Established in 2004 in Toronto, The Magenta Foundation is a trailblazing charitable arts publishing house that consistently showcases the work of talented artists on a global scale, drawing attention to underrepresented photographers in powerful exhibitions and a roster of impressive international publications.

MaryAnn Camilleri is the founder and director of the Foundation, and she has built a formidable career centered on the discovery and exposure of emerging photography talent. As the organizer of the annual emerging photographer competition Flash Forward, as well as the force behind numerous exhibitions and publications every year, Camilleri has a wealth of experience seeking out promising emerging photographers.

We’re excited that Camilleri has agreed to serve as a member of the jury for our Emerging Talent Awards 2018. Interested to hear more about the foundation and Camilleri’s background, I reached out for a chat about her perspective on the culture of publishing, her early interactions with photography, and how this lifelong passion organically evolved into her endless current initiatives.

—Cat Lachowskyj

Magic. From the series “Don’t you also want to stay if you have to leave” © Nina Röder, 2018 Flash Forward Winner

LensCulture: When do you think you initially realized how important the medium of photography is? Do you have any memories of early interactions with the medium that stand out in particular?

MaryAnn Camilleri: It all started when I was really young—in high school—and I was obsessed with both images and books. I was always ripping out photos in fashion magazines and other books in doctors’ offices and waiting rooms, so photography has been extremely influential to me for as long as I can remember. I actually don’t recall a time when it wasn’t there or present. Later on, this curiosity turned into passion, and passion turned into honing my skills and learning through education. And then it was just this constant, organic growth from there as everything developed and changed.

LC: So in high school did you also start taking your own photographs?

MC: Oh yeah. I started off as a photographer more than a book publisher, but book publishing and photography always seemed to go hand-in-hand for me. When I was in high school, these dual interests morphed into a project that I started just before I went to university. And while I was in university, I continued this project and made it into my thesis. I was working on it for years at that point, and I ended up getting a book published of the work. I learned a lot about publishing through that project, and during that time I also started a magazine with a group of friends, so that’s how it all came together in the end.

LC: And when did this all transition into your championing underrepresented photographers? Was it something you were consciously seeking out, or what it something you accidentally became passionate about?

MC: It was when I started the magazine. I was the photo director, and I was putting the publication together with four friends, and we needed to hire photographers. I have given a break to the majority of photographers who are still working in Toronto, so the reality is that I’ve always been a champion of other people’s work and I’ve always believed that it deserves a voice and a venue. It’s always been a part of me.

Start your day with a good breakfast. From the series “Experimental Relationship” © YIijun Liao, 2011 Flash Forward Winner

LC: Tell me a bit about how you operate within the photobook publishing world in Toronto and Canada as a whole. I feel like it’s a particularly difficult market to crack.

MC: Right now we are planning Edition Toronto, which is going to be an amazing event that incorporates a whole bunch of different types of publishing, which I really like. We’ve been doing little artist catalogs with the Flash Forward winners, which will premiere at the event. The book fair is really fun for me because it’s different – it celebrates the entire medium that I love. It’s not just books, it’s printed matter—so it’s also ephemera, it’s editions, it’s prints. People bring so much incredible work to the event for everyone to see.

Cover of “Under Vancouver 1972–1982” by Greg Girard, 2017. Published by The Magenta Foundation © The Magenta Foundation

LC: I feel it’s so important to do those things in a city like Toronto, because a lot of bookstores made for browsing books, they’re just…

MC: They’re gone! They’re totally gone.

LC: There’s no culture of looking at books anymore in the city, and it’s really tragic.

MC: Yeah well, the other thing is—and you’ve totally nailed it—is the Toronto book culture. Nobody knows where to go anymore. There’s still Type Books, but Page just closed down—same with David Mirvish. It’s insanity, and it even affects our own distribution.

LC: Why do you think this is happening? It seems particularly egregious in Toronto.

MC: You know, I have none of those answers, to be honest with you. I really don’t. There’s a lack of education period in Canada about the book. People don’t understand the process at all, and they don’t know where to start.

LC: It creates such a disconnect. I’m from Toronto, and I remember being there and not feeling like I could even consider making a book because it seemed so out of reach. And since I’ve left and seen how bookmaking operates in other cities, it seems so much more possible.

MC: Exactly. It’s funny because I like being in Canada and I don’t like being in Canada for those exact reasons. I like being here because people need a heavy education when it comes to so many things about books, and there is an incredible amount of talent here. So there’s this huge, amazing culmination of potential projects that can be done in the country. I like the fact that we can continue to crack the ground on these things, and I’m dedicated to continuing to find new ways to make these platforms more accessible to people who just want to make something.

Cover of “Self & Others: Portrait as Autobiography” by Aline Smithson, 2015. Published by the Magenta Foundation © The Magenta Foundation

LC: So in your experience, what is the most effective way for photographers to integrate themselves into the greater photography community – especially if they are emerging? What have you seen that works and what have you seen that doesn’t work?

MC: There’s no magic answer here because there’s no such thing as a fast track, and I think that’s what everyone has to understand. It’s not about, “I’m going to be a photographer, I’m going to pick up a camera, and I’m going to shoot one project and become famous.” No such thing. It’s hard work and it’s networking, and those two things do not come easily overnight.

You have to set up a project, and you have to start showing it to people, and then you have to find a way to get press on it, whether that means you put it up on Instagram or your Facebook or your website. How are you going about promoting it? Are you going to portfolio reviews? Are you sending your work in to competitions so it can be discovered? There is no such thing as a fast track.

LC: And how do you assist with this networking within the Magenta Foundation specifically? What are you trying to do as a platform in terms of assisting photographers with creating that foundation?

MC: We were one of the early trailblazers for promoting emerging photographers before most people caught on, and I pursued that path in order to correct a lot of what I saw during my university years. It was about empowering and giving a voice to young, talented photographers who weren’t being taken seriously. We started the Flash Forward Award 14 years ago now—that’s a long time to be suggesting to people that emerging photographers have an incredible voice and that we need to give that voice an audience and recognition, promoting and championing them however we can so that they can continue to do what they are doing. So, this is ingrained in the history of our foundation, and out of all the things we are recognized for, I would say that emerging artists are the most significant.

Samuel Froggatt. From the series “Masc” © Craig Waddell, 2018 Flash Forward Winner

LC: What’s interesting about the Magenta Foundation is that you bring together a lot of genres of photography, whether it be through curating or awards or other pursuits. There are all types of photographic styles in your award winners, and it’s especially interesting when you bring these differences together in a show. Is there a project where you felt particularly satisfied with the osmosis of all these dynamic genres?

MC: Our entire organization is based on collaboration, whether it be with artists or other organizations. There’s just this tremendous organic growth within our foundation that leads to this expansive network of perspectives.

Right now I am really excited about our Flash Forward Flashback site, which is being run by our editor Laurence Butet-Roch. We launched it because we realized that in the 14 years we have been running this award, we’ve also launched some impressive platforms and careers and have never really gone back and formally asked the winners, “Hey, what’s up? What’s going on? How’s your life? What can you say to younger people and what’s your advice?”

LC: I think it’s an important resource for other photographers to have, especially for understanding what exactly those awards and portfolio reviews can do for a career. On a more personal note, what are some of your favourite trends in photography that are happening now? How have you seen the industry change in ways that are positive?

MC: Well, I can tell you what I don’t like! [Laughs.] I don’t like competitions that I see out there that I know aren’t doing anything for the artist. I also don’t like seeing certain publishers—and they now who they are—who take advantage of the artist as well. I hate that shit. I just hate it. There is no reason that we all can’t work together to produce something great.

There’s also this lack of women in the industry, which is why we’ve been on such a mission to promote more women and publish more women and work with more women. I want to even out the playing field, and I’m not convinced that during my time—however many years are left—that I’m going to see a really significant change in the way women are treated in my industry. But I can tell you that I will be someone who does kick down the door for somebody else to step in, or for more women to step in and be treated as equals at some point during their lifetime. I like seeing like-minded organizations that we work with do really inspiring things, and who really understand what’s going on in the world of photography in this sense.

From the series “Lady Things” © Robyn Cumming, 2007 & 2009 Flash Forward Winner

LC: That’s a great answer. So what’s your favourite thing to work on personally? You do a lot aside from publications, including exhibitions, competitions, and other forms of curating.

MC: I always see the publications as my favourite pursuit. It’s what we formed our entire organization around, and is also why we started a book fair: to get more people talking about the printed matter. I also like discussing the difference between a monograph and an artist catalogue, and how you can create something much smaller, but much more poignant, to really leverage yourself. I will probably always say the book form is my favourite, because it’s where I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a good project.

LC: And is there a certain type of work that makes you stop in your tracks and step in closer for more? Is there one thing in particular that makes you consistently excited?

MC: I have a wandering eye, and what strikes me about good work is that it’s just good work. At the end of the day, it could have humor, it could be in color, it could be a specific topic or subject—whatever. I’ve gotten to a point where I’m really critical about everything I see, thinking, “Oh, that was done before, and so was that.” I look for someone who takes a unique perspective on something. It could be, “I’m shooting from my front porch and today I’m looking at all the dogs in my neighborhood,” but it’s how they photograph those dogs in the neighborhood and what they’re doing with them that makes it unique. So, I don’t necessarily look for the most flashy stuff at all.

If you look at the work I like, there’s probably is a thread that runs through it. I like things that are simple, but really, really well executed. There’s a misconception with so many photographers where they think that if they buy a certain type of film or use a certain camera, they will become a better photographer. What they don’t understand is that what’s in your viewfinder is what actually makes all the difference. Photography is a very simple medium, and what we can do to enhance it is really where the magic comes in.

—MaryAnn Camilleri interviewed by Cat Lachowskyj

If you’d like to check out The Magenta Foundation’s amazing publications, along with the other exciting work alluded to in this interview, Edition Toronto will be taking place at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre from October 26-28, 2018, and admission is free.