In 2015, the legendary photo agency Magnum accepted a record number of nominees—6 young and immensely talented photographers from all over the world.
In conjunction with our ongoing Magnum Photography Awards, we reached out to this diverse group of individuals to find out more about their backgrounds and views on contemporary photography. Below are a series of tightly edited transcripts from our correspondences. We hope you find inspiration in both their words and pictures—enjoy!
Born in Iran, 1981
LC: You describe yourself as a self-taught photographer. Who or what were your teachers? What were the greatest challenges of being self-taught—and also the biggest benefits?
NT: My teachers were my older colleagues at Iranian newspapers where I began my career. Besides them, Iran at the time had very few international photobooks available. And there was no internet, of course. So we had to expend great effort to search for work from outside of Iran. When I did manage to get my hands on a book, I would look not two times but dozens of times at the images inside.
The good thing about being self-taught is that not many people influence or steer you—this makes you a free thinker. The challenge is that by not going to university, nothing is ready or pre-packaged for you. I find that self-taught photographers must first lose themselves before finding themselves on the other side.
LC: What is it about Magnum that compelled you to go through the nomination process? What do the best photographers have in common that makes them stand out?
NT: First of all, it signals recognition by some of the best photographers in the world. That gave me the self confidence to continue and the feeling that I am on the right path. Of course, it is also a challenge: the expectations are high and I want to deliver…But what I’ve found is that all great photographers believe in themselves, work hard and never feel comfortable with their work. At the same time, they have the confidence to continually push themselves further. A great photographer has a vision and knows where he or she wants to go next.
Born in Belgium, 1988
LC: When did you know you wanted to dedicate your life to photography?
MP: I’m still not quite sure if photography is what I want to dedicate my life to, although I still have a long way to go before I have the feeling that I fully understand its complexity. I really became interested in photography with Lotus, my first attempt at making a documentary body of work, where I dealt with the manipulative role of the photographer, the hunger for aesthetics in disregard to the subject, and the pose of objectivity. Since then, I’ve been continuously developing my approach to the problematic of images and their ideological drive, meanings and narrative capacity.
LC: As imagery proliferates ever more widely/quickly, will there still be photographic icons in the 21st century?
MP: There seems to be a tendency developing in which the iconic images of today are not made by photographers, but by anyone with a cell phone, or soon, maybe, a digital contact lens. This may be because the important events in today’s hyperreal world enfold themselves as visually powerful manifestations that no longer need skilled photographers to pour them into simplified and understandable tableaux of historic relevance.
Take, for example, 9/11 or the Abu Ghraib Man, which in themselves already contain a form of visual iconography beyond the photographs that represent them. It is no coincidence that most iconic photographs of the previous century are known to have been staged or manipulated for one ideological purpose or another. In the words of Andy Grundberg: “Photographs today are the equivalent of cell phone chatter or visual talk, and no longer first drafts of history, treasures of affection or any other high-sounding social functions ascribed to them in the twentieth century.”
Born in USA, 1970
LC: Was there one moment in your photography career when you knew, “Yes, this is what I want to dedicate my life to”?
MB: Before I ever owned a camera, I knew that there was something there for me. It is a voice and a certain stance on life that I automatically felt very comfortable with. But I’ve never thought of it as a career. You begin and you keep going. That’s it.
LC: Are you optimistic about the enduring importance of (still) photography in the 21st century? Will iconic photographs continue to define our understanding of the world, as they have done for 100 years?
MB: Yes, I’m optimistic. I think there’s never been a better time to be a photographer. Still, I’m not sure about the iconic part—or even if that’s the proper mindset. For me, it’s not about hunting trophies—it’s the process of engagement, of thinking and feeling, that counts. If you do your work properly and honestly, you will reach people. Now more than ever.
Born in India, 1981
LC: Was there one moment that compelled you to become a photographer?
SH: It is difficult for me to think of any one moment like that. I think my relationship with photography has had its ups and downs. Sometimes I have hated it, sometimes I’ve felt like I can’t live without it and this ebb and flow has happened so many times that I can’t really think of a specific moment of realization that you speak of. But in retrospect, I feel very happy to be doing whatever it is that I’m doing and I’m glad I made the right choices.LC: What is it about Magnum that compelled you to go through the nomination process? What has been most surprising since the announcement of your nomination; how about the most challenging?
SH: The nomination process has, to some extent, given me a kind of freedom that I didn’t have before. As scary as it looked from afar in the beginning, the process has been great for instilling a sort of rigor that I might have lost out on without it. Today, in general, there are a lot more expectations of young photographers and at the same time there is a lot more impatience, overall. So, I see a lot of people burning out very quickly
I feel that the membership process has had just the right balance of expectations and pressure to maintain that energy and to not allow me to burn out. That someone like me is encouraged by the members [of Magnum] to stay true to myself and to not compromise by second-guessing how to fulfill the collective’s expectations has been a very pleasant surprise. I guess the one thing I’ve had to consciously keep a watch out for is to not lose sight of all the things I want, and need, to do in my time ahead.
LC: Magnum photographers are responsible for many of the iconic images of the 20th century. As imagery proliferates ever more widely/quickly, will there still be such icons in the 21st century?
SH: Photography has always been in flux and I think those shifts in photography are not as important as the people who used them in ways that are relevant today. Eventually, the only way I see to deal with the constant change around us is just to do what one needs to do and eventually, in time, at the end of it all, things will start to make sense and have some meaning that might just last.
I guess it is no longer photography or cinema or any other medium but the individual who himself/herself becomes the core medium. Thus, it doesn’t matter as much what medium one uses to push one’s ideas and thoughts. So in that sense, the question itself is quite irrelevant and not worth pondering over. I think we waste far more time on it than we really should.
Born in Italy, 1983
LC: How did you fall into a career in photography? Was it something you planned or prepared for in any particular way?
LM: For five years I worked as an Information Security Consultant, pursuing photography in my spare time. When I started to have positive feedback about my photographic work, I thought there could be a real chance to dedicate my life to something that I love. So, I quit my former job and dedicated everything to photography. I followed the themes and places that I’ve always been interested in, and I worked as hard as possible.
LC: Today, imagery proliferates ever more widely and quickly. What does this mean for the future of still photography? Are you optimistic?
LM: I don’t see the proliferation of the images as a problem. In our internet age, everything—from art to information—spreads widely and quickly, and photography is one part of this. Despite the access to new technologies, photography remains very important to people’s daily lives, both in a documentary and artistic context.
So, I am very optimistic that (still) photography will retain its importance in the future. And, looking at some of the talented photographers working at the moment, I am confident that there will be plenty more iconic images in the 21st century.
Born in USA, 1971
LC: What compelled you to become a photographer?
CD: Stuck on a computer all day, I found myself wanting to step away and engage more with life on the streets, to cross some of the boundaries that separate people. I wanted to understand what purpose these divisions served.
I was looking more for a creative outlet—I admired friends who were painters and filmmakers and writers. I took a sabbatical from my job to travel, and when I came back, I started taking part-time photo classes. Eventually, I quit my job altogether and went to grad school. Making that commitment allowed me to start thinking of myself as a photographer.
LC: Magnum is responsible for some of the most iconic images of the 20th century—how about the 21st?
CD: Today, the wider and quicker proliferation of imagery only makes still photographs even more relevant. I don’t know what the 21st century icons will be, or even whether there will be any, but we can be sure that the importance and prevalence of images won’t diminish.
—Interviews conducted by Alexander Strecker, managing editor, LensCulture