Long Read: How collaboration is at the heart of the best contemporary photojournalism

Long Read: How collaboration is at the heart of the best contemporary photojournalism

Working better together — The search for a story can feel like a solo mission when you’re a photojournalist alone in the field. But photographers have found ways to collaborate with other people since the origins of the documentary form, coming together with storytellers of all kinds to find a new perspective.

Most documentary photographers draw on historical and renowned photojournalists for inspiration, flipping through the pages of seminal bodies of work such as James Nachtwey’s Inferno, Philip Jones Griffiths’ Agent Orange, Don McCullin’s Shaped by War, Eddie Adams’ Vietnam or the many books devoted to Dorothea Lange’s iconic ‘Migrant Mother’ image to chart a career path – one that will be marked by setbacks, intense competition, uncertainties and, as many respected photographers will readily admit, loneliness.

The job of photographer can feel like a one-man or one-woman band, which explains why many of them have, since photography has expanded beyond posed portraits and into documentary, been coming together in collectives and agencies to pool resources and create a sense of community that can be otherwise lacking – from the established Magnum Photos agency founded in the 1940s by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour, to VII Photo in the early 2000s and the emerging Boreal Collective created less than five years ago by a group of Canadian photographers looking to affirm their country’s photographic presence on the international stage.

This yearning for a community of like-minded people can take many forms, going beyond traditional emotional and professional support. In recent years, for example, agencies have been collaborating on group projects – Noor Images in Amsterdam offering the best example, as the collective of photojournalists developed worldwide photographic productions around environmental issues. One such project, around climate change, saw the agency’s members fan out across the world – from Japan to Pakistan, Cuba to Greenland, Brazil to Poland – to document the effects of global warming on populations and their environments.

Photo: Migrant Mother (1936); Dorothea Lange

Photo: Migrant Mother (1936); Dorothea Lange

But photographic partnerships are far from new. One of the first experiences in collaboration took place when the Farm Security Administration hired eleven photographers to document poverty among US farmers in the late 1930s and early 1940s – a team of photographers that included giants such as Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange who took more than 160,000 images. But Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ photo came to define the movement, establishing her name in people’s psyches for decades to come.

Yet, the bulk of Lange’s work – the images that truly cemented her reputation as a leading documentarian – was the result of a deeper and more personal collaboration, one that resulted in the publication of the masterpiece An American Exodus with Paul Taylor, a professor in economics she later married. For more than four years, the two of them toured the United States from Georgia to Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas and California as changes in the agricultural processes forced more than 300,000 people to migrate westward in search of new work. What they found was an economic disaster with many of those farmers forced to live in poverty, as jobs remained scarce.

Photo: Mikhael Subotsky and Patrick Waterhouse

Photo: Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum photos

Lange and Taylor worked in tandem – as she photographed, he interviewed their subjects, with the writer often helping Lange to capture the portraits they needed, as he recalled later. “Her method of work was often to just saunter up to the people and look around, and then when she saw something that she wanted to photograph, to quietly take her camera, look at it and if she saw that they objected, why she would close it up and not take a photograph… My purpose was just to make it a natural relationship, and take as much of their attention as I conveniently could, leaving her the maximum freedom to do what she wanted.”

For Lange, Taylor taught her the discipline needed to work on such an assignment, Anne Whiston Spirn writes in Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports From the Field. “I learned a good deal from Paul about being a social observer,” said Lange. Today, Lange and Taylor’s combined work continues to inspire photographers to work as part of a team. Each year, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University organises the Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize, which encourages and rewards interdisciplinary and collaborative work between photographers and other practitioners.

As Lange and Taylor crisscrossed the United States, two other photojournalists worked in tandem in southern Europe during the Spanish Civil War: Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. The two photographers, legends of the profession, came with different backgrounds – one influenced by the surrealism movement of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the other deeply grounded in the conventions of a nascent photojournalism. Yet, after lost rolls of photographs resurfaced in 2010, photography experts and curators at the International Center of Photography in New York discovered that the couple’s collaboration was deeper than first thought: some photographs long thought to have been authored by Capa had been Taro’s all along – blurring the lines between the two photographers’ styles and approaches. Unfortunately, the couple’s collaboration was cut short when a tank crushed Taro’s car as she made her way back from the war’s frontline. She died aged twenty-six.

School No. 1; Diàna Markosian

Photo: School No. 1; Diàna Markosian

Today, while collaborations between photographers remain the exception in a deeply individualistic market, some people use partnerships to create deeper bodies of work. And this can take several forms. Diàna Markosian, for example, collaborated with survivors of the Beslan school siege that claimed the lives of 385 people ten years ago in Russia. Markosian paired her photographs with the survivors’ drawings and diary entries to produce a more thorough document of what happened during the siege, as well as the psychological and emotional trauma it left in its wake.

Other photographers invite their audiences into the creative process. David Alan Harvey of Magnum Photos is one of them. When he produced his book (based on a true story), Harvey launched a participative blog, encouraging his followers to take part in the book’s layout and editing process. In 2012, his colleague at Magnum, Carl de Keyzer, enlisted people to suggest areas of the European shore he should photograph for his project Moments Before the Flood, which dealt with the coast’s inevitable erosion. And since 2011, a loose group of Magnum photographers have taken part in the collaborative project Postcards From America, which sees them descend on an American town or region to create a collective body of work reminiscent, in parts, of the Farm Security Administration’s initiative.

Photo: Ponty City from Yeoville Ridge (2008); Mikhael Subotsky and Patrick Waterhouse

Photo: Ponty City from Yeoville Ridge (2008); Mikhael Subotsky and Patrick Waterhouse

For Kendrick Brinson and David Walker Banks, collaboration came naturally when the couple co-founded the Luceo collective in 2007. As the group of six photographers worked on large scale, long-term projects, they learn to “divide and conquer,” as Brinson puts it, to cover all aspects of a story. Yet, it’s only after Luceo was shut down that Brinson and Banks realised what true collaboration could lead to. In 2012, they combined their names to create Brinson + Banks, a commercial photography team. “We knew that we could be stronger with our efforts combined, but we weren’t prepared for the result, which was a totally new creative identity,” says Banks. “For us, the advantages lie in playing to our individual strengths while curtailing the weaknesses. This may seem like an obvious result, but it must actually be applied in concept, planning and execution. We’ve had to learn to let go of our ego to a huge degree – not the easiest thing for an artist of any discipline to do. While we are often both shooting in tandem, there are times when we have to let the other shoot the hero shot while one of us takes the backseat to direct or simply look for ways to make the shot better.”

George Georgiou and Vanessa Winship have learned to do the same. The two photographers have been working side-by-side for more than thirty years, ever since they met in college. Their collaboration has taken them to Turkey, Georgia and the US, where they’ve produced award-winning documentary work. “At first we worked in the same places in a similar style, we put this partly down to a photographic learning process,” they say. “Over time we began to develop our own voices and vision.”

And while they share the same interests and work on similar stories, both photographers are ready to take a step back if it benefits the other’s creative process. “We tend to share the time, give each other breathing space to find their way,” they explain. “We are both happy to put our own projects to the side for a year while the other is working more intensively on a project. As we work in the same places, this time allows you to use your other senses. It gives you time to understand what you might want to do and how to approach a place.”

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Photo: Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum photos

In some instances, photographers will be asked to work together on a shared project. That was the case for Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin. When both Magnum photographers received a commission from the non-profit Lynx for Hope to create a photographic archive of the Republic of Congo, their collaboration took a different turn: they removed their bylines – mixing their images together without any mention of respective authorship. The collaboration was “refreshing,” says Pellegrin. “The project was collaborative in terms of the concept and our conversations, but personal when it came to the actual image-making.”

That aspect is crucial to a successful collaboration, says Patrick Waterhouse, an artist who worked with photographer Mikhael Subotzky to produce the book Ponte City, which documents the skyscraper of the same name in Johannesburg, South Africa. “You need a shared vision and at the same time a degree of tension,” he says. “It means thoughts that you would have only had in your head become a conversation. The work becomes something different to what either one of you could or would’ve done as individuals.”

The idea that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts drives these collaborations – pushing photographers to eschew their egos in favour of the story, and that can only be celebrated.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of LightBox, TIME’s photography website. Paolo Pellegrin interview by Gemma Padley.

This article originally appeared in Huck 52 – The Documentary Photography Special III. Grab it in the Huck Shop now or Subscribe today to make sure you never miss another issue.

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