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Interviews

The maker is <br class="br_visual" />the message

The maker is
the message

© Ilvy Njiokiktjien

December 2016

The paradigms of the photography world seem to be shifting. More and more, photographers are dictating how and where their stories should live, assuming the positions of both revered editor and steadfast agent. CPN Web Editor Deniz Dirim speaks to Message in a Photo (MIAP) founder Diane van der Marel on celebrating the newly found role of the photographer as a storyteller who can weave a strong visual narrative – and sell it too.

While Message in a Photo’s (MIAP) goal is to facilitate visual stories’ potential for social impact, founder Diane van der Marel advocates that the seed is sown with the maker. As such, the private Dutch foundation has introduced an unconventional education for the modern-day storyteller. Embracing the philosophy of ‘cross-pollination’, MIAP exposes photographers and artists to an array of practices – common in business and the social sciences but foreign to the photography world – to help participants harness their value as visual storytellers.

Diane explains, “If I would have done it ten years ago everybody would have been confused because, if you knew the editors, there already was a marketplace. Everything was well-arranged; now nothing is arranged anymore. Nobody knows where to go and how to do it, so it’s a new playing field and in this new playing field you need new tools. A lot of the value is created if you can work interdisciplinary – if you can put things together, not only as a soloist but as a whole orchestra.”

MIAP’s interdisciplinary approach was born from Diane’s multifaceted background. Diane began her career in the “hardcore business world” but, disconcerted by a lack of “meaning”, she soon switched to working with NGOs. Although energised by development organisations’ commitment to social impact, it wasn’t until Diane made her foray into photography that she found her true calling.

“I studied photography at the Photography Academy here in Amsterdam and, from that moment, everything sort of came together. The love of photography and what it can mean really got to me. Everyone looks for their passion in their life; I found it. So that was like, okay now what am I going to do with it? How does it relate to what I’ve done before? So I put all my experiences in a bowl, mixed it together and out came MIAP,” Diane shares.

The MIAP ethos

Since its inception in 2013, MIAP has supported over 25 photographers and visual artists whose stories impel social impact. Even though the foundation enjoys a 40,000 euro yearly budget, MIAP’s mission goes beyond the usual grant programme. It is an incubator which cultivates the next generation visual storyteller who can seamlessly contextualise, pitch and circulate their own work.

©

The Message in a Photo (MIAP) website pictured above features stories by MIAP fellows, including the joint project ‘Sistaaz of the Castle’ by artist/photographer Jan Hoek and fashion designer Duran Lantink on the colourful looks of transgender sex workers in Cape Town, South Africa.

This year, MIAP initiated its first annual Storytelling Fellowship, which brings the foundation’s interdisciplinary philosophy to full fruition. Following a call for proposals in spring 2016, MIAP selected six stories to pursue. The chosen photographers and visual artists were invited to partake in a three-day Fellowship Programme last September, hosted by Diane in her home just outside of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Diane explains, “It’s such a well-used concept in business. You go three days to a hotel to get training. You’re not talking about your work but how you’re doing your work and how you’re relating to other people... that’s so much of everything. It’s not just taking the pictures; that’s a small bit of the whole thing you’re trying to do.”

During the Fellowship Programme, the storytellers dissected their stories and learned how to market themselves with diverse experts including: Philosopher Gijs Reudink, Founder of online journalism platform De Correspondent Harald Dunnink, Founder of award-winning advertising agency LEMZ Mark Woerde, Instagram Community Editor Molly Benn and Pitch-trainers Edward van der Marel, Geert van Engelen and Martijn Baarda.

In one-on-one sessions and as a group, the participants discussed value from a philosophical perspective, responsibility from a journalistic approach and how to create loyalty from a communications point of view. In this way, the storytellers explored what it takes to be an all-round cultural entrepreneur.

Fellowship Director and former Managing Director of NOOR photo agency Evelien Kunst asserts, “We really believe that a story is not enough. You also need to think about the context surrounding that story, who you are as a photographer and what your passions are, but also your ethics for example. And of course, you look at who your audience is and how you best can reach that audience.”

Upon completing the coaching, participants were given three weeks to adjust their stories and prepare a pitch for funds (from 5,000 to 11,000 euros) to Diane, Evelien and four other board members. But in keeping with the foundation’s atypical approach, MIAP turned the tables around and also gave each storyteller one thousand euros to award deserving stories.

MIAP Fellows Present their Projects

Commenting on the process, participant Jan Hoek whose project does away with tourism-driven depictions to present a modern look at the Maasai people in Kenya shares: “Pitching your ideas for financial support is still often considered a dirty job by many visual artists. But this fellowship had made me aware of the absolute necessity to implement a business model within a project proposal and it comforts me to realise that it doesn’t have to affect your artistic integrity.”

Until now, MIAP has remained intentionally small to ensure the MIAP ethos could thrive, only welcoming fellows based in the Netherlands. The 2017 Fellowship Programme will for the first time accept applicants from around the world.

“Participants now really feel that they have a value as a fellow for other fellows but also that they have a value for the market. You can show people outside of the photography world why they should not hire a photographer for an assignment but get the photographer within their organisation earlier on. Not just ask for pics to go with something, but instead say: I need you to tell my story,” explains Diane.

Lifting the veil

MIAP’s success in bringing creatives to the foreground sheds light on the blurring boundaries of the photo world. Diane contends, “You can’t just hide behind your pictures; it’s about you as well. The subjectivity in news is getting clearer and clearer. Everything which you see either written or filmed or photographed – there is subjectivity in it. You need to know the maker and know how he/she is working.”

In fact, MIAP does not differentiate between documentary photographers and visual artists or photographers and filmmakers – vying instead for the umbrella term ‘lens-based storyteller’. Viewing photographers as storytellers whose imprint is crucial to the potency of their work taps into a greater trend developing within the industry. Namely, do images which strive for objectivity provide the most authentic documentation? Or should the subjectivity imbued by the maker be celebrated, as is encouraged by MIAP?

World Press Photo, who is a partner of MIAP, provides a case in point. Just last month the prestigious foundation – notorious for its strict take on journalistic ethics – announced the launch of a new creative documentary contest to accommodate many photojournalists’ new ways of working.

Diane concludes, “In the end, I really really believe – and that’s how I started this as well – that we really need visual storytellers. We have too many people in the train who are not stepping out, looking around and saying: okay, where are we? We need these people to show us what is happening and then turn things around – artists have always been really important in that.”

Biography: Diane van der Marel

Diane van der Marel

Diane van der Marel first embarked on a career in business. With a strong interest in social issues, it wasn’t long before Diane moved to the NGO world where she worked with international organisations like War Child. In 2009, Diane studied photography at the Photography Academy in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and thereafter decided to combine her passion for social impact with her love for images. In 2013, Diane founded Message in a Photo – a private Dutch foundation dedicated to empowering visual storytellers with the tools necessary to effect social change.