Since 2008, Steve Mayes has been the managing director of VII, whose members include photographers such as James Nachtwey and Ed Kashi. In a career spanning over 25 years, Mayes has held a number of high profile positions including group creative director of Getty Images, CEO of Photonica, COO (Americas) for Image Source, creative director of Eyestorm.com, and director of the Image Archive at Art + Commerce. He is a frequent lecturer, writer, and has been Secretary to the Competition Jury of WordPress Photo since 2004.
Reuel Golden: Could you please tell us a little bit about VII’s mission and how it differs from other photo agencies?
Steve Mayes: VII derives its name from the number of founding photojournalists who, in September 2001, formed this collectively owned agency. Now owned by ten photographers and representing an additional fifteen Network affiliates plus nine developing talents in the Mentor Program, VII has expanded considerably but remains true to its core mission of using photography for positive change.
RG: Describe a typical working day.
SM: 08.00 Ambition. 12.00 Optimism. 16.00 Desperation. 20.00 Exhaustion
RG: Some people say that there aren’t any platforms for serious photojournalism anymore, is this really the case?
SM: I’m surprised to hear this! The opportunities for effective communication have multiplied in recent years and I am seeing photojournalism spread beyond print to broadcast, movies, web, mobile and social spaces as well as books, galleries and a surprising array of niche applications. There is an overlying question about how to monetize our work, and here too I see new and expanded opportunities on the horizon. The question which occupies us daily is, “how close is that horizon?” But we are not short of platforms through which to engage our audiences.
RG: How important is it for photojournalists to be equally adept at shooting video and still photography? Is there a danger of video ultimately eroding the power of the still image?
SM: There is a tendency for us old hands in the business to worry about preserving the purity of 20th Century-style photojournalism, which somehow views video as an intrusion or a distraction. But it’s a misguided concern. We must continuously develop more effective ways to communicate, which will include video, audio, graphics, stills and any other tools we can apply. It would be wrong to prescribe or proscribe any particular format and we should be ready to use any or all of them as necessary.
RG: What are rates like at the moment for photojournalists? Can you make a living from it?
SM: It really depends on how you want to live. Yes it’s possible to make a living as a photojournalist but at the moment it’s unlikely to be a rich lifestyle. Magazine space is shrinking as are the rates, but we should never forget that the benchmark offered in previous decades was insultingly low and we should not measure the value of photojournalism by the fees offered by magazines today or at any time previously. Instead of waiting for publisher-paymasters to define our rates we should be assessing our own value and finding ways to make it real. I am totally optimistic that photojournalists will experience a much richer living than ever before. New opportunities are emerging and I see a future where good photojournalists will earn commensurate to their value, which will exceed the meager rates offered in the old advertising-funded editorial world.
RG: Tell us about the magazine you launched earlier this year
SM: VII The Magazine is devised with two core purposes: as a commercial vehicle that will support revenue generation through alternate channels and as an independent editorial platform. What you see online now is essentially a modest prototype but the ambitions are audacious. The commercial and editorial mechanisms built into the structure will emerge over time and it will evolve into a richer offer in all its dimensions. Watch this space…
RG: What kinds of photojournalism stories sell? Does it depend on what’s in the news?
SM: The question suggests that sales and the news agenda should be drivers for photojournalists and I question both assumptions. I certainly believe that photojournalists should be generously rewarded for their skills, but I increasingly doubt that licensing photographs is the way to do it. I am an energetic proponent of finding other ways to value and monetize the practice of photojournalism. And just as we need to liberate ourselves from the constraints of print media’s paltry valuation of our work we also need to look beyond the conventional understanding of what comprises “news”.
There is more to the world than we see in the pages of the print media, and we already have the evidence that a global online audience is engaging with a much richer mix of information, knowledge, analysis and even entertainment than any magazine or newspaper has dared to offer. (The role of entertainment in journalism is a different subject, but suffice to say that we limit our mission if we think that serious subjects can only be discussed in somber or reverential contexts.)
RG: If people want to contact you, what is the best way of grabbing your attention?
SM: I try to take a glance at everything that comes my way although it’s impossible to respond to everyone. It always helps if it’s clear that someone recognizes what I’m interested in, which is partly about flattering me (never fails!) but more importantly demonstrates that they’ve given their application a bit of thought. Thoughtful photographers go to the front of the line.
RG: What advice would you give to aspiring photojournalists?
SM: This is a great time to be coming into the business of photojournalism. It’s a tough time, but it was never easy and the beauty of this moment is that we’re all on the same starting line – nobody has an inherent advantage and we all share the opportunities. Whether we’re fresh from college or wizened pros we all need the same attributes of passion and imagination; reputation and experience can be as much of a hindrance as a help in a world that needs new thinking and fresh approaches. So have ideas about what you want to do and be smart about how you do it. We’re all facing the same steep climb.
RG: Hard question, but whom do you think is the greatest photojournalist/reportage photographer of all time?
SM: I can honestly say that I don’t know who that person is. I value the work of photojournalists by the results they achieve rather than by their personality or aesthetic virtuosity, and I don’t know how to measure that. Arguably you might say that Lewis Hine inspired generations of people to harness photography for social change, but if Hine hadn’t existed I think that the photographic image would still have inspired change, so the search for the single hero photojournalist remains elusive.