Writing on photography

Magnum’s Problems are Bigger than David Alan Harvey

Yesterday the Magnum Photo Agency announced that it was suspending long time member David Alan Harvey while it investigates a specific allegation of sexual harassment. This comes on the tail of several weeks of criticism, initially stemming from the discovery and subsequent exposure by Andy Day, Benjamin Chesterton and others that images by Harvey in the Magnum archive might show trafficked children forced to work in the Thai sex industry. This posed a range of ethical and legal problems for the agency, not least the fact that possessing and distributing images depicting child sex abuse is a criminal offence in many of the countries where Magnum operates, including the UK. Magnum’s response, last week, was to take their entire archive offline. It has since been relaunched but now requiring users to register for access.

More troubling and less easily addressed was Harvey’s role in the main photograph under scrutiny, where he appeared to occupy the perspective of a prospective abuser. As many including Amanda Mustard pointed out on Twitter, he also has something of a reputation for inappropriate behaviour in the industry. All of this, one suspects, contributed to Magnum’s board voted to suspend Harvey, as much as the specific claims it is now investigating. This suspension is, to my knowledge, unprecedented. Magnum is after all notable for being photographer owned, and its photographers hold the final say on many important points of its operation (a model which has led more than one Magnum insider to describe the annual general meetingas a ‘complete shitshow’ of clashing egos).

At the same time that photographer centric model has increasingly rubbed up against hard economic reality. Magnum has in recent years sought to revitalise it’s business model in the face of shrinking editorial budgets, and under the direction of David Kogan and subsequent CEOs has increasingly branched out into new commercial territory, trading on the near household name status of the Magnum brand. Instagram print sales, international workshops, and commercial partnerships are amongst the ways that the agency is now successfully generating income. Clearly as that brand becomes as much of a commodity as the images associated with it, the need to protect it increases considerably. In 2018, in the wake of a number of sexual harassment accusations in the wider industry, Magnum introduced a code of conduct for its photographers (the document Harvey’s conduct has apparently contravened).

If the allegations about David Alan Harvey are true, then he should clearly not be in a position of influence or responsibility, or be given the validation that membership of Magnum confers. But this issue is also clearly far bigger than him, it’s about systemic problems within Magnum’s structures which the agency is only haltingly and inconsistently starting to address. Unless those problems are understood and measures taken to mitigate them, this suspension might easily look like an attempt to bury the real problem and deflect public attention (just as the agency taking it’s archive offline did). To my mind the problems that need addressing are twofold. First, there seems to an issue with the way that Magnum’s photographers contribute images to its archive, how those images are reviewed for their appropriateness, how they are tagged, and how they are finally flagged for particular commerical or editorial uses. In some respects this is the easiest problem to resolve because it is largely a matter of changing processes, even if it is admittedly a delicate task to create effective new ones, and then a massive job to retrospectively apply them to Magnum’s entire archive.

But the other problem lies in the founding idea of Magnum as an agency run and directed by its members, and the mystique that it’s photographers are the best of the best. From what I’ve seen in my engagements with the agency there are plenty of opportunities for them to be reminded of this, from the agency’s own rhetoric (it modestly describes itself as ‘the most important artists’ cooperative ever created’) to the fawning adoration of some of the Magnum superfans who attend its events. It’s dangerous to generalise about any group of people, and I know many Magnum photographers who are good, ethical people, who I sense continue to operate largely as they did before joining the agency. But there is undoubtedly a problem that some photographers in the agency buy heavily into this constant affirmation of the importance of their work, and worse still, utilise that affirmation to sometimes troubling ends.

This is also problematic given the agency’s history, and the wider history of photojournalism and documentary photography with which it is associated. Far too often, in the name of advancing a social agenda and righting pernicious wrongs, people in these fields have committed grave ethical transgressions. Photographers past and present, including of course Magnum’s own co-founder Robert Capa, have at times abused their privileged positions for their own ends, instrumentalised their human subjects, and manipulated the reality of the things they are supposed to be recording. They have often justified this, just as a few people attempted to justify Harvey’s photographs, in the name of journalism, as a matter of ends justifying means. But means have a direct impact on the ends they pursue, and such a ‘no holds barred’ approach to journalism fundamentally and, in my view, irredeemably compromises it’s own results. Within Magnum’s coterie of photographers are a minority for whom membership is clearly an opportunity to be exploited in various ways, but worse still there is an even smaller minority within that group for whom it is an opportunity to be exploited in some of the worst senses imaginable.

Finally, it is worth observing to all intents and purposes once someone becomes a full member of the agency they also become inextricably linked to a brand which is in Kogan’s words ‘too important to fail’. This seems to mean that up to a certain point the agency appears unwilling to address criticisms of specific photographers if it thinks it can get away with ignoring them. Clearly the accusations against Harvey have passed that point, and it has become commercially damaging for Magnum to continue to do nothing about them. The problem is that unless they address these very structural problems, including the way the agency views and depicts itself, Harvey’s suspension counts for relatively little, and there isn’t much to prevent similar cases occuring again and again.

If Magnum really represents the best that photojournalism has to offer, it’s no longer enough to just demonstrate that photographically, it also has to demonstrate it in terms of it’s structures, practices and ethics.

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