Seven photographers, all of whom were world renowned for their coverage of international turmoil, would come together to form an agency called VII. If timing is everything, then the timing of the announcement was uncanny. Less than a week later the world would be plunged into the first major conflict of the twenty first century, the war against terrorism. The first battles of this war would be fought by a coalition of America and Britain. Of the seven photographers only one, Alexandra Boulat, was not a citizen or resident of either nation. The conflict would be precipitated by the attacks on the World Trade Center. These occurred a few blocks from the apartment of one of them, James Nachtwey, giving him an advantage in timing that helped him be in a position to shoot some of the most powerful coverage of that tragic event. Both during and after the attacks the public's need for images seemed insatiable. Special editions of news magazines were rushed into print; newspapers devoted more and more space to photography; books dedicated to the event and to its heroes were hurriedly planned; a remarkable exhibition of images grew almost organically in the SoHo district of New York.

If VII is an idea whose time has come, then the time is now.

Shortly before the press conference that would be the vehicle for the announcement The Digital Journalist was given an exclusive interview with all of the photographers and VII's managing editor Ashley Woods. Their attendance at this year's Visa was the first time ever that they had all been together in the same room. It is a testament to the revolution in communication that the seven photographers, Alexandra Boulat, Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, Antonin Kratochvil, Christopher Morris, James Nachtwey and John Stanmeyer, could conceive, structure and realize an agency without the need to have a meeting with everyone physically present. It was also appropriate that the announcement should have been in Perpignan because it was at Visa the previous year that the final decision to move ahead was made by Alexandra, Gary and Ron in a nearby café.

As was repeated several times during the interview, the idea behind VII is not new. There have been and still are many photographer cooperatives, a term that some members of VII feel inappropriate for their partnership. As each of them describes the unit it sounds more like a friendship, even a brotherhood (if Alexandra will forgive the sexist categorization), than a business. It is a remarkably cohesive group, and for Jim Nachtwey this is a strength:

"The focus [of VII] is very tight. We're committed to the same kind of documentation of contemporary history, therefore we have many interests in common, and we have many needs in common. This particular group with this particular profile enables us to maintain a sharp focus on the things that are meaningful to us as photographers. Through the years the friendships that we have with each other are collegial relationships that have been forged in extremely difficult situations. Those relationships that have been forged in the field in real working conditions have brought us together and that's what is going to keep us together."

John Stanmeyer puts it more succinctly when he describes the make up of the partnership:

"It's seven individuals with seven perspectives that also wonderfully unite."

One of the most important differences between this and similar groups is the total commitment to using the Internet as the sole method of display and delivery of the available work. They believe that there are many advantages to this, not the least of which is the ability to keep a small number of support staff, thereby substantially reducing the agency overheads. Ashley Woods says that they need a staff that is flexible and which will travel extensively (although he wants to make it quite clear that there will always be someone to answer the phone.) He believes: "The agency will run itself quite easily."

This is not a struggling group of photographers trying to make their mark on the world but a partnership of some of the most established and high profile shooters working today. It might be described as an elite, and indeed has been so characterized by some including Le Monde. If it seems that some members of the group have difficulty with the term "cooperative" then they are unified in their insistence that they are not an "elite". The fact that each one of them is in a position to not worry about getting assignments is important to the operation of the agency. Chris Morris puts it this way:

"We're not photographers who are in need or in constant search of work. If one of us needs to go to Israel or one of us needs to do a story on Indonesia we can get there. We don't have to use the agency's resources to get there. We are constantly producing stories because we are constantly on assignment. Right away that separates our agency."

These seven photographers are constantly on assignment but the stories that they cover are often similar and sometimes the same. It is not inconceivable that several photographers from VII might cover a situation for several different magazines. Because the revenues of an agency whose photographers are on assignment come from secondary sales, there appears to be a danger that they would end up competing against each other for this subsequent usage. For John Stanmeyer the answer is in the film:

"We've all been in similar situations almost standing next to each other. Look at the film and it's three completely different perspectives. I don't see any fingerprint duplication whatsoever."

For Chris Morris working in concert with his partners is a plus for his photography:

"Jim and myself, numerous times we have been together in the same country covering the same conflict for the same client and for me all that does is raise my photography to a higher level because I'm with peers that I respect. If I'm there by myself I might not do as well, but if I know that Jim is there or another colleague, especially now that we're in the same agency it's just going to make us produce better work."

Alexandra Boulat brings a different perspective to the issue. She feels that there is a real possibility that for her, and maybe some of the others, meeting in the field is going to be less and less likely as her photography develops:

"We are at the time of our lives where we may not be doing the same thing that we were doing up to now. We all met in places where we were working together because it was the time for us to do this kind of story, but it's very possible that now that I will never meet any one of them on the field because I'm working on different stories."

In many ways the odd man out is Antonin Kratochvil, a position that he is not only used to but seems to delight in. During the press conference that followed he spoke in his native Czech after Alexandra spoke in her native French, gleefully realizing that not only would there be few people in the audience that understood him but that it was also unlikely that the little translation headphones that many of us were using had a Czech channel. For Jim Nachtwey Antonin's larger-than-life presence in the agency is much more important than just for raising the fun quotient:

"Antonin is someone who expands our profile. He does something that's somewhat different, sometimes very different but it's still in this realm of social documentation."

Although this is true, it's still social documentation being sold into the editorial market, which is the most challenged area of a severely challenged industry. For Gary Knight far from being a deterrent this is valid another reason for starting VII:

"The reason for setting up VII was to ensure our survival in that market so that we can continue to produce those pictures. We will have strong relationships with a small number of magazines that we hope will continue at least in the short term and enable us to bridge the gap before we hope we will be able to find new resources to produce this work and it might not be the traditional editorial market. It may well be from other areas that we will find funding, and that's what we're going to explore quite aggressively."

Antonin was also very clear on two other issues. The first was that of elitism, and the fact that the agency is comprised of seven very high profile photojournalists. For him being well known is irrelevant, and if being elite means self-aggrandizing, then his fellow agency members are the opposite. He believes that intentions are everything, and sums it up in the following way:

"Every time I show my work I get asked these questions: Why? What gives me the right to photograph these things? Right? I have to answer the question, and all I can answer from my side, well, I'm the messenger and I have really honest intentions. I'm not looking for self-aggrandizement."

Although money is obviously a key part of any business, especially a start-up business such as this, I was struck by how little of the interview dealt with financial issues. Clearly each of the members is already well established and has made a solid living out of photography for several years, but having said that it was gratifying to hear people who are certainly not newcomers to this profession speak with so much enthusiasm about the benefits that they want from VII that are not money based. Antonin's enthusiasm was palpable:

"All of us like to grow in photography. I want to push my photography to the next level, and this creative combustion between us I'm hoping might provide that. This will help us keep the focus on our photography. We don't want to be walking around like a lot of people pissed off right now who are being cheated by agencies. It takes away their creativity and so it's become very negative. And I think for me it's become really positive, and it's like a spring, for me it's like spring in my photography once again"

There were two other non-fiscal issues that were clearly important, having more work seen by a wider audience, and giving more control to the photographer over how his or her work is seen. When Chris Morris is on assignment for Time only a tiny percentage of the work produced from it is ever published. The online galleries that are a part of the VII website will provide one opportunity for greater display. As he says: "This gives us an avenue to have people look at it even if they're not purchasing. I just want my work to be seen."

Gary Knight wants the agency to think in broader terms than just the website:

"We would really like to get exhibitions around small village halls, really push the way that our material is marketed if you like, and not always for money, but just to get the stuff out so that people see it, because I think people want to see this stuff. I don't think the public is rejecting the kind of work that they're seeing. It might not sell magazines, it might not sell newspapers, but I think people need to see it and I think people want to see it, and I think collectively we can make that happen much more effectively than we could individually."

The intention of the photographers is to make sure that only their own edit of their work is available for secondary sales, and that through this they will be able to force editors to preserve the voice of the photographer. Antonin once again:

"Our takes are usually being marginalized by the different agendas of editors and magazines. I think the idea for us is to control our takes so there's more of our point of view. By editing our work really tight through the Internet and sending our stories over the Internet already edited it will help us to do that so that we present the voice."

John Stanmeyer agrees: "Some of this is about empowering photography back into the hands of the photographer and keeping the work as pure as it can be before delivering it to the editor." But for Ron Haviv it goes much further than this one aspect, and is about the photographer taking responsibility for all aspects of his or her career:

"The appeal was this concept of self empowerment. I realized that I was brought along to a certain point in my photography being represented by an agent but that I needed to take responsibility for myself not just as a photographer but also on a business level. I think that photographers over the years have given too much responsibility to their agents and we've all wound up in this situation, and we've been complicit in it as photographers. Now is the time to fight back and take control back for ourselves. The amount of responsibility that we put into the taking of the images, the amount of concentration, of dedication, devotion and skill, those skills need to be put in all the way through from start to finish. Then we all feel much better about our work."

Given the photographers involved and the work that they produce it is extremely unlikely that this venture will fail in the short term, especially if they stick to their intention of keeping the number of members small. They are talking about having no more than fourteen photographers (one of the many VII jokes making the rounds in Perpignan was, if they expand it to eleven photographers will it be renamed Seven Eleven?). But clearly this is not a structure that would work with any other group except one of a similar high profile. This is not the way a group of newcomers could position representation. The interesting aspect of this launch from an industry point of view is that it is yet another example of the growing movement of photographers taking the reins into their own hands. Although the whole may not be applicable to photographers working under different circumstances, many of the parts, and especially the motivation may be.

Several times during both the interview and the press conference Jim Nachtwey used the word "forged". One of the strengths of VII as he sees it is that: "It's grounded in this friendship that's been forged in fire." Friendships that are formed under such circumstances are remarkable resilient, but for seven strong personalities such as these the long term survival of the agency will depend upon how well tempered is the steel that the flames produced.

© 2001 Peter Howe
Contributing Editor

Enter the VII Photo Gallery
See the VII video interview clips

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See the Video Interviews
Seven by VII:
Alexandra Boulat | Ron Haviv | Gary Knight
Antonin Kratochvil
| Christopher Morris
James Nachtwey
| John Stanmeyer

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