The most interesting careers in photography are often those that jump between and through a variety of different roles and perspectives, revealing a primal curiosity in the medium as a whole rather than a particular loyalty to one specific genre. For Stephen Mayes, this endless fascination with image-making is demonstrated through his expansive constellation of experiences, from being a photojournalist himself to a stint in stock imagery. Today, he is the Executive Director of the Tim Hetherington Trust, an organization that perpetuates the proper use and contextualization of the late Hetherington’s work, while also collaborating with individuals and institutions engaging with humanitarian endeavours through visual storytelling.

At the moment, Mayes is particularly interested in the future of photography, and how software and platforms like Instagram are working to reorient the trajectory of the medium at a rapid pace. We’re thrilled that Mayes is one of the jury members for the 2019 LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards, and are excited to see what his unique perspective will bring to the competition.

In this interview for LensCulture, Mayes speaks about the importance of pursuing professional roles outside of your comfort zone, the impact of Instagram, and how he thinks the landscape of visual storytelling is shifting for photographers around the world.

Luke Nevala, Korengal, 2008. From the series “Sleeping Soldiers”
© Tim Hetherington

LensCulture: You’ve worked in so many different realms of photography, from photojournalism to stock imagery, which is a really interesting field that I’m sure shifted your perspective on image-making after coming from such a journalistic background. What compels you to explore such different fields within the same medium?

Stephen Mayes: When I left school, I was told that I would never be hired for what I know, but for who I am. I think that ended up being right, because I certainly knew nothing about any of the jobs I have ever been hired for. In my last year of college, when I was studying psychology, I saw a sheet of white paper going through developer, and I saw the magic of an image appearing, and that was it. I just did everything and anything I could to get into photography from that point on.

LC: You started taking photographs yourself?

SM: I did press work as a photographer, which I wasn’t very good at. I mean, working for the English press is no job for a gentleman at all. But then I took a job at Rex Features, a big syndication agency and general news agency. Later, I was contacted by some head hunters working for Getty Images. They interviewed me knowing that I knew nothing about stock photography and that I hated it, but they hired me, and I have to say that I’m glad they did. I came out with a very deep respect for stock, which I don’t think I would have ever learned otherwise. It’s an amazing form.

LC: So you started out in photojournalism, really. Was there a particular series or feature of the genre that had you hooked you from the start?

SM: I fell in love with it mainly because it’s the area you need the least training in. You just need to have a big foot and put it in the door, and you’re working, and you don’t necessarily need much technique to do it. I mean, of course many people have amazing technique, but I didn’t necessarily need it myself.

But I was also completely enraptured by the classics—I read, and read, and read, because I didn’t know anybody in photography at all, so I had to teach myself, and it was endlessly fascinating. What’s amazing about photography is that every time I think I’m going to get bored with it, something else emerges. So through photography, I’ve learned a lot about business, about art, about technology—about the world. It’s been this window into all these amazing things that I never had a chance to deal with. The hardest decision I ever made was to give up taking pictures myself, because I wanted to be a photographer so badly, but it was he right thing to do, and because I did so, I’ve seen and done more than I could have ever done as a photographer.

LC: I find your shift to stock imagery particularly interesting. What did you learn there, and how did you apply your experience in photojournalism to that genre?

SM: If you think about how much it costs to buy a licensed image in stock, it’s almost nothing, and these companies are making billions. It gives you some clues as to how many of these images are floating around in our environment. We are surrounded, and they’re incredibly influential, but we never see them because stock is not designed to be studied. It’s designed to be read like an encoded social message. Those messages have to be read in a nanosecond—the times it takes to turn a page or click a website.

Stock image of man sleeping from Getty Images.

We tend to not really see stock images. They are subliminal—incredibly easy to understand, and very hard to make, because you need to be skilled in stripping away all the information except for what you need for the communication. Everything in the frame has to be relevant to the message. I realized that art and stock photography have very similar forms in that sense, whereas with documentary images, you look around the edge of the frame at all the random stuff—a man on a bicycle in the background, some boy up a tree. But stock is very clever and carefully constructed. It’s the most scientific of all the photographic forms, really.

LC: Do you remember a specific moment when your preconceptions of stock imagery shifted? Was there a particular image that really made you stop and think: “Hey, there’s way more to this than I previously considered”?

SM: I don’t think it was a picture. It was actually a conversation with the head of the agency that hired me. He was walking down the stairs one Friday evening on his way out to the street, and he made some throwaway comment like, “The only way to judge a good picture is to see if it sells.” And I was incensed! I came from journalism, where nothing sells, but it’s all brilliant. We had quite an argument about it, but over the years I’ve realized that he is fundamentally right. It’s not that the money is the determining factor, but if someone pays you money to buy or license an image, it means you have communicated effectively. You’ve been successful in some way by locking in with that person. This absolutely isn’t to say that stuff that doesn’t sell can’t be good. It seems crass until you reframe it, and it actually becomes quite clever.

Stock image of man sleeping from Getty Images.

LC: It’s interesting that you’ve worked in those two perspectives, because in a lot of ways, visual storytelling is rooted in both. Why do you think telling stories through photography is important?

SM: Photography can do so many things: it can present data, it can present a state of affairs, you can have a narrative. I had lunch with a friend of mine, who is a Professor of Philosophy. She deals with the ancients, like Plato and Homer, and I made some comment about journalists, saying that we are storytellers. She looked absolutely horrified and said, “I hope not.” She explained that when we read Homer, we have no idea whether a war happened or not—it doesn’t matter. But when we pick up the daily paper, we want to know exactly what happened. For her, storytelling is all about allegory and archetypes, and I thought that was very telling. Imagery is a very effective way of telling a story, but you have to incorporate a number features on all different levels to make it hit home.

LC: And in your opinion, what constitutes a great photograph or photographic series?

SM: I know this sounds ridiculous, but I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a bad picture. The only thing that I can see go wrong is context. I always think about a picture my dad took of my mother: her head is cut off in the frame, she’s at a slant and the exposure is terrible. It’s a useless picture, but it’s a great picture, because it’s my mother. It’s all about the right context creating relevance for the image. It’s about putting it in the right place.

Interestingly, Kevin Systrom, one of the founders of Instagram, said that when he set the company up, they did so to cure all the mistakes in photography with their filters—and they did. So whatever mistakes you make actually come out looking cool, and that was a huge step in photography. It took the fear out of image-making for so many people. It brought about this huge global culture, and photography has now become the language of the world. I think we are just entering the age of the image, and it has a lot to do with Instagram’s “curing of mistakes.”

I urge people to stop thinking of themselves as photographers, and think about what it is they really want to do. That’s how they will succeed, because they have an objective beyond selling a picture or licensing an image.

LC: What are your personal thoughts on Instagram as an image-making tool? It’s a really polarizing platform in this field, but we can’t deny that it has a heavy hand in shaping the future of photography.

SM: I hear all the criticisms and I somewhat agree with them. I can’t say they’re wrong, but my take on Instagram is that it’s a work in progress. There’s no digital form at the moment that is the defined form—it’s all just finding its way and fixing the rules. For example, everyone worries about fakes, but that’s only a problem if we think about photographs that we mistook as “evidence.” But what if imagery of the future becomes allegorical? What if pictures that are distorted and manipulated can tell a far greater truth than a simple representation of facts? Representing facts is very constrained, and often doesn’t allow much space for expression or understanding. My thought is that something big is going to happen and shift in culture. Our expectation of the image will change, and that’s what is going to finally settle things into place.

LC: How do you think this factors into ethical debates surrounding photojournalism? It’s always a contentious topic, especially with recent shifts in the industry. How do photographers tell stories without being voyeuristic? And how do photojournalists carve out a career for themselves when staff jobs at publications are no longer the norm?

SM: First of all, I think what we call photojournalism is suspect. Essentially, the ethical rules and guidelines for the genre were set up in the mid-twentieth century by white male capitalists, looking to bring integrity to advertising platforms, and these standards have now translated into what we call journalism. But the world is a bigger place now, and storytelling is so much better now than it once was.

The danger for photographers who define themselves as such is that if you define yourself by a craft, you’re in a very vulnerable position, especially if that craft happens to be picked up by 4 billion other people. But, if you define yourself as something else—like an advocate or social campaigner—who happens to use photography when it’s useful, the craft doesn’t become the definition of who you are. I think that’s the best place to be in. I urge people to stop thinking of themselves as photographers, and think about what it is they really want to do. That’s how they will succeed, because they have an objective beyond selling a picture or licensing an image.

LC: In that sense, Instagram is actually quite useful, because it’s a channel with such an expansive network and potential global audience.

SM: Yes, people do use Instagram as a PR tool for themselves , but there are also serious uses, like with Everyday Africa. Those are serious users doing really astonishing things, redefining storytelling in journalism completely. Photography is being freed up more and more for people to define its meaning and place in much more interesting ways, and it may be that you only have an audience of 100 people, but if those 100 people are sharing, learning and growing together, that’s fantastic.

LC: While Everyday Africa is a project that’s grounded in daily, regular moments, how do you see fiction playing a role in visual storytelling?

SM: It has always played a role—we just haven’t identified it as such. I think about black and white photography, which is the most fantastical, fanciful medium. Nobody sees the world like that, and yet we came to understand it as a factual representation of the world. It’s just a protocol that we, as a culture, adopted.

I think that’s something that we will all think about more as time goes on, because we will start seeing more images in contradictory places. I’m thinking about one of Tim Hetherington’s final bodies of work depicting sleeping soldiers in Afghanistan. It looks like reportage because he took them in natural, available light, with no intervention, but it’s not—it’s a mediation. Nothing is happening. It’s just pictures of men asleep—there is no form of news. But it does look like news, and he was called a photojournalist and a war photographer. But it was merely a mediation that turned out to be about regression, death, life, and all the metaphors you care to read into it.

Steven Kim, Korengal, 2008. From the series “Sleeping Soldiers”
© Tim Hetherington

LC: Why do you personally think it’s important for audiences to continue to engage with visual storytelling? Do you think it’s necessary for us to continue engaging with it in a traditional way?

SM: I don’t know that I would call it important. I think it’s one form of communication that is very limited on its own. I don’t think that photojournalism is necessary—the key is that all these things coexist together. It’s not that photojournalism is dead either - it still exists and has a place. But I think it’s stronger now because there are so many other ways of reading the world and understanding it. Visual stories are no longer the authoritative voice—it’s just a voice, and for all press publications who think they are running the show, they’re not! It’s 4 billion pictures every day on Instagram that are running things. If we’re smart, we’ll learn from them.