Interview with Susan
David Alan Harvey: Young photographers are looking towards us to help them find the way. We are struggling with that, but you’ve evolved from a photo journalist at a very early age, and now you’ve become a curator and you’ve been leading the Magnum Foundation. So, I am sure you don’t think you’ve got all the answers, but how do you see the Magnum Foundation and the role that it can play in helping to shape young peoples aspirations?
Susan Meiselas: I think, if we go back to why we started the Foundation (and it was many years of thinking) we were anticipating the crisis that we now are experiencing. I think there were a lot of signs that there was going to be a shift that photographers such as ourselves, people working for the most part in long form and the documentary tradition, would face. We saw that we would no longer have partners for production which were needed to do the kind of work we are still committed to doing. Whether it was the National Geographic (as in your case) or a variety of news magazines, when you were out in the world covering events that were unfolding over time, let’s say — witnessing, observing, following — and trying to make sense of history-making of various kinds… your ability to do so was sustained either through assignment partners or the possibility of reproduction later. So, you invested your time with the belief that there would be a vehicle, and those partners were very strong and essential support.
The founders of Magnum were smart about figuring out very early how to create a network of sub agents so that there was an international framework of exposure and distribution for the work they created. That was a huge gift that our generation inherited from those who invented it, in particular at Magnum, but other agencies formed similar networks over the last decades as well. That international reproduction machine for “second sales” made it possible to work over longer periods of time, with multiple channels of financing beyond the original assignment.
So, how does a Foundation fit in now? First of all, it’s just as important to document the world. That has not changed. And you have an easier means of distribution now with the internet, so the question is how do you generate funds to produce, especially if you can’t easily monetize through the resale of your work, for the most part, or one does with greater difficulty..
DAH: You need sponsors.
SM: You need people who believe that it is still important to see what is going on in the world at whatever level that means. You know, I never thought about it in terms of ‘news’. What we used to do very well was anticipate. I mean, that’s really important to think about. We had to anticipate, because it took weeks or months for publications to prepare to go to print. In fact, even that’s part of the reason I personally never worked for National Geographic. For me, the difficulty of Geographic was that the anticipation cycle was so long. So if I was working on a timely subject, I wanted to see the publication in relation to the production in a closer cycle. And Geographic was so extended; it might be six months or a year after you did the work that you would see it in print. So it didn’t seem optimal or advantageous for the kind of work I was doing at that time. It was a more reflective space lets say.
Now, that’s a very valuable space; to have the opportunity to be more reflective and not have to be as immediate which is what this new medium has created and now demands in some ways. This intensity that we have to produce and deliver and disseminate instantaneously — so that there is no time for reflection. The MF’s Magnum Emergency Fund is trying to create a margin in which photographers can still have a degree of independence to reflect and create work.
DAH: How many photographers have you supported through the Emergency Fund?
SM: Well, the important thing to understand is that it is a nomination process, not an open solicitation. We’d be swamped and overwhelmed and we don’t have the staff. Each year we choose ten international nominators — picture editors, curators, publishers — who propose up to ten photographers each, so we have a pool of potential projects from 100 candidates.
DAH: Are they Magnum members?
SM: One of the nominators each year has been a Magnum Board member and sometimes we have had Magnum members as candidates for support.
DAH: So ten percent of the nominators are Magnum, ninety percent are not.
SM: Yes, but in fact that’s not fixed. It happened the first year, because one of the invited nominators bailed out.
DAH: Yeah, I am just trying to get people the idea that you’re a Magnum member, it’s a Magnum Foundation, but in fact I think the point that’s interesting about the Foundation is that obviously it’s supposed to help Magnum photographers to some degree but you’re supporting a lot of non Magnum photographers as well.
SM: I don’t think we do think of the MF as support for Magnum photographers. I think we think of supporting photographers who share a set of values that Magnum is founded on, but they’re not the only photographers who have these traditions now. But there is a tradition we still stand for.
DAH: Oh yeah, there is certainly a Magnum philosophy.
SM: And there is a sense of values that we want to sustain, and it’s really important because with our principle funder this was a very critical discussion. Could Magnum photographers be or not be nominated? There is no reason why they should be penalized because they are with Magnum, IF they are nominated. So in the first year I think there were twelve projects supported, 3 were Magnum photographers; the second year there were eleven and only one Magnum photographer. This year we have supported 8 photographers and none from Magnum. We have given travel grants to photographers from NOOR, VII, VU’, Getty and about one third of our funds have gone to regional photographers based in India, Bangladesh, China, Kenya, among others. In total 30 photographers so far and about $350,000 all together, with grants ranging between $5,000 and $12,500.
DAH: So how many years is this?
SM: We have now given out three years of Emergency Fund support. During the nomination process every photographer is invited to submit a portfolio and a proposal, and then there is an editorial board that is not from Magnum at all. Three independents, not on the Magnum Board of the Foundation, not within the photography circle, and that’s the editorial board that really makes the decisions to distribute whatever funds we have raised. We’ve given out about $125,000 each year. I actually hoped to double that, but we have not succeeded yet. And I think it could be tough to sustain it. It shouldn’t be, but we haven’t yet been able to find the significant partners or patrons that we need to be able to double the funds. We are trying to come up with various strategies to build interest and partnerships within the media now.
DAH: But isn’t that what we’re trying to think about? Think about ways to make the Magnum Foundation viable in terms of actually taking production and somehow getting it out there?
SM: Yes, but I think what we’re doing is clearly supporting many photographers who haven’t actually worked within the media the way maybe our generation has. And that takes a lot more mentoring than just giving people funds to help create stories to distribute. We’re giving more than just money, in many cases we’re giving them the narrative and editorial support they need, and then finding partners who will publish their work. The MF does not benefit from the publication of the work financially, the photographer does completely, along with their agencies, if they have them in place. But that’s a big piece of work. A huge piece of work that we didn’t really anticipate we would need to do. We didn’t imagine it would be very difficult to find the media to reproduce work that they haven’t had to pay to produce. So we keep on working to find more media partners, such as Time Lightbox, we’re talking to Harpers and the New Yorker… already we’ve seen a lot of publication of the work we’ve supported, so that’s very positive. We also just created a long term partnership with Mother Jones who will feature EF work online bi-monthly.
DAH: You just need more of it.
SM: You need more of it. And I think we have to find more strategic partners who believe in the importance of keeping eyes on the world. I mean that’s the work on my shoulders principally.
DAH: It’s an incredible amount of the work. That’s kind of what I wanted to get at with this.
SM: The point is that you can see very quickly that in this vast array of emerging photographers that Burn is touching and the VII Mentor program is taking under their wings, and we have to together find means and strategies to sustain the next generation into the future.
DAH: Well, yeah.
SM: Though we don’t support each other and when you think about the fact that although the Magnum Foundation has supported photographers from NOOR, VII, and VU’, there is still this suspicion as to why we are doing that. We need to collectively embrace the sharing of values and strategies in relationship to a landscape that is pretty aggressive against all of us.
DAH: Against the whole group, yeah. It’s like four rebel armies that all have the same philosophy, so we ought to get together.
SM: Well sure, and there are definitely differences and there are differences in the way they are organized, different traditions, etc.
DAH: Well sure, and they should have their own marketing.
SM: But there are many more basic values that we share.
The MF Human Rights scholarship of the MF is really different, even though there is an overlap with the EF at times. For example, Karen Mirzoyan benefitted both from the fact that he was nominated by a regional nominator for the EF and then he also became aware of the fact that we had a Human Rights scholarship, so he then was chosen to be a Fellow in that program and was sponsored for six weeks in New York which I think was very important for him. Then he goes to Look3 as part of our Human Rights Program and was exposed to a larger network of photographers there and editors who have helped give some exposure to his work. Or Sim Chi Yin who also was our first Human Rights Fellow along with Karen, and is now in the VII Network. She too became more visible through the MF opportunity. We helped link her to the New York Times who she now strings for in Beijing.
DAH: They’re going to look very good, and the Magnum Foundation is well credited.
SM: And so the point is the way in which somebody, by shining some light on work that’s done and deserves to be known, you know, for me just going back to when I did my first work in Chile and El Salvador with regional photographers, this isn’t anything new for me. The MF is just a different mechanism now in place. The challenge for us all to figure out is who is really interested in the work that we do and will they in some way contribute to the creative production of it?
So for example to me, even what we’re doing now with these photo auctions, trying to figure out if art’s organizations, patrons of the arts, who are very happy to have the product of our labor as a print on their wall, to what extent will they help pay for the process of creating work? Just as you see that somebody really likes what Burn is doing, and now will support an Emerging Photographer’s Grant through your online community, that’s great!
We need more of exactly that kind of commitment to what we do, either support for our process or of course, for our prints.
DAH: Yeah, well we are like you are. We are structuring and ready to change and come up with new and better ways. We don’t have a dogmatic set of rules for how we’re going to do. We try one thing and we try another thing and we’re hoping for stuff to work. At what point in your career, just to take it back to you as a photo journalist turned curator turned Magnum Foundation creator and interested in lots of other photographers besides yourself, when did that happen to you?
SM: I think that was very early. I think when I was in El Salvador in the early 80’s. I don’t think of it as turning, I just think of it as a dimension of work that I do in the same way Martin Parr does a huge amount of curating of photographers books now.
DAH: Ok, so you were always like this?
SM: Well, very early in El Salvador there were photographers all around me and when we tried to figure out collectively could we produce something that related to the civil war there…
DAH: You were the one that pulled everyone together.
SM: I was the one that naturally coordinated the project and saw the value of our different perspectives, which complimented each other to create a historical and collective narrative. Harry Mattison and I worked together on the book and traveling exhibition, El Salvador: The Work of 30 Photographers.
DAH: So you’ve always had that in you then.
SM: Well, that’s thirty years ago.
DAH: Yeah, so that’s pretty much always.
SM: It’s not new in that sense.
DAH: Taking it inside Magnum and officializing it in turns of the Magnum Foundation is relatively new.
SM: Yeah, I believe the Magnum Foundation should be magnanimous.
DAH: Well, I believe the same thing.
SM: And I think what’s complex about it for both of us is also that we’ve been, (and I even need a longer conversation with you which we really should be having now), is in what way we, Magnum, will continue to be exclusive and to what extent we can be more inclusive. In other words it’s not realistic that Magnum can service everybody. I mean what can we do well together and be a beacon for, and to what extent can we be more embracing and how broadly can we embrace. But you know the fact is that it’s a very complicated and shifting environment. And the few last standing small agencies or communities could all go under. Three strong forces surround us all, a declining economic model, a culture of free exchange and an expanding circle of image-makers — anyone with an iphone, etc.
DAH: But you’ve got your own books, your own things, and you’re supporting lots of other photographers.
SM: Yes, I’m not worried for myself. I mean there is the challenge to balance; doing your own authoring work, and what you then do editorially and obviously for me the Foundation is the biggest challenge I’ve faced because it’s not like a book that simply at some point gets done. It’s trying to create something that has continuity and sustainability financially and creatively and engages the energy of other people. So building a team is the most important thing for me to be able to do. To seed the ideas and to have it grow and be relevant by the fact that other people participate in a meaningful way. So that’s my goal. The question is how long is that going to take?
So when you say it’s my Foundation… that’s a little scary to me because I thought I would dedicate some years to try to anchor this, believing that it should exist, and the only question now is, is it going to be viable and sustainable? Will there be a large enough commitment to the MF from outside and within the organization, meaning amongst the Magnum membership, to understand the necessity for it… and fully accept that it isn’t there just to serve them which is very important, and from the broad public, who have to value the contribution documentary photographers with these values still make.
DAH: There will always only be a handful of people, or one or two other people that will ever probably feel the need or desire to put that effort into others. Most people are spending their time working on their own careers. Well, that’s kind of what I want to do with this interview, this little piece, to suggest to people that maybe they could play a larger role.
SM: Yes, there is no question about that. I mean the larger role could be at the level of just ideas about partnerships, whether they be for distribution or production of the work, or it could be contributing directly, financially. It could be suggesting people they know who would be interested in the actual work produced with innovative strategies of exposure, etc.
DAH: Because of the subject…
SM: Yes, thematically. Our vision is to take the work to the streets, broaden the visibility from contained print publications, back to communities or new contexts where it can be experienced and have greater influence.
DAH: Yeah, it seems like it’s primarily solving the problem of just communication because it’s just a huge job. You can only do one relatively simple thing at a time, right?
SM: Yes, I mean you know Magnum has always had this duality of a certain amount of individual authoring, and those authoring partners becoming brands of their own in balance with a very strong brand that Magnum has collectively. And the question is, what do we want Magnum to stand for beyond our individual identities.
DAH: Well to my mind, the Magnum Foundation would be it. In other words, I need stock sales, I need editorial representation, and print sales, and everything for my own career to pay my rent so to speak. But when it comes down to the ideal of Magnum, which is the main thing — like I said I need to earn my living, but if I was just looking at the ideal of Magnum — it would be represented by the Foundation. I see it as a real beacon. Now if that can somehow turn into production…
SM: So yes, that means how do you support thoughtful, critical, substantial work? That thing that you look back on in your own career and are the most proud of having done.
DAH: Well, that’s it.
SM: That’s sort of what we want to inspire and find a way to support. We’re not going to be able to fully support it, unless someone dies and gives the Magnum Foundation a million dollars! You know we would be in a different situation if someone would endow us such that we could really have that kind of stability and focus only on increasing our impact.
DAH: Well, the fact that we are even having this conversation means that you’ve started the ball rolling, right?
SM: Yes. But here is an interesting idea that any photographer could contribute to. We decided that when asked to give prints to auctions for the wide range of art organizations, (everything that we’re expected to support as members of a photographic community and do support with prints), that we would now ask for a small percentage of that auction sale to come back to the Foundation so that the auction print also supports on-going photography.
So, just as an example, we just did one for Photo Review, a small publication, which for years has been dedicated to letting people know regionally what’s happening in photography. Seven Magnum photographers are contributing prints to their auction and 25% of those sales will come back to the MF. It may only be fifteen hundred dollars that we bring in at the end, but it’s a symbol, a sort of gesture and it’s a symbolic act that we need to co-support each other. So whether it’s going to be Aperture or ICP or other such partners, the point is that inevitably, it is the photographer that gives and gives and there is the assumption that we should somehow miraculously be able to continue to create. So we want to be in a circle of relationships like that, building collaboratively new models of sustainability.
SM: And I think it’s really important to figure out ways to do that. It’s like, what does the patron want? What do we give the patron? There are definitely things we can do to support patrons.
DAH: Well, the de’ Medici, they supported a lot of people and they got a lot of art out of it. They made an investment and look what happened. It’s still rolling.
SM: We would love to have a circle of patrons that really believe in what we’re doing. So it’s not only a few who are supporting Burn’s Emerging Photographer’s Fund, but it’s a growing circle of people who say this is important, we understand the value of this independent documentary photography with critical eyes on the world and let’s work together to make sure it survives.
DAH: By the way, why did you call it the “Emergency Fund”?
SM: We didn’t mean a crisis like an earthquake or tsunami that needed to be covered. We meant the looming reality, the “emergency” is the challenge we face to sustain the production of quality in depth narrative photography that can inform and inspire global consciousness and hopefully engage paths to action.
Photography can be SO powerful!