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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The New Photojournalism Frontier

VII The Magazine looks to reshape how visual stories are told, distributed and paid for in a tough, uncertain economic climate

This Article Features Photo Zoom

VII Photo Agency is moving forward with new ideas and programs for boosting the life span of the photo essays that VII photographers are renowned for creating. VII The Magazine is an intriguing example of the agency’s efforts, which is starting to bear fruit.

The great demise of print media and, subsequently, photojournalism, has been talked about ad nauseam for years now. Frankly, the debate has grown a bit stale. Even before the recent economic upheaval, no one really had any answers, the questions continue to change, and while it’s clear that the traditional outlets, such as newspapers, used to channel visual imagery are facing heavy challenges, the countless photographs that are produced, circulated and consumed every year leave no doubt that there’s still plenty of value to be found in the work of a visual storyteller. It’s just that figuring out how to assess that value with a number and dollar signs seems to be throwing the industry off.

As evidence, though, that photojournalism is still very much alive, DPP talked to Stephen Mayes, managing director of VII Photo Agency, and Scott Thode, editor of VII The Magazine, which launched earlier this year. The online magazine is a platform designed to give VII’s photographers, some of the best working today, more of a voice in terms of deciding what stories to tell and how best to tell them. But the goal is twofold in that they’re also looking to develop a new business model that actually pays the photographers for the work they do. As they explore a number of initiatives and possibilities, they’re finding some surprising new partners in unexpected places.

DPP: Describe the magazine now.

Scott Thode: Basically, I think the magazine is a great experiment in developing a new way of looking at long-form photojournalism—not just photojournalism—but journalism in its own right because I think the photographers would all say they’re first and foremost journalists. We’re trying to create a whole new way of putting together all the different formats that we have at our disposal, including still photography, writing, video and music. We aren’t a news machine, and that’s a big distinction that has to be made. We aren’t going to try to compete with The New York Times or AP or any of these groups. But what we can do is say we have an issue here, there are things going on in the world, and you need to know about this. We want to educate, entertain and illuminate. In my mind, when I’m editing a story, I want people to understand what the story is about, but nine times out of 10, I’ll go for the emotional jugular. I want people to feel something, and that could be to make people laugh just as easy as it is to make them cry. Having all of these things at our disposal, other than just a simple slideshow, we can create something new and a different way of seeing the world.

The other thing you’re going to get is the voice of the photographers who are on the ground, who are there, who know these stories. They’re incredibly articulate. They will spend years or months working on a story. They do their homework.

Stephen Mayes: In a way, the traditional magazines, even at their peak, were only offering a very particular slice. The way pages work, not only was the traditional photo essay very much beginning, middle, end, but best case was maybe eight pages. That’s not a lot of space, actually. And people now do dig deep. We know from people’s web habits that if they’re interested in a subject, they will want a lot more stuff. So we think this is really a liberation. While some of the changes are very painful in the industry, it’s also opening new doors, and we’re coming at it very much from that perspective. It’s not about trying to fill in a gap of something that’s been left. It’s actually that we suddenly have an opportunity to do something that we always wanted to, but never really quite had the platform.

Thode: It’s not filling in a gap because there’s no gap to fill in. We’re just trying to create something totally new. We aren’t looking to replace print media or anything like that. There’s this sense that there’s a whole new way of approaching a story now that really opens us up to a whole new way of working and thinking and seeing and in getting the stories out there.


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