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© Gary Knight/VII
© Alizé Le Maoult
Gary Knight began his photographic career in Thailand in 1987 and he lived and worked in the Far East until 1992. In 1993 he moved to the former Yugoslavia and documented the civil war there. In recent years he has covered news stories such as the invasion of Iraq, Israel/Palestine, North Korea, the occupation of Afghanistan, the civil war in Kashmir and the Asian Tsunami.
He was a contract photographer for Newsweek from 1998 to 2006, is one of the founders of the Angkor Photo Festival, a registered charity in Cambodia, and is a co-founder of The GroundTruth Project, a non-profit media organisation in the USA. In 2001 he was one of the founders of the VII Photo agency.
Gary has won numerous awards since 1996, published the monograph 'Evidence - The Case Against Milosevic' in 2001, and has also been a key contributor to a number of books including 'War' by DeMo in 2004 and 'Questions Without Answers', published by Phaidon in June 2012. He was two time Chair and twice jury member of the World Press Photo Award and in May 2008, co-founded Dispatches, a new current affairs quarterly of which he is co-editor. Since 2010 he has focussed on long-term documentary projects including 'Topografica Inmigracion' a study of immigration in the USA and he continues to work on his Asian Journals, a series that started in the 1980s.
He spent the 2009/10 academic year on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University and then founded the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice at The Institute for Global Leadership, at Tufts University in the USA, where he teaches part of the year. In 2012 he returned to Bosnia for a project documenting the changes in the region over the past 20 years. In July 2012 he published the collective book 'Bosnia 1992-1995' with Remy Ourdan, Jon Jones and Ziyah Gafic.
His work has been published and exhibited in major international media since 1988 (the year he bought his first Canon camera) and is held in private and institutional collections worldwide.
For the last few years, Gary Knight’s life as a photojournalist and Canon Ambassador has revolved around education. Either as Director of the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice at The Institute for Global Leadership, at Tufts University in Boston, USA, or as chairman of the World Press Photo contest judging panel, his role as a photographer has shifted. He is now spending less time behind the lens and more time in front of students and fellow photographers, talking about the power of photography to change and the importance of reporting news on a local level. He’s come a long way since those early days as a freelance photographer, and his journey to a new status within Canon – as a Canon Master – is recognition that his voice is being heard not only by his peers, but also his protégés and the industry as a whole.
As one of the co-founders of the VII Photo agency in 2001 he has been instrumental in establishing the model for the 21st century photo agency, but where did it all start for this giant of photojournalism?
Oakham in the small county of Rutland is the epitome of the stereotypical quiet, English rural town where locals live peacefully and quietly. It was here in 1964 that Gary Knight came into the world and the very peace and quiet that many crave was one of the reasons that Gary developed a desire to ‘spread his wings' and seek adventure in far off lands.
As a child Gary recalls: "My Dad was a keen amateur photographer with his projector and slideshows and all that stuff." But it was books, and in particular the writings of the legendary photojournalist Tim Page, that inspired Gary to seek something beyond the confines of a life stuck in middle England.
"I wanted to escape a mundane English middle class life. I didn't want to stay – I just wanted to go away. You see, I was brought up on great adventure books. So, from reading those you develop a great sense of romanticism, a sense of chivalry and the chance to live that sort of dream," he explains.
"At 14 I picked up Tim Page's book and I very much understood that photojournalism was a job. I also used to pick up and see the photographs by Don McCullin in the Sunday Times magazine and those guys inspired me."
It was this mixture of understanding photojournalism and developing a sense of a political conscience that drove Gary on. He recounts: "As a teenager I was very political. I understood the Vietnam War. I had worked with refugees from Indochina." He adds: "The dream started when I was living in England and, if I remember correctly, my first professional photographs were of Iggy Pop and The Ramones shot at the Reading Festival for a Swedish newspaper." But clearly a career as a music photographer wasn't quite enough for Gary.
His wanderlust kicked in and he made the decision to leave England for pastures anew. "I had a lot of issues to escape and photojournalism was a form of escapism. I actually met Tim Page at an early age and he gave me the advice that ‘the only way to go was to go to the story', so I took that advice."
But why did he become a photojournalist? "To be honest there are many reasons. We (photojournalists) always say that it's the need to do the right thing, to address the issues of our time, and that's obviously a part of it. But I'm often seeking something more."
His career began in Thailand in 1987, aged 23, when, after a few years travelling, he picked up his camera in earnest to begin a quest that has seen him mix photography with a heartfelt concern for human rights to devastating effect. As a boy his first camera had been a Box Brownie but when he had decided to go professional he started shooting pictures with the Canon AE-1 Program.
He lived in Bangkok with friends, including the photojournalist Philip Blenkinsop, and for five years South East Asia provided his photographic platform. Whilst in Asia his pictures documented the internecine warfare within a region that was coming to terms with the end of the Cold War.
As far as cameras are concerned Gary recalls: "After the AE-1 Program I moved on to supplement it with the T90, and then the EOS 620 or 650 in around 1992. The natural progression after that was to the EOS-1 film cameras. I was using a 20-35mm, a 50mm macro, and an 80-200mm zoom at the time. "
Following several years in Thailand and the Far East in 1993 he moved on to the former Yugoslavia. He reveals: "I met up with a couple of TV cameramen, including Vaughan Smith, and they and other people advised me to go to Eastern Europe because that was where the story was. In late 1992 one of my buddies was getting married so I went home to England and then on to Bosnia where I stayed for a few years, from around 1993 to 1999."
Whilst in the former Yugoslavia Gary lived in an apartment on the Croatian coast and travelled in and out of the war zones on assignment. Whilst there he met his future wife, Fiona, and fell in love. It was also here that whilst shooting images of the civil war he became immersed in the subject that has dominated much of his photographic work since – documenting human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.
By the mid-1990s Gary was establishing a reputation, as one of the world's leading photographic chroniclers of conflict and poverty and it wasn't too long before he began to get recognition from his peers. In 1996/97 he received the first of two Amnesty International Photojournalism Awards and many more honours were to follow. After his years based in Croatia Gary returned to England in 1999. "I lived in London and I worked in South Africa, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, and other places but the principal place I was working was still the Balkans."
Although he became a contract photographer for Newsweek magazine from 1998 onwards prior to that Gary had been freelance. He says: "I was represented by a guy called Simon Gutman who ran a photo agency called Report. He had escaped from the Nazis in Paris and had actually launched Robert Capa's career back in the 1930s – he gave Capa a camera. When Simon died I went to Saba Press Photos."
Shortly after the dawn of the 21st century Gary and some of his photojournalist contemporaries began to note that many of the smaller photo agencies were being taken over by larger organisations and even larger conglomerates were forming. In fact, Corbis acquired the agency that Gary was working for at the time, Saba Press Photos, in March 2000.
So, in September 2001, Gary was one of the founders of the VII Photo agency alongside six other photographers – the late Alexandra Boulat, Ron Haviv, Antonin Kratochvil, Christopher Morris, James Nachtwey and John Stanmeyer. The idea, from its foundation, was for VII to be an efficient, technologically enabled distribution hub for some of the world's finest photojournalism whilst drawing on the collective strengths of its photographers.
Gary explains: "In 2001 I started VII. It was really a consequence of the times we were in. You had giants taking over smaller agencies and forming conglomerates, so we wanted to do something different. We thought we'd form; we'd set up; and we'd make our own mistakes. We were basically all at the same place in our heads at the same time."
In recent years Gary has covered the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Afghanistan and the Asian tsunami, and he is currently working on a series of photo essays on the issues of inequality, injustice and prejudice. His extra-curricular commitments include being a board member of the Crimes of War Foundation and a trustee of the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation.
In addition to this he was a founder of the Angkor Photo Festival, a registered charity in Cambodia, which began in 2005 with the ethos of establishing a permanent home for photography in Asia paying special attention to the emerging photographers from the region. When it's suggested to him that this sort of work is humanitarian Gary baulks at the idea. "I don't see it as that. I wouldn't call it humanitarian – that's the wrong word. For example, the Crimes of War Foundation is actually more of a lobbying group and the Angkor Photo Festival is really all about fund raising and organising teaching for photographers for all of Asia."
Today Gary's principal photographic tool of choice is the Canon EOS-5D Mark III. He explains: "I don't care about the number of megapixels, I just care about the quality of the file and the files from the EOS-5D Mark III are very nice. I think this is the best quality file that Canon has produced. It's sharp and it looks a little crisper than before. In the RAW file, I really don't have to do much work on the images afterwards. I just upload them, adjust the white balance and that's more or less it."
"Actually I still shoot a lot of film. I love the EOS-1V and use it with the EF35mm f/1.4L USM and the EF50mm f/1.2L USM. I have a darkroom and I still try to print as much as I can. To be honest I think film is the new digital. That's probably not the right thing to say but it's what I enjoy," he laughs.
Gary's work has been published in magazines all over the world, including Newsweek (for whom he has been a contract photographer for the past 10 years), and is held in the permanent collections of several museums. His numerous awards include an Honourable Mention in the Robert Capa Award 2003/4, first place for features in the Picture of the Year Awards 2000, and first place for magazine spread in the Picture of the Year Awards 2008 for his coverage of the civil war in Zaire.
But he ruefully observes: "None of these honours have made a significant impact on the conditions in which the people I photograph live". Nevertheless he remains optimistic that this situation may be reversed.
When pressed for any favourite image, or the one that had the most impact, from his career he refuses to pick out anything. "Really for me it's the total of the images. I don't think that any one photograph changes things and in any case on any given day I might choose a different image." He adds: "I'm much more interested in creating image. They're just photographs that are useful and powerful. They're important because they are of today."
In February 2008 (and again in 2014) he served as the Chairman of the World Press Photo Jury. His own personal landmark came four years later, in the summer of 2012, when he collaborated with fellow photographers and colleagues Jon Jones (Director of Photography, The Sunday Times Magazine), Tom Stoddart and Le Monde’s war correspondent Rémy Ourdan, among many others, to produce the book ‘Bosnia: 1992-1995’ – which brought minds back into sharp focus, 20 years after the beginning of one of the most brutal of civil wars.
He explains: “Like most of these projects, it means different things to different people at different times,” Knight recalls. “For the photographers like myself it was a nice way to revisit and reconnect with Bosnia, to revisit a country that many of us had very formative experiences in. My generation of photographers were there to photograph the most significant story of the early part of our lives,” he remembers. “It’s where great friendships were formed, and where many of us met wives and husbands."
"I'm very interested in publishing, developing my foundations and using photography in many ways."
Although when not visiting the ‘trouble spots' of the world with his camera in hand, he lives in Boston, USA with his wife Fiona, their two children and an assortment of animals. It's clear from talking to Gary Knight that he's a driven man. A driven man, with camera in hand, who seems to have a clear path for the future even though he is already over two decades into his own photographic journey.
“I really enjoy teaching. It’s become a huge part of my life and I am enjoying using my relationship with Canon to create new educational opportunites for students. With media budgets shrinking, there has never been a more important time for indigenous storytellers to have a voice. The world is changing, and it’s not enough anymore to have outsiders visiting trouble sports and reporting on the situation – it’s critical to have a local perspective.”
“When I was younger, I was more certain about what I knew. But now that I’m older I am less sure about my knowledge. But this is a good thing; it means I can put myself in a better context to relate, and be more open to those I teach and those I talk to. I want to encourage photographers, journalists, and filmmakers to open their eyes and always look for the real stories around them.”