> Where the Value is
> Introduce Ourselves to New Audiences
> Placing Yourself in Society
> The Fluid Image
> Arguing with Fred
> You’re a Storyteller? Please Tell Me That’s not true
> The Compass Analogy
> A Collective Way of Working
> The Limiting Resource at this point is Imagination
> So what do you Bring?
> Everyone has Something
For over twenty-five years, Stephen Mayes has managed the work and careers of top-level photographers and artists in areas as diverse as art, fashion, photojournalism and commercial photography. As creative director, CEO and ambassador for the medium of photography, he has written successful business plans and reshaped operations for American, Asian and European imaging companies.
Stephen was Creative Director of eyestorm.com, working with artists such as Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, Richard Misrach. As Director of the Image Archive with Art + Commerce, he represented the archives of Robert Mapplethorpe, Steven Meisel, David LaChapelle and others. Stephen was part of the founding management team of Getty Images and his work as SVP and Group Creative Director helped to launch the company as the world’s commercially most successful image supplier. He has deep experience in world-shaping photojournalism as Director of Network Photographers in London and, most recently, as CEO of VII in New York, both high-profile co-operatives of leading photojournalists. From 2004 to 2012 he took an annual assignment as Secretary to the World Press Photo competition in Amsterdam.
Often described as a ‘futurist’ Stephen has broadcast, taught and written extensively about the ethics and practice of photography.
Where the Value is
NFS: Essentially, the premise of these NEWFOTOSCAPES ‘ENCOUNTERS’ is to speak to people whom I feel in many ways have a particular role and a particular opinion and voice on what’s taking place today in photography. In your case, very much as a leading figure and somebody who very clearly has compassion and belief in terms of what should be happening.
I wanted to touch upon your recent concept of the cell phone as game changer alongside the breadth of your experiences. Because I think that feels like a really important foundation for how you maybe think, engage and are able to put ideas
But equally, I’m really interested in this idea of value of the image and of photography. Because I think often really interesting people, and potentially some of the things we’ve initiated at Coventry, can engage in the concepts and debates and all the exciting stuff. But the nuts and bolts have got to come back to some sense of commerciality and value within the origin, and our role and purpose as photographers.
SM: Can we start on value?
NFS: Yes, sure.
SM: Because I actually think that’s really key. I think it’s very astute to pick up on that. On the one hand, we can bemoan the commercialisation of everything. Even the art world is so commercialised. To my mind, having worked in the art world to some extent, I find it actually even more commercial than advertising. It’s so much about creating this monetary return on imagery.
But what I find fascinating about value is that it’s a way of measuring the effectiveness of communication. If people are going to give you money, you’re connected. You’ve given the viewer something they can use. So I’ve always found value to be incredibly interesting.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the stock industry, where the real money is. Look at Getty with their billion dollar turnover, most of which comes from selling these incredibly bland images. Yet it has such a high value, as opposed to someone like Simon Norfolk producing these beautifully, conceptually considered, well-executed images. It’s just extraordinary. There’s a lot to learn from that. Where the value is tells you a lot about what’s happening with the social consumption of imagery and what it means.
So I think value is a really key area. The other fascinating thing about value is that we need to reassess where the value is. So up until this point, photographers and agencies and libraries have always considered the value to be in the picture. You license a picture, pay this much money for it and that’s the value of it.
I spent a lot of time at VII re-thinking value, because I went into VII at a time of great decline in the industry. The editorial and photojournalism industry was in trouble and continues to be in trouble as prices fall. Yet the value of the imagery was obviously very high. To have people of that degree of integrity and skill dedicating lives and health to bring back these images is plainly high value, and yet people weren’t paying for it.
What I did with VII was to reassess what their value is. I said, “Actually, your value is integrity. The point is that you’re credible and people believe you. That’s what people will pay for; not the images.” So making the imagery doesn’t cease, but the imagery becomes less important as a measure of value than some of the other attributes that you bring to the image.
NFS: I think this is where it really feels like, when you’re talking about the image of the 21st century… The idea of the image coming of age, as you talked about at the Nikon symposium. So are you feeling that, with that transition from the rarity and control, how do you see the value proposition of a photographer?
SM: I think currently that’s what’s happening: value is moving from the photograph to the photographer. The value of an image is not the finished object but what the photographer brings to the process. It’s very hard to say where that will be in five years’ time. But my feeling at the moment is… It’s different in different sectors. In stock, it is truly a commodity; it’s really interesting. I want to talk about stock in a minute, because it’s been hugely overlooked and yet it’s incredibly significant.
Other than stock, I think authorship becomes incredibly important. So you look at how people are consuming imagery. The vast bulk of it of course is in social media, where people consume information on the basis of who’s telling you something rather than on the intrinsic value of the information. We “follow” people because we trust them and it’s the same with photography. It’s less about the image; it’s who it’s coming from. A picture of breakfast is a picture of breakfast, but, “Oh, that’s your breakfast? I’m interested.” It’s a very basic way of expressing it.
At a higher level, if James Nachtwey comes back with a photograph from the Congo, it’s going to have a higher value than Jo Shmo’s picture from the Congo. Partly on aesthetic grounds, but also because of his credibility, it’s that we know this figure, we know who he is. Nachtwey’s a big man and we believe him. Whereas Jo Shmo – was that an accident; did he set that up? We just don’t know.
Introduce Ourselves to New Audiences
NFS: Which is where it opens up interesting notions of the icon. In other words, we could choose quite well known and established photographers who now through social media potentially have quite a large following. But equally may not. Because we talk, I think, about mainstream media, and challenging/questioning newspapers, magazines, television and broadcast. But I think even inside photography we have our icons that are being challenged and questioned about why their image is more important.
SM: In point of fact, Nachtwey’s a really interesting example. I reference him quite a lot, because in many ways he is in exactly the same position as a first year student in your University at Coventry. He’s also having to invent himself all over again and introduce himself to an audience who’s never heard of him. So when I say Nachtwey’s got a reputation, he’s got a reputation in a very small circle of print media aficionados. Which frankly is people over 50, and in the scale of things is this really so important? If Nachtwey wants to be relevant, he actually has exactly the same problem as anybody else. We’re all on this starting line of having to introduce ourselves to new audiences. So a lot of people with the reputations are people that you and I have never heard of, because we don’t follow those Instagram feeds, Tumblr or whatever.
I’m doing this whole thing at the moment of trying to find all these people who have half a million followers. It’s really interesting; there are actually quite a lot of them. That actually becomes their value. Their value becomes the number of people who pay attention to what they’re saying.
We see this a lot, for example, in fashion. Where they’re using social media very, very effectively. Of course because it’s consumer product and if you show up in a fashion context with half a million followers who are all potential buyers of handbags and shoes, you’ve got a high value. It doesn’t really matter how good your pictures are; there’s that other element. These are people we’ve never heard of.
NFS: The re-positioning of photographers and photography is a key principle for this project, which raises questions on this sense of scale and social media. In a recent post by David Campbell, he talks about abundance and the image flood. This has become an overused term in this new landscape, we need something quite different. I remember last year I wrote something for the Times supplement that worked with this idea of the burgeoning new landscape, but unfortunately, I did marry it with the analogy of experiencing a thunderstorm and how should we react and respond.
But social media has that same thing, because I think companies went through this phase where “We have to be on social media to be able to sell.” I think this is David’s point about the image flood; the image flood isn’t an image flood directly into your house. It’s because you choose and you filter, you select.
I also remember Richard Stacey’s post on the dangerous concepts of scale and social media. He suggests that social media is inherently personal and conversational. So in other words, actually it works very well on small groups, rather than this large scale.
SM: I think it depends so much how it’s done. If a TV commercial speaks to your need, you connect with it. The fact it’s been seen by 8 million people at the same time is irrelevant. By the same token, I think social media can work in the same way.
There are different levels of it. If I want to know what my brother’s up to then there are five of us who are interested. But if my brother as a musician is giving personal insights into his work and what he’s performing and how his work is developing, he can have a very personal relationship with a large number of people. But you’re right; scalability is an issue.
Placing Yourself in Society
NFS: But being able to access that person from anywhere is a game changer though. A key goal, having been involved in education for the last 18 years, has been to get students seeing that photographer that they aspire to, who’s work they love, as a person.
I think the great thing about the connected nature of social media and those photographers who are embracing it, is the ability to invite your audience into your process and get them to understand your approach, your way of working. So merging, that relationship of the social into the professional I think becomes a really powerful mechanism now that wasn’t there previously.
SM: One of the people I follow is a guy called Jake Levine who is the General Manager of Digg.com. As you probably know, Digg is a news website where the front page is made by the readers. The more votes a story gets, the higher up it goes and it goes to the front page. So it’s one of these user driven things.
He talks about their research into why people consume news on social media. People say, “It’s because I want to be informed; I want to know what’s happening, etc.” He kept drilling down and the end of the day, it always comes back to one core reason why people consume news, which is about placing yourself in society.” I thought that’s such an amazing insight.
A lot of it is about association, about positioning ourselves. It’s about who do we talk to, who do we listen to? It’s all about positioning ourselves and affirming our place in society.
I think that’s where social media is so powerful; effectively it’s a psychological tool more than an informational tool. To me, that is why social media is so incredibly powerful. It hasn’t created anything; it’s tapped into a very, very deep need that we always have.
NFS: That’s true, it is that idea, I think, of where the image supplants the voice. The reason we’re getting more images isn’t necessarily about photography in the traditional sense of communication, a way of building up a character, a personality and talking with one another.
SM: It’s phenomenal and fantastic. What I love is the degree of visual literacy that we now live with. A lot of it, to be honest, I attribute to advertising, which has always been a metaphorical form of communication.
Advertisers never actually show you what the product looks like; they show you what it feels like. They talk about how you want to relate to the product. Nobody wants to actually see what it looks like, because it’s got a dent and it’s flawed and it’s got a bit of dirt…
Advertising has absolutely educated us in conceptual and metaphorical visual communication. I think that’s bred an incredibly sophisticated audience.
The Fluid Image
NFS: It’s your point about images becoming streams. Because in a sense we don’t seek to deconstruct an image perhaps as we used to around advertising photography, or people’s literacy through an image, or through broader digital ideas. It’s where it becomes a stream, because… it becomes something more, becomes something different. One of the problems I see within photography education is that we’re still trying to solely teach people the semiotics of the fixed image which surely, raises the relevance of that now.
SM: I think that’s exactly right. I was talking to somebody yesterday who was very stressed about history, saying, “What happens to all these pictures? How do we archive them?” My question was, “Why?” Why would you archive them? The point that then came out of that was how then do we identify important pictures?
Having worked with so many photographers over the years, one of the things I’ve learnt is that what makes an important picture comes back to the value question. When people react to it, photographers think it’s an important picture. So I’ve poured over edit boxes and light boxes; “Should it be this one or that one?” All these details. But as soon as the image appears on the cover of Time magazine, that’s it, it’s cemented. This is my best picture.
So, in other words, I think we do live with this slightly specious belief that there is such a thing as an important image and such a thing as an unimportant image. I think Sontag writes about this in ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’. That a picture, of course, has no impact whatsoever, until it’s adopted by a political cause or a social movement.
So the image itself is just an image. It’s only when it’s applied that it develops significance. That, I think, hasn’t really changed. Now we might call it a meme rather than an icon, but people will select what they think is important. These images will surface; they will perform a function.
What that means historically I’m less concerned about. I’m not a historian… Once it’s done, it’s done. I’m the wrong person to talk to about that.
NFS: But it does get us thinking about what a photographer is. Essentially, I think, as you have alluded to, we will still have photographers who wish to make photographs, perhaps as art objects, to be displayed on a wall. But I think the thing that’s really fascinating is we now have more options to explore. Freeing us from the predetermined routes such as the art photographer or more commercial photographer or…
Arguing with Fred
SM: I have this argument with Fred Ritchin. Are you familiar with Fred? We agree on a lot of stuff, but we disagree on the importance of the front page. He’s distressed by the absence of a front page in today’s online environment, because he sees it as the place where society comes together and looks at an important issue of shared interest.
My argument with that is that the problem with the front page is it’s incredibly exclusive. Because for all the gas attacks in Syria, who’s looking at the situation on the border of Burma and the people being persecuted there? Who’s looking at the 5 million people who’ve died in Congo in the last 10 years? So the notion of the front page is very appealing, but I find also very dangerous.
I find what happens now is that attention does spread. Society in a sense does lose its focus. But because we select – coming back to what you were saying about we choose our filters. People who care, people who need to know will find out. What always troubled me about working in the conventional media was that it excludes so much information.
I’ve got some hilarious stories about this. I would put an incredibly important story into the Telegraph magazine and 6 million people would read it on a Sunday. I never knew how many of them gave a damn. They were probably just flicking through on the way to the crossword. But now, the fact that maybe 6 million people don’t see the image but 500,000 people who actually care, who will add a comment, who will donate money, who will volunteer is, to me, much more significant.
NFS: Yes, it offers that ability for action. One of the things I’ve been thinking about and you said it, is the idea of trust and credibility, it’s key that we educate ourselves. I think this is where people like Howard Rheingold are important, when he writes and talks about being ‘net smart’. What do you see as those skills that photographers or people working creatively with visuals need to engage with?
You’re a Storyteller? Please Tell Me That’s not true
SM: I’m going to take a step back from that, and come back to it. But I think it comes down to storytelling, fundamentally, which remains a skilled activity. What I see generally… When I look at the flow of stuff on my social feeds, there’s a tremendous amount of pictorialism, by which I mean pretty pictures.
I find that really interesting. I find that people find it thrilling to make a picture which is pretty. They find it really interesting and rewarding to look at a picture which is pretty.
On the one hand, it’s opened up this creativity and expressive thing to this huge number of people, which I just find wonderful.
So I think what we’re living with at the moment is a very pictorial environment where it’s very visually rich. I talk about metaphor and all the rest of it, and that’s definitely current. But to me, the skill then of the, if you like, dedicated image-maker comes about then harnessing those deeper levels of metaphor and storytelling.
Where I wanted to digress a little bit is I was talking about storytelling to a friend of mine who’s a professor of philosophy at Columbia University. She specialises in the ancients, so she studies Plato and Homer. I made some throwaway comment about “I work in journalism and I’m a storyteller,” and she was horrified. She was really horrified. “You’re a storyteller? Please tell me that’s not true.”
I said, “Of course; that’s what we do. We tell stories in pictures.” She suggested that it is a modern perversion, that we’re confusing journalism with storytelling. In the Iliad, Homer wrote about a war. We have no idea if that war happened. It doesn’t matter if the war happened; we don’t care if the war happened, because there’s another truth. He was telling us about archetypes and emotional and social truths. The fact that there may or may not have been a war is actually beside the point.
One of the things which I see now beginning to open out again is that we are on the verge of returning to storytelling and that very traditional, very human way, where we are talking about metaphor and meaning beyond literal representation.
To me, I think the key is video. Video is now assuming the role of a factual vehicle. The picture, the still photograph becomes very much more about the idea.
So people talk about this as a competition; “Video’s going to overtake/eclipse photography; photography will be irrelevant.” I don’t think so. I think they run completely parallel courses. I think they fulfill different functions. What I see with the growth of video online is it releases still pictures to talk in a much more metaphorical way. And indeed to become storytellers, and let the video people be the journalists.
Let the video function be the journalism and the still photography be the storytelling.
So when you ask what the skills are that we need to teach/learn/explore, I think it is a deeper level of thought about storytelling and how you layer information into imagery in a way which is significant and understandable by people. That was a long answer. Did that make sense?
The Compass Analogy
NFS: Yes, I think it’s good. Potentially, my feeling is that it can also go beyond that. If we’ve got the deeper level and the core of the story, which brings us back to the element of ‘time’. You were talking about time coming back into photographs. Time, for me, has always been in the photograph.
I look at people like Muybridge, who I’ve obviously looked at a lot. But then I know one aspect of his, which is about movement. Then you look at the breadth of his portfolio – we now talk about portfolio careers. Actually, he was selling images; he was really an entrepreneur. Because at that time there wasn’t necessarily a predetermined career path to follow.
The great thing about what you talk about with the cell phone is it allows us to start thinking differently about where photography can go. The analogy for this project is really that it’s more about the idea and function of the ‘compass’. In other words, how do we go about navigating these ideas as the landscape evolves, when new mountains are formed and the paths weave and intersect organically rather than follow a linear trail? It is fundamentally important that we pause, question and consider where we go at this time.
SM: I love the ‘compass’ analogy; that’s very good. I was on a panel last week with a bunch of photographers and photo editors. Once again, it was said very emphatically by the rest of the panel that the cell phone is just another tool. I said, “I so disagree.” To think like that is to trap yourself, to contain yourself.
NFS: It does remind me of the argument that took place a couple of years before I first met you, I was reading Howard Rheingold’s book on virtual reality. I think the interesting thing about virtual reality wasn’t the technology. It was the idea that we could have an alternative world where we existed. Which in many ways, is where we are now, through mobile technology and the Web, made possible by framework of the Internet. It’s not this data glove; it’s not these goggles (although soon maybe with the Google Glass) that we place on. But, as we are doing now, I can simultaneously physically exist in the UK, and via audio-visual digital technologies communicate with you on the other side of the globe. For me, this is just a single reality. So I think the metaphor around the mobile phone goes down to not the technology but your six points of portability, invisibility, immediacy, connection, context aware and streaming. It’s more what it offers.
SM: I think they are really important, because of the coming together of all those attributes. Each of them is not particularly new. It’s the confluence of all those things in one instrument.
To me, the instrument is more than a technology; I keep coming back to this notion of the psychology of it. I’m fascinated with how deeply intimate our cell phones are
NFS: It is a fluid extension of our body, in a sense.
SM: The technology facilitates that, but actually it taps something very deep and very profound. What’s extraordinary and what makes it very contemporary is that it is so deeply intimate. At the same time, so incredibly public.
Where it goes to, I agree, I think you’re right; the ‘compass’ analogy is great. In some ways, I’m enjoying not even having a ‘compass’.
NFS: Perhaps… but maybe we are each our own ‘compass’. Because through the decisions on what we are writing and picturing, whether we go left, right or straight forward…
SM: Actually, no, we’re not. We think we are. I think one of the great things that’s happening at the moment is that those of us who for so long considered ourselves gatekeepers and arbiters aren’t. It’s the billion people on Facebook. They’re telling us. Any of us who think we’re defining this is missing the point. All I’m doing is I’m scrabbling to catch up and watch.
NFS: But you’re doing it for yourself, I suppose…
SM: I’m doing it for myself, that’s right.
A Collective Way of Working
NFS: How do you see the roles of the gatekeeper, of agencies and institutions now in this new terrain?
SM: I think it’s primarily brand. So, when I talk about VII and their values with integrity, that’s the brand of VII; they’re credible. That’s what made a lot of the projects we did possible. When we did something for Red Cross, for their 150th anniversary, the Red Cross needs impeccable blue chip credibility in everything they do. That was VII.
It could have been Magnum… It’s not unique to VII, but that was the valuable attribute.
It’s primarily brand. If, I was to start an agency today, first of all I’d have myself certified (Laughter), but it wouldn’t be like that. The agency I would set up today would be a photographer, a videographer, a post-production person, critically a PR person, and maybe a technologist. But it would be a collection; maybe more like a legal practice, where under one group of people you’ve got everyone pursuing their own careers. But they’re all there because they share some basic common direction.
That, I think, would be my form of an agency, would be to bring people together who complement each other, rather than repeat what each other does.
I’m excited about the value of Public Relations management. A good PR person is phenomenal. I experienced this at VII. I worked with a really excellent PR person and watching what happened to the stories we produced in her hands was mind-blowing. That I was able to place it into Time magazine and Sunday Times was very nice. But she got it into people’s minds, through running events, social media, all the different tools of modern PR.
To me, that’s absolutely critical.
NFS: So it is more that sense of a collective, where a number of people have very strong skills and it is through their collective way of working, operating they make change happen, yes?
SM: That’s right. It may even be as loose as just having offices in a space together, rather than any formal connection.
There was a great article in The New Yorker about a year ago about this, which really pulled it all together. One of the examples they used was that, in the new Apple building in California, in Cupertino, they actually designed it so that the toilets were all in the most inconvenient places. If you wanted to go from your office to the rest room, you had to cross the main atrium; you had to mingle. You couldn’t do it without meeting somebody.
NFS: That sounds really fascinating, that recognition of the importance of and sense of space. Thinking of a space and place where we experience things is key.
Similarly, organisations like Nesta in the UK have explored the notion of serendipity. Where you work is not so much about the office you work in and how fancy or cool that office is, but more, where you exist can facilitate other chance offerings. I think that’s where it isn’t just something physical; it’s something digital as well.
SM: You’re right; it is ‘also’, not ‘instead of’.
The Limiting Resource at this point is Imagination
NFS: I’m still fascinated whether you think the mainstream agencies and institutions will continue to exist/survive?
SM: They will for the next five years. I think Getty has got a good few years left in them. The agencies like Magnum, VII and Noor it is less certain. Economically it’s very tough. There’s infrastructure and costs that were carried by the old model and it’s become very difficult to support them in the new model.
NFS: You have previously talked about meeting Stephanie Goralnick. How do you think creative practitioners like her will be able to make the transition to earning their living by capitalising upon their online significance? Interestingly, during your Nikon talk, you mentioned she had 250,000 followers, six months later, she now has 500,000 followers. So in six months her following has doubled.
SM: I’m not sure of the exact figures, but she has increased a lot.
NFS: Okay, traditionally though it would be the job of the agency to understand the value and how that can translate into financial reward. So, how does the individual seek and start exploring themselves as a commodity?
SM: It’s a very tricky one. One of the questions that I’ve thought of a lot but can’t answer is that, with all these opportunities comes extra load. In the old days, the photographer always had to maintain their equipment, had to be a sales person, had to go and make the pictures and do the editing. Now you have to do all your own marketing, web development and project maintenance.
Once you have something on a website, it’s got to be maintained. So if you’ve got 10 things on a website, you’ve suddenly got 10 things that need perpetual maintenance and attention.
So the load on the individual just gets heavier and heavier, while all the opportunities get bigger and bigger.
To operate individually right now is tricky because you need to understand the technology of the Internet; you need to understand the marketing skills. You need to understand all this stuff, which frankly none of us understand all of that.
NFS: True. I agree it is tricky and difficult, but equally you do talk incredibly positively about this moment, with the demise of that commercial structure. Because it is now a matter of opportunities, although it’s difficult, we need to have different skills and more skills.
It does perhaps take us back to the birth of photography when there wasn’t a business model for someone to follow. Over the years perhaps, as photographers we became lazy? I think it is maybe more work now, and I think you are right it is a different sort of work with a balance of skills, but it does mean, “I can now decide who this is for and potentially speak directly with the people who might be interested in this work.”
So it should question the status quo, and basically say, “for this new era of photography it is unknown, but it’s down to us to decide and to work that through.”
SM: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. It’s very interesting to me, looking back. I started working for Network Photographers in London in 1989, so I’ve been doing this for 20-something years. It’s extraordinary – I’ve been re-reading some of the things I wrote about and thought about 20 years ago. How frustrated I was with the system and the constraints. It’s fascinating to see now how positive change is possible at this point.
It’s tremendously exciting. A question I ask people a lot is so what do we gain? But also, what do we lose? There’s no doubt we lose stuff as well. But overall, I think it’s just we’re exactly at that sweet spot where so much is possible.
The limiting resource at this point is imagination. I fall into this trap myself all the time. I try to not refer to the past when thinking about the future, but of course I do; I have to. It’s the only way I can understand what’s happening. But that’s the trap of imagination. We continuously need to ask, “How could this be different?”
So what do you Bring?
NFS: But surely this is where the breadth of roles you’ve undertaken in your career and the significant things that have been involved with, have helped to transform the value of art. Bringing in new audiences, different audiences, it’s not that you’ve always worked with a particular type of photographer or image-maker or artist. Surely that breadth of experience is what you would bring to the table that helps the photography community understand and locate ourselves?
SM: It’s an incredible privilege. I have to say, I feel quite overwhelmed by the opportunities I’ve had; it’s really been amazing.
It’s interesting – slightly anecdotal, but I remember when Tony Stone approached me – I was working at Network Photographers. I was hook, line and sinker into photojournalism. A head hunter came and said, “Would you like to work for Tony Stone?” which was this full-on commercial agency: couples running in the surf at sunset and all that. I was horrified. Eventually I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll learn something.” I made the jump.
It was painful but it was so valuable. Then, each time I’ve made one of these jumps it’s been painful, because I have to reinvent myself.
When I went into the commercial world, nobody had ever heard of me. I went from being known for what I did to “Who the hell are you?” I had to do it all over again. That’s been really an incredible process. The same when I went to work for Art And Commerce which specialises in fashion or when I went into the art world. Every time I was challenged, “So what do you bring?” It’s forced an inventiveness and a creativity and has just been an incredible privilege.
NFS: Through the projects and the conversations that you engage with, I see you as one of the more outspoken people on this change. Not negatively but critically, in a way that seeks to offer…it’s not about solutions, because I think you’re absolutely right. It’s not saying… This is the problem we’ve got; this way of making money has gone. But there isn’t just one solution.
SM: Absolutely. At Tony Stone which became Getty Images, I have to say, working with Jonathan Klein and Mark Getty as my immediate bosses was just a fantastic opportunity. They’re whiplash smart and what I learnt from them about business I could then relate to photojournalism. Then moving into the art world and seeing how that works in such a completely different way with more ideas to carry between disciplines has been fantastically important.
NFS: Are there particular examples where you think perhaps, that through your varied experiences that new innovations have resulted?
SM: I used to pride myself on being an innovative thinker. Along with many other things like ego, that’s been beaten out of me over the years (Laughter).
What I realise is that actually, no; it’s not necessarily that I’m an original or innovative thinker. But I have a privileged perspective through the different things I’ve seen and I suppose just from my thought process of connecting stuff. So I don’t think I’ve invented much, but I think I have brought a fresh vision through joining those dots.
Everyone has Something
NFS: It does often seem that it isn’t about new ideas. In a talk earlier this year, I gave at the Photographers’ Gallery ? looking at social media. I set out with this idea of new mind-sets, and actually in the end I came to the conclusion that it’s more about alternative mind-sets. Because I think the idea of new, is that it’s got to be different. Whereas, as we discussed earlier maybe there are parallels with photography’s birth, some 150 years ago.
I love your recognition of the people that you surround yourself with, or have had the privilege to work with. Which brings us back to the analogy of the ‘compass’ and navigation. This project is structured into three sections; the ‘catalyst’, the ‘encounter’ and the ‘antennae’, together they seek to reveal and help locate the reader in understanding their position at this moment in time within a rapidly changing environment.
So who would you see as being your ‘antennae’ now?
SM: Well, I’m still reeling, to be honest, from the loss of Tim Hetherington. He was very much an antenna. Over the 15 years that we talked together it reached a stage where I couldn’t tell whether something was his idea or my idea. We would just share and mingle. He was a rare, rare thinker. I really miss that.
Jonathan Worth, I pay a lot of attention to. I’ve always been very impressed by his energy and inventiveness and making things happen.
One of my colleagues at VII, Gary Knight is very big thinker, and also a doer with a track record of achievement. He’s got ambition, but also he’s done it.
A young guy called Samuel James, who’s in his mid-twenties, has very little presence in the industry now, but I think will have a significant presence.
There are many, many exciting, interesting people. So in a sense, that antenna is still there.
It comes down to curiosity. In a way, it’s invidious to name names, because everyone’s interesting if you listen. Everyone has something.
NFS: I think this is where it’s also needs to be the idea of people outside of photography…So, what do you see as the next direction for the types of projects that you’re going to get involved with?
SM: Yes, that’s absolutely spot on. Throughout my time in photography I’ve always tried to look outside. That’s where a lot of the innovations come from, people thinking differently.
At the moment, I’m really, really fascinated by advertising. Because, if you think about it, advertising is about imagery that changes behaviour. If we as journalists are serious about the things we cover and we want to make a change, we have to understand how advertising works. It’s effective; it works. People do actually change their behaviour as a result of the imagery they see. So that’s one of my big interests.
One of the people I’m trying to hook up with is a guy called Chris Riley, who I met in Tokyo. He’s an advertising guy, part of the original Just Do It campaign and worked a lot with Mac. He and I are trying to find a project to do together, because that to me is key. I want him to be talking to photojournalists. A lot of photojournalists will hate it, but some of them will get it, and they’ll be better for it.