The halls and lecture theatres of the Royal Geographical Society in London have undoubtedly hosted more momentous events in their 177-year history, but few could have been as inspiring and thought provoking as VII Photo's two days of seminars held there in April, says Mike Stanton.
From its well-documented beginning two days before the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, VII has attracted more than its fair share of attention. The presence of James Nachtwey for the first seminar in Europe, along with eminent discussion panel guests such as former Life and Magnum picture editor John Morris, was always going to add to the iconic status of this small and dynamic agency.
In 2005, the VII photographers were collectively voted the third-most important people in the business by American Photo magazine after Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein from Getty Images, and Annie Leibovitz.
So it was no surprise that the Ondaatje Lecture Hall was packed with hundreds of students and professional photojournalists eager to see presentations from each of the 10 VII photographers. It was a rare opportunity for students to meet the VII photographers face to face, discuss ideas and have their books signed.
The seven (hence the name) original founders − Alexandra Boulat, Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, Antonin Kratochvil, Christopher Morris, James Nachtwey and John Stanmeyer − along with the newer members Lauren Greenfield, Joachim Ladefoged and Eugene Richards, collectively own VII, and are now ably managed by Frank Evers. Their mission is to document violent and non-violent conflict, and the people whose lives it shapes. The seminars aim to inspire and educate the next generation of photographers in the ways conflict can be recorded and the effects it can have. There was an elliptical debate across the two days concerning how much photographers can or even should try to “change the world”. James Nachtwey, arguably the world's most famous war photographer, did not need convincing of the power of the still image to influence people's lives. Neither, it seemed, did much of the audience, which gave him a prolonged standing ovation after his presentation (It is perhaps worth mentioning here that only Joachim Ladefoged was considered worthy of a standing ovation before his speech.)
Before a brief retrospective of a career spent recording some of the most horrific events of the past 30 years from The Balkans to Rwanda, Nachtwey said that the photographers that inspired him in the Sixties and Seventies “not only recorded history, they helped changed the course of history”. “Documentary photography gives a voice to those that would not otherwise have a voice,” he said. For Nachtwey, photojournalism and the press generally, “is a service industry, and what it sells is awareness”, a view, surely, with which Lauren Greenfield would concur after all the attention her 'Thin' project has received especially from countries where eating disorders have been largely ignored. Nachtwey recalled how, after the fall of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998, the publishing of images of an amputee and his family living on a railway embankment helped to generate unsolicited donations. “[That man] now lives in a house in the countryside and all the basic necessities are taken care of,” he said.
The singularity of VII's mission is easily matched by its members' differing motivations. Ron Haviv, who made his name covering conflict in Central America in the Eighties, joked, in his rye and markedly down-to-earth presentation, that he just wanted a job “that wouldn't lock me up in an office”.
Alexandra Boulet revealed that her father, himself a photographer, had spent 10 years trying to dissuade her from taking up the profession. He had called it “a rotten piece of wood”. That was twenty years ago, and she has since gone on to cover the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq, the fall of the Taliban and the condition of women in the Islamic world − winning numerous awards in the process.
Gary Knight, despite encouraging students to hold on to their dreams of changing the world, warned them against “walking around in a romantic bubble”. He urged young photographers to be “nimble and adaptable” and to think of themselves as small businesses. “You can't even attempt to change the world if you can't even stay in business,” he said. Those entering photography needed to work out how they could build a successful business, how their work could be distributed and have a three- or four-year plan, he said. “The days of Robert Capa going off to China with $50,000 in his pocket are over.”
Indeed, the reality of the profession's insistence on sacrifice, on long absences from family and on the lack of what most people would call 'a normal life', was one of the event's most powerful messages. Heightened, perhaps, by the venue of the RGS, which, itself, has supported so many long and difficult explorations, the sacrifices these 10 people had made were all too clear to see.
In an emotional introduction to his presentation, Christopher Morris explained that by 1995 he had “burned out” on war photography and was feeling the effects of a seemingly endless Balkan conflict.
“I thought 'how many pictures of idiots with guns can I take?',” he said. “The toll that war takes on the civilians and children… then I got married, and had a child of my own in 1998, but I didn't quite know how to stop. In 2000, I went Chetchnya for about the sixth time...I had some close calls...and you're not always sure that you're going to come home. It made me realise that my daughter was the most important thing.”
Antonin Kratochvil spoke of the need for support “when what you photograph is so overwhelming”. “We hang out together like policemen do because we know what each other is doing.”
John Stanmeyer recalled the moment, stood in the middle of a rice field in Indonesia on Boxing Day morning 2005, that he received a phone call saying that a giant wall of Indian Ocean water had smashed into south-east Asia. Confronted with devastation on such a grand scale, he admitted that he wasn't even remotely prepared for “the realisation of my own insignificance”.
The seemingly ageless John Morris, who, in his 70-odd years working with some of the greatest photographers, has felt the consequences of this sacrifice more than most, not least with the loss of his great friends Robert Capa and Chim Seymour in the mid-Fifties.
Nevertheless, in his remarks that opened the seminars, Morris threw down the gauntlet to the new generation of photojournalists. “The whole world is relying on you to provide the evidence on which it bases its beliefs”.
No small challenge, but clearly one that VII, through these rare gatherings, is doing its bit to meet.
Canon Europe was a proud sponsor of the 1st European VII Seminar.