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Perpetual Collaboration and More #PhotoEx

At the Photography, Expanded event this weekend, seven photographers and their teams will share what they’ve learned by taking their documentary work beyond photography into the collaborative, multi-platform, sometimes chaotic future of storytelling.

I caught up with those who could be pinned down long enough for a chat or email, hoping to get a sneak peak of the lessons they learned. Several big ideas emerged, which I’ve highlighted below, and which will hopefully spark more discussion on the Magnum Tumblr following this weekend’s events.

Perpetual Collaboration

Eric Gottesman, who is working with Wendy Ewald on an interactive archive and video game exploring the Innu concept of “Nitassinan,” (“traditional land” or “home”), puts collaboration at the center of his work. The project combines historical images of the Innu with images made by community members and Eric’s images, and asks the community to react to them and decide where and how they should be displayed.

“It’s been important to me, with my photographic practices, to move towards a pluralism, not only of skills but also of vision,” Gottesman says. “‘Plural’ meaning ‘many different kinds of perspectives on different things’; for me that’s what collaboration is really about.”

For Sue Johnson, collaboration is also a way to help stories rise above the constant barrage of information we face. “Everything goes by so fast now—even the most viral video on YouTube has a shelf life of only few weeks” Johnson points out. “I think it is increasingly important to collaborate with people across platforms and mediums, to experiment with new forms of storytelling and publication, in order to give the work a longer life.” 

Through Photography, Expanded, Johnson hopes to expand her Iliso Labantu project, which supports South Africans in documenting specific locations, as a way to encourage others to visit and learn about them.

No More “-ographers”

Johnson also points out that, as the appetite for video, and the ability to stream it anywhere, increases, the line between those who tell stories in still versus moving images will blur. “I don’t think that people will identify as being a photographer or filmmaker down the road,” she says. 

That seems to play out in the Photography, Expanded projects, which include not only photography and film, but also a video game, educational curriculum, and Teru Kuwayama’s Duristan, a multi-faceted online platform for South and Central Asia, with specific focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir.

As projects grow and move into multiple, often highly technical platforms, they’ll be harder to fund on a personal basis, points out Ian Teh, bringing us once again to collaboration. “A better connection with potential collaborators and a support network will allow this new potential in documentary photography to flourish.”

Teh is working on a data-rich project that explores and charts the changing landscape in China’s Yellow river basin.

The Audience Is King

For Pete Pin, his relationship with the Cambodian diaspora he documents goes beyond collaboration—they are his family and friends. Growing up within a community of Killing Fields survivors, Pin rarely heard stories those those dark days that forced his elders to flee their home. As a largely self-taught photographer, he now uses his images to prompt conversations among his friends and family. 

“I’ve been thinking of this work from the beginning as, ‘How do I connect?’ ‘How do I use photography to facilitate a conversation?’” Pin explains.

One of his biggest lessons was to speak in a way his audience would understand—and it turns out photography is not as universal a language as he once thought.

“Older Cambodians have had no interaction with documentary photography, so they were kind of put off by it,” Pin says. “They were expecting formal wedding photos; so now I’m working on portraits, in order to speak to older and younger alike.”

Yue Ren agrees that the audience must now be at the top of a storyteller’s mind—they demand to be heard. Her project uses cell-phone images by Chinese migrant workers to bring visibility to their lives and the challenges they face.

“Documentary photographers should know that they are no longer the “King of Photography,” which means an audience will trust them, follow them without conditions,” she explains. “They may question your report and share their own voice at anytime. It is a challenge for documentary photographers in our time; what I want to do is turn the conflict into cooperation.”

-Miki Johnson, blogging for #PhotoEx

Katerina Voegtle