Photography can be a lonely craft. But it needn’t be. Photography collectives have been around—whether formally or informally—since the early days of the medium. Now more than ever, they seem to be on the rise. Many photographers are on the lookout for a support base that can create new or additional artistic, intellectual, and economic opportunities as well as a safe space for support and reflection—something that the photographer, who often works in a solitary way, needs. But what does being in a collective add to your work? How do you start one? And how do you make sure it endures? Four different collectives from around the world—Native, Prime, 20Fotógrafos and Kamerades—share their insights into the highs and lows of working together.

Meeting in the Kolping of Tutors and Editors with the coordinators of 20F, before the introduction of groups. Concepción, Bolivia. © © 20Fotógrafos/Migrar Photo

The concept of a collective, and what it can be, is broad. It could be a pair of photographers working together, but also a group of photographers who live together, or on the opposite side of the scale, artists from different countries who collaborate online. Sometimes a collective also fulfills the function of an agency, selling and distributing the work of its individual members. Thanks to the Internet and a boom in new technologies, photography collectives can form and grow as a group without being fixed in the same location.

With no single set path, being a photographer is difficult to navigate alone. One of the major reasons to start and join a collective is to find some kind of support—whether it be mental, motivational, financial or artistic. Many collectives start out of friendship, with a group of people who have similar views on the world, photography and life.

The annual spring bowhead whale hunt in Barrow, Alaska in April, 2016. Here Iñupiat harpooner and whaling captain Quincy Adams surveys the horizon for bowhead whales in a traditional sealskin canoe. Whaling, hunting, fishing and foraging for food (known as subsistence) is not only crucial as the main food source for inupiat communities; it is one of the most important aspects of cultural, spiritual and everyday life. © Katie Orlinsky (Prime)

Prime began organically in 2010 as a space for friends and colleagues to share information. It is a global collective of visual storytellers with an interest in new media that wants to support their artists in their creative endeavors and businesses so that, as one of its members, Dominic Bracco II, puts it “we can have fulfilling lives for our families and ourselves.” Prime’s focus is not so much on producing work together, but more about where to place the work, or how to draw connections between the interests of the different members.

Without a doubt our collective energy has inspired us to think about stories and issues in a broad and deep sense, but more importantly in a way that’s true to each individual.

“In that space, we have collaborated often and successfully. We are all pretty decent educators, for example. That is largely because we share knowledge and working methods. We help each other in straightforward ways: we have compiled our picture buyer contacts, shared information about predatory contacts to avoid, and also the good ones. We supported each other through personal and professional changes. Deep down, we are in Prime as friends first,” Dominic explains. “We’ve all grown so much since we started this project. But without a doubt our collective energy has inspired us to think about stories and issues in a broad and deep sense, but more importantly in a way that’s true to each individual. We have a very positive energy in the group. We strive to support each other to grow. In whatever direction that takes us.”

WINDSOR, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 27, 2019: San Mateo County firefighters struggle to protect a home threatened by the Kincade Fire. The Kincade Fire burned 77,758 acres, destroyed over 120 structures and caused the evacuation of 195,000 residents. © Max Whittaker for The New York Times (Prime)

Also in the case of the Serbian collective Kamerades, friendship was where it all began in 2010. Its six members share the mission of documenting reality and expanding awareness about social issues in the Balkans. What started as a group of working photojournalists and friends became something more serious when they started to gather spontaneously, influenced by the workshops and masterclasses which some of them had the pleasure to attend at the time.

The new tendencies from the world of photography slowly began to have a negative impact on us as photographers, neglecting our personal realities.

One of Kamerades’ members Marko Risovic recalls rallying together over shared discontent with the regional photography scene. “The new tendencies from the world of photography slowly began to have a negative impact on us as photographers, neglecting our personal realities. We realized that we are whining too much all together about many things, and finally decided to do something about it, first of all for the photographic community in the region, and then for ourselves as well,” he explains.

!Seselj: Belgrade, Serbia, 2014. Billboard with the face of pro-right oriented Serbian politician Vojislav Seselj, leader of Serbian Radical Party, was hit by his political opponents with an unknown substance ahead of 2014 elections in Serbia. These ‘interventions’ are very common examples of political tensions in this part of the world. This photo was installed as in the window of a gallery overlooking Belgrade’s main square, and was taken down by the director of the institution. The case was considered as an example of politically-motivated cultural censorship. © Marko Risovic/Kamerades

“Our unofficial meetings were held in a tavern Bosnia in a peaceful neighbourhood of Belgrade, and many people from the photographic scene were occasional or regular guests. Without any imposed filtration or segregation, during the period of over a year, a core group of people who shared mutual dreams and values stayed and formed a collective. The Bosnia tavern doesn’t exist any more, as many other great places of Belgrade which capitulated under capitalism. We are still resisting.”

Starting from friendship can form a solid base and offer many advantages in the life of a collective, since friendship is a safe place to return to. However, in terms of artistic and economic opportunities, it can also be a disadvantage to work as a group focusing on shared interests. Marko explains: “Sometimes when we look back at our mutual projects, we almost can’t tell who made which single photo. We’re all so similar in our approach—and this was a spontaneous result, not an imperative—that it almost looks as if some of the projects are the result of the labor of one person. Of course this is sometimes good for the purpose of coherence and clarity, but it certainly doesn’t embrace individuality which we otherwise highly respect.”

Berkasovo, Serbia, 24.10.2015. Mother and child are seen early in the morning in an informal refugee camp on the border between Serbia and Croatia. Refugees wait for permission to enter Croatia hoping to be transferred to one of the EU countries. From the project “Along the trails of nameless” by Kamerades. © Marko Rupena/Kamerades

Unlike Prime and Kamerades, the collective Native had a different start. From its early beginnings, Native has clearly defined its mission to change visual journalism to be more representative of different talent from across the globe. As a collective, they form a network of talent committed to diversifying the media landscape through a multi-pronged approach: a go-to platform where editors and media organizations can hire photographers from specific regions, the organization of workshops and festivals and the presentation of the photographer’s work in the form of exhibitions.

They connect journalists, documentary makers and visual storytellers from underrepresented regions and communities with major publications and introduce them to a global audience. One thing still resonates with the other collectives: Native also wants to build spaces where knowledge and skills are shared among others and where community can be felt, even from far away.

“Anytime I think about School 19 I tend to get emotional,” says Badru. Lamont Badru, Executive Director of Community Development and Governance Council, stands on the remaining rubble of Public School 19. Badru grew up across the street from what he and his friends referred to as ‘the castle’. After being abandoned for over 20 years, he began the #FreeSchool19 grassroots campaign in 2012 to take ownership of the building. The detailed plans aimed to reinstate it as a community school, media lab, a re-entry center for the formerly incarcerated and a communal, multipurpose event space. In 2014, the city of Yonkers sold the property to Alma Realty, one of the top real estate firms in New York, in hopes the company’s decades of experience could see the project finished in three years. Facing a mounting campaign from locals, Alma promised to keep the original structure and convert it into market rate housing, just one of the conditions Alma Realty failed to meet. The lot remains unfinished as of June 2019. Yonkers, New York, USA. November 4, 2017. © Melissa Bunni Elian (Native)

For some, building and investing in a location-specific community has been key. In the case of the collective 20Fotógrafos, which was originally known as ‘Colectivo +1’, a shared vision and ideas between a group of colleagues in Colombia is where it all started. They began around 2010 as a group of 3 colleagues who were looking to collaborate on different photo-related initiatives.

An “intensive Latin American educational experience”, 20Fotógrafos aims to rethink and reinvigorate photo education and the creative processes behind photo production. The event brings together photo editors, instructors and students from all over Latin America, in order to create the conditions needed to build and strengthen collaborative networks, exchange and debate ideas around contemporary photography, create individual and collaborative projects and work alongside local communities, leaving behind valuable resources. As of 2020, they have organized versions of 20Fotógrafos workshops in Mexico, Bolivia and Guatemala.

Ezequiel Sambresqui (Argentina) and Paula Betancur (Colombia) photograph “Personajes de Concepción”. Concepción, Bolivia. © © 20Fotógrafos/Migrar Photo

Power comes in numbers: a collective can give an individual photographer a sense of belonging. It provides you with, in the words of Marko of Kamerades collective, “a backup, a spine, a springboard that really can help you jump over the fence sometimes, or support if you fall.” Many members share contacts and content to increase the visibility and financial viability of the work. The collective itself can also develop a brand, making it easier to reach different channels and widening the opportunities of spreading a message. As Dominic of Prime says: “When we started we were less defined as individual artists and worked primarily as assignment photographers for picture buyers. This meant that we were able to draw in clients because as individuals no one knew who we were.”

Power comes in numbers: a collective can give an individual photographer a sense of belonging. It provides you with…a backup, a spine, a springboard that really can help you jump over the fence sometimes, or support if you fall.

This communal mindset doesn’t end with the sharing of resources: it can also extend into the working process itself. Collectives often produce group projects where the coming together of different perspectives can enrich the project at hand. Laura Beltrán Villamizar of Native says: “The way you see a story will not be the same way someone else does it. The same goes for any notion or feeling. Seeing that role-play balances the way we understand ‘truth’ : there is not one truth, but many. We tell stories that reflect on how we experience our realities. Collaborating with that notion in mind allows for more freedom in the creative process and for more interesting outcomes.”

Native founder Laura Beltrán Villamizar leads a creative lab at the African Artists’ Foundation in Lagos Nigeria with the following participants. © Native

Kamerades’ first major collective project Dirty Season, was published as a book in 2014. In this project, the six members of the collective contributed their own hard-edged and sardonic vision of the Serbian electoral process in 2012 and how it reflected Serbian society. A forensic document of the state of the nation, the project dealt with their own realities, uncovering different aspects of political continuum and its consequences on the life of ordinary people. The collective attribute the project’s success to the mutual connection the photographers shared to the subject. “We made it from the depths of our hearts, well aware of the necessity of our contribution to visual exploration of the subject which is crucial to our lives and those that will come after us.”

Belgrade, Serbia, 2012. The photo collage shows the faces of Serbian politicians, representatives of different political options in Serbia’s multi-partial political system, during their final presentations before the electoral silence of a TV broadcast on Serbian National TV. The photos were all made in a hallway inside the building of national television RTS, while I was waiting for the debate to finish so I could get back in the studio for some more ‘classical’ media shots. What attracted my attention was the repetitiveness of both the political message and the appearances of all the political representatives, as well as the tiny gestures that displayed how much effort they all make to seemingly tell the truth and things they believe in in front of the camera. © Marko Risovic (Kamerades)

Collective projects don’t necessarily need to result in a specific photo or body of work. Sometimes it’s more about nourishing individual voices. In the work of 20Fotógrafos, the group organizes a week-long experience that brings together approximately 100 photographers, mostly from Latin American countries, to work on individual and collaborative projects. In the process, the workshop rethinks the educational and creative processes around photography and builds towards strengthening regional networks of photographers. Federico Pardo of 20Fotógrafos describes the aim as “pushing the individual and collective boundaries of the creative process while giving photographers a space to find their voice.”

Elodie Chrisment (France) at the end of the afternoon working in her collaborative project FIN DEL MUNDO, Concepción, Bolivia. © © 20Fotógrafos/Migrar Phot

Native also partake in this vision, giving workshops in Africa and Latin America in which they bring photographers from all over the region to participate. Laura says about these group projects: “It’s been pretty remarkable to see the results of our efforts in real time, in real conversations.”

If there is mutual trust and good flow of energy within the group, as in any other profession or any other team, this can lift the bar of ambition much higher compared to a sole individual in the same situation.

This tension between creating and maintaining a sense of belonging and the urge for individuality can make forming and running a successful collective a challenge. However, for all these four groups, a shared energy and a sense of belonging remain the most valuable ingredients for success. For Kamerades, being surrounded by a group of people that share the same values and attitudes and who also experience the same uncertainties and problems are crucial elements to survive in this solitary and often egoistic profession. “If there is mutual trust and good flow of energy within the group, as in any other profession or any other team, this can lift the bar of ambition much higher compared to a sole individual in the same situation. Besides ambitions and striving for better, it’s normal to share failures and fears as well.”

Belgrade, Serbia, 04.11.2019. Migrants taking rest in the construction site of an ambitious government project named ‘Belgrade Waterfront.’ Subject to many public debates and protests, this controversial project is being built in partnership with the company Eagle Hills from Abu Dhabi. Refugees are often using surrounding areas as their resting and living space while in Belgrade, since it’s close to all the main transit facilities like bus and train stations. From the project “Along the trails of nameless” by Kamerades. © Vladimir Zivojinovic/Kamerades

What about the other side of the coin? Does working collectively cause its own set of problems? There are of course many practical challenges that a collective faces. For example, if members live and work remotely, it can be difficult to deal with distance and different time zones and languages.

Laura of Native says that it can be hard to keep everybody active and engaged. “When working as a group, you will always have more active members than others. This is for different reasons: some might have sporadic access to the internet, be on assignment on the field, be less comfortable with the language of communication used, such as English. Less active members can easily fall into some sort of passive mode which makes it more difficult to help them and have them contribute to common projects and group discussions.” 20Fotógrafos concur, explaining that it can sometimes be challenging to push a project forward, make decisions efficiently, executions and unify the “voice” of the work.

Portraits of all the participants of 20 Fotógrafos Bolivia, made in instant films by Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo (Colombia). Concepción, Bolivia. © 20 Photographers/Migrar Photo

Since most collectives operate in a non-hierarchical way, making decisions and getting things done can prove difficult. As Marko from Kamerades explains: “Everyone comes with their own thoughts, specific values and sensibility, skills and energy. And then we unite all of this within a group effort. And it’s a mess. There’s tension, and it hurts sometimes, but in the end, it usually works. We achieve something that might not be possible in this form if there was only one creator with their values, energy and skills.”

Everyone comes with their own thoughts, specific values and sensibility, skills and energy. And then we unite all of this within a group effort. And it’s a mess. There’s tension, and it hurts sometimes, but in the end, it usually works.

Being flexible with these skills is also important. “This applies both to mutual projects but even more to everyday functioning. There are many things to be done around a collective if one wants to nurture it in the direction of progress. We literally split roles based on our personal skills and specializations,” he says. “One person is an accountant, another a graphic designer, someone else is a driver… These roles change with every new occasion. We are all still basically photographers, but within a collective we are whatever we need to be if we want to make it work.”

Krnjaca refugee camp, Serbia, 08.02.2019. A family takes a nap on the floor of their eight square meters room in a refugee camp in Krnjaca, Serbia. They started the journey from Afghanistan three years ago, after the father of the family Naqib had recovered from a rocket attack undertaken by the Taliban against the government caravan for which Naqib was working at the time. He was heavily injured and his leg was amputated. After this event, due to insecurity and the lack of prospects for their two children, the family decided to leave, embarking on a long journey through Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria. They already tried to cross into EU through Bosnia several times, without success. Now they are waiting for spring in a refugee camp in Serbia, so they can try to move forward in a safer way. From the project “Along the trails of nameless” by Kamerades. © Marko Risovic/Kamerades

Of course, the identity of collectives is never static or fixed. They come and go. They evolve through different phases of existence. Kamerades compares the experience as living a very typical love story. “First, there was flirting and that tickling feeling in our stomachs. Then there was passion, followed by big dreams and plans for the future. Then came marriage with its own ups and downs—cooling down, giving another chance, then passion again, with a lot of fighting. Then giving up, then a second chance again… We think that in our case we are going through a phase of mature love now,” Risovic explains. “The passion is long gone, but we still do love each other. And we are trying to solve our multiple problems by getting back to that safe place of mutual values and friendship, and by giving a chance to new young members who are supposed to give us new energy.”

Sometimes collectives don’t have much success. There are different reasons for this, from the lack of a manifesto or common goal, to not being financially sustainable or poor communication among members and competing passions. Then, they fail or simply transform into a different shape. The combined wisdom of these four groups speak to the positives of working collectively: the joys of learning from others, getting out of your comfort zone, switching from an individual approach to a collaborative one, promoting dialogue and building communities. The more you give, the more you’ll get.

Editor’s note: You can find out more about each collective at their respective websites: Native, Prime, Kamerades and 20Fotógrafos.