Writing on photography

An Open Letter to Magnum’s Photographers

Nearly a decade ago, when I was first starting to study and practice documentary photography, Magnum Photos was like a lighthouse on the horizon, a distant point which I believed to be the destination of my journey as a photographer. I was, obviously, naïve about my reasons for making documentary work, and about the metrics that should be my measurement of success. But I was setting forth in the small and untested craft I had built myself into what felt like a wide and uncertain sea. At the time it seemed Magnum was one of a few bright markers in the darkness which I could set a course towards.

For the first few years of my career as a photographer I absorbed and accepted Magnum’s narratives about itself, and for the most part believed these stories. Its members selflessly addressed wrongs, brought light to the under-represented, stood for social justice, pushed the artistry of the form, and emulated in short what I still believe to be some of the best values and aspirations of documentary photography. I also found the apparent ‘all-for-one’ ideal of the agency romantic, that in a time when I was endlessly being told that documentary photography was a pointless career (usually I realise now by people who had no experience to base this on), Magnum’s approach seemed to attractively emphasise community and collaboration as a way to protect against the storms that always seemed to be close at hand.

Over time I came closer to my destination. I got to know people at Magnum, and eventually started to occasionally teach with them. The narrative I had absorbed I realise was in part true, but it was not the entire story. As I got closer, and the edifice on which that shining beacon sat became more and more visible on the horizon, I started to feel that it was built on foundations which were in many ways problematic. In particular I came to feel that inequality was built into the way Magnum worked, both in terms of the type of photography it most prominently championed, and in terms of the structure of the organisation itself. I eventually stopped teaching for them.

The narratives that surrounded Magnum had of course been written to a large extent by the agency itself, but they had also been repeated unquestioningly by the industry at large, which in this sense also shares some responsibility for what we are seeing now. In some ways it is apt that an agency co-founded by such a master of reinvention as Robert Capa, should today make similar sleights of hand so central to its identity. Few things have thrown that reality into starker relief than the agency’s response to allegations against one of its members, both the wider community criticisms of his behaviour, and his approach to photography, but also a specific allegation made against him that has led to a one-year suspension from the agency. This in turn has given way to further scrutiny and concern about the agency and it’s archive. In response, Magnum has mostly appeared to operate like one of the organisations that in its supposed glory days it’s members might have taken to task.

From my outside perspective, this looks like a perfect storm brewed by two already problematic models, of a collective that prioritises its members interests above almost all else, and the newer attempt to more fully commercialise the Magnum brand. Now combined, those models look increasingly as if they are fundamentally in conflict. What does one do when a member’s conduct threatens the brand? We are now seeing that question answered, by an organisation that seems caught in something of a cognitive trap, stuck between two sets of priorities and apparently unable to reconcile them or fully satisfy either, much less start to properly address the fundamental questions that have given rise to this this debate.

This episode is doing damage to the reputation of the agency, and by association to the reputation of those within it, particularly those who have in the past made a name for their thoughtfulness and willingness to speak truth to power, but who now remain conspicuously silent. Whatever happens Magnum will remain a part of the history of photojournalism, but the question that it’s members should I think be asking themselves is that in the light of current events, precisely which side of that history it will be on. Will it remain a model to emulate, or become a cautionary tale for what happens when an organisation, and it’s members, become too big to be reflexive.

For a long time I felt it was unfair to address the problems of the agency to Magnum photographers themselves, and I still write this text with a significant degree of doubt that it is the right thing to do. Why should they, particularly the newer and often more progressive members who I tend to see as the great hope for the agency to rediscover its promise, have the troubles of their forbears laid at their door. It is also, I know, hard to change the direction of any organisation even from within, like steering a vast tanker ship you might only nudge it a little way in any direction. Still, I know there are good people at Magnum, making important work and with important things to say. Some of them will be as distressed and concerned as many of those outside of it are about these issues. And so I address Magnum’s photographers directly, quite a few of whom I know, some as colleagues, some I hope as friends, when I say that I do not believe these are issues that you can stay silent on.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography