© DOMINIC BRACCO II
From Dominic Bracco II’s award-winning project “The Backs of Men,” about life along the U.S.-Mexico Border. He told the story with photographs and video, then developed a stage play to tell the story in another form.
Stephen Mayes, a visual communications consultant and executive director of the Tim Hetherington Trust, explains how the trust selects Visionary Award winners—and how photojournalists can stay relevant in the 21st century.
PDN: What is the goal of the Tim Hetherington Visionary Award?
Stephen Mayes: The goal is to identify and support people working in visual communications who are taking innovative approaches. They might be using traditional media but bringing new vision to it, or they might be using completely new media and trying different things. We’re not interested in novelty and whiz-bang fireworks for the sake of it. We’re trying to push the limits of communication.
PDN: What’s the application process?
SM: I put out a call to 60 or 70 nominators around the world—they range from people with an interest in art, some are computer experts, some are video, some are photographers—and I put minimum restrictions on what the form of the visual content can be.
PDN: How many nominations do you get?
SM: I generally get about 60.
© JONGSMA O’NEILL
From “The Ark,” Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill’s virtual reality documentary project about the northern white rhino, which won the 2014 Visionary Award. © JONGSMA O’NEILL
PDN: How have the previous winners pushed visual communication forward?
SM: The first winner (2015) was a Dutch-American film team, Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill. They used 360-degree video to tell the story of the last remaining northern white rhinoceroses in the world. (Editor’s Note: Read PDN‘s interview with the two filmmakers here.) What they really were exploring was the different approaches [to saving the rhinos] in Africa and America, and through that, the [differing] attitudes to technology, conservation and progress. It [told] more than a story about white rhinoceroses, using new technology to get at deeper layers of the story.
PDN: Dominic Bracco II won in 2016 with his project “The Backs of Men,” about cultural and socio-economic forces affecting the lives of people along the U.S./Mexico border. How did that project fit the goals of the Visionary Award?
SM: He was born near the Mexican border, so it’s a story that was very close to his heart. He found it to be a very nuanced story, not at all black and white as it’s often represented to be. He felt frustrated that he couldn’t tell the whole story with [photography]. So he taught himself to write, and spent seven years developing a stage play and writing a novel. [He had] the energy and imagination to broaden the combination of media. (Editor’s Note: Read PDN‘s interview with Dominic Bracco II here.)
PDN: He was a finalist for the Visionary Award in 2015. What was different about his 2016 application that made it a winner?
SM: Each jury has a different perspective. But in particular with Dominic, what seemed like an incredible and impossible task he had set for himself in the [2015 application], he subsequently managed to achieve a large part of [by the time of the 2016 competition]. The jury was so amazed.
PDN: What was the impossible task?
SM: In the intervening year, he had worked with a director, and gone into early stages of developing a stage production of his play. [To the jury in 2015] it seemed incredible that a photojournalist could do that, or would have the motivation to do it, and sure enough, he did.
PDN: How much money comes with the award?
SM: £20,000 British pounds.
PDN: How important is the applicant’s plan for distribution? What kinds of things are you looking for?
SM: The distribution is very important, and that needn’t be to a large number of people. I’ve worked with artists and journalists who have addressed tiny communities, and affected huge change. It’s not the scale of the distribution, it’s the imagination: Who are they targeting, why, and what’s the outcome?
PDN: Who are the judges? How are they selected?
SM: We have five judges. We name them after the [winner is selected]. There’s always one person who had personal connection to Tim, someone with an institutional connection to his work, and a photographer. The judges change, and their tastes change from year to year.
PDN: You told me [via e-mail] that you’re less and less convinced that the standards of 20th century journalism are relevant today. Can you explain what you mean?
SM: To my mind, the media machine has always been a process of excluding information. If we do a story on, say, food scarcity, you create a set of pictures that exclude all information except that which relates to food scarcity. Pick any story, and the process is like that. What you end up with is stereotypes telling a larger story. One individual becomes symbolic [of] a much larger population, and much larger story.
PDN: What’s wrong with that? To help people understand, you have to focus their attention on specific information.
SM: No, I don’t think so. And of course life is richer and more complex than that.
PDN: What’s the alternative that you’d propose?
SM: If you look at Instagram, for example, you see everything that photojournalism excludes. You see all the randomness of life, and any single picture tells you nothing much. But the compilation tells you a much, much richer story than photojournalism can. So it’s not an either/or, it’s not an instead-of, it’s an as-well-as. I see this expansion of media we’re going through at the moment as really significant.
PDN: You’re talking in particular about crowdsourced feeds like Everyday Africa. How do you square that with how photojournalists earn a living?
SM: Why does the world owe photojournalists a living? It’s up to us—and I include myself in this—to make ourselves relevant, if we want to be paid for it.
PDN: How do you suggest photojournalists make themselves relevant?
SM: In a world where there’s too much imagery, what is valuable? It takes only one [distinguishing] characteristic. It might be the fact that you’re a woman. It might be the fact that you’re living in Dakar, it might be the fact that you have particular insight into the LGBT community. Everyone has something which distinguishes who they are, and where they are in the world. And that’s what we have to identify. We can’t rely on photos being the value of our business, because it’s manifestly clear that it’s not.
One of the things that comes along with that is the need for photographers to take a position. The old rules of neutrality served us well in the 20th century, but I don’t think we need to hang onto them in the 21st. A photographer needs to say: “I chose to do this story, I chose to follow this particular person, for the following reasons, and I’m going to stand behind them,” rather than saying, “I’m an objective truth seeker,” which they never were.
You [also] have to incorporate your life values in your work. What too many journalists have done in the past, by the way, is talk about issues which are not part of their lives, they’re not part of their value systems. [Photographers] have been following the prescribed [narratives] that we expect to be in the news.
PDN: The media is besieged by accusations of bias. How does your call for a rejection of neutrality and objectivity make the media more respected, rather than less?
SM: I think the adherence to 20th century standards of journalism have led us precisely into this mess we’re in today. The journalism we see as standard and neutral is anything but, [and that is particularly apparent] when you step into another culture, and look back at it.
In the late ’80s, a Polish photographer got commissioned to photograph the British election. Afterwards, he said, “We didn’t know what to believe in the [Soviet] press, but we knew we were being lied to, so we took it apart and made our own interpretations. Here, people believe what you tell them.” He was aghast. To have a media machine that people believe is deeply dangerous.
All media has a world view, a position, or a character, and that has to be stated. It puts the onus on viewers and readers to take responsibility for what they read. People may feel less comfortable with this, but it’s a more honest position.