Authorship in the Current Media Landscape
Laia Abril, Rena Effendi, Zackary Canepari and Adam Ferguson reflect on the power of subjective narrative
Documentary narrative is best experienced when it’s shaped by a guide. Image-makers who are confident in leading the way are the best guides. And the journeys they lead best are subjective takes, told personally.
In an increasingly competitive media landscape, it is the documentarians and image-makers who adopt a strong and wholly personal voice that are best positioned to succeed. Stories crafted in ways faithful to an image-maker’s experience are unique. Savvy audiences demand a story well told, but they also flock to a story that reveals a maker’s relationship to it.
When wielded carefully, there is real value to a strong authorial hand in storytelling. Subjectivity can elevate the power of narrative. Here, four multi-talented photographers — Laia Abril, Rena Effendi, Zackary Canepari and Adam Ferguson — talk about their daring, personal and self-initiated projects, and how they must not only nurture the story but new audiences too.
How do they survive financially? How do they stay the course when they seem to be constantly stepping into risky territory? How do they maintain and capitalize on, their signature narratives? Can a personal take on broad issues form the basis of a storyteller’s brand?
The imaginative and personal approaches of Abril, Effendi, Canepari and Ferguson have contributed to making them the storytellers they are today. They are trustworthy guides through today’s visual storytelling landscape.
Laia Abril’s focus has been on telling intimate stories that raise issues surrounding sexuality, the body, psychology, and women rights. Her projects are produced across platforms as installations, books, web docs, and films. She published five books and after completing her five-year project On Eating Disorders, she has embarked on the new trilogy, A History of Misogyny.
Zack Canepari is a documentarian equally fluent in photography and film. For the past five years he’s been working on a project about Flint, MI, looking at a specific moment within this American city in an intimate, character driven way. Flint is a place is a cross platform episodic series that launched last year. The Flint work was also published as a book, REX.
Adam Ferguson first gained recognition when he embarked on a sustained survey of the US-led war in Afghanistan. His recent extensive personal documentary work on the Australian bush was published by the New York Times as an interactive feature. He is currently working on two monographs: a war diary of his time in Afghanistan and a critique of contemporary regional Australian identity.
Rena Effendi’s photography focuses on issues of post-conflict society, social justice, and the oil industry’s effect on people and the environment. She’s the author of two monographs: Pipe Dreams: A Chronicle of Lives Along the Pipeline and Liquid Land.
VIEWPOINT & AUTHORIAL VOICE
- Laia, you have completed several projects focusing on women issues since you started working as a photographer, covering lesbian love, asexuality, eating disorders, abortion, and trauma among other things. Now we are in middle of awakening in regards to the women’s rights movement, but how did you persevere all these years and stick to your topics?
LA: I did not get up one day and think to myself: I am going to base my whole career on the struggle for women’s rights. When I started it was much more intuitive. I wanted to tell stories close to me, that I could understand, document and eventually (as I am doing now) transform and interpret. It often felt like a “calling”. I am able to explain things that not many people know of or explain them from a privileged point of view that give me a certain responsibility. My intention to shed light on the uncomfortable and the hidden, and make those things more digestible, has become my way of working.
I am personally happy to see changes in society regarding these issues. Now, we have to be careful, women’s rights are not to be addressed temporarily. As they say, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Awareness needs to be integrated and built into real change. In A History Of Misogyny, I try to show that change it is not something that is reached “and that’s it” — we have to keep the momentum, otherwise we’ll end up going backwards.
- Adam, you worked as crew on a sailboat in the Caribbean and Mediterranean to fund your first photographic projects. How did you find your way to what you wanted to say specifically as a storyteller?
AF: My intentions as a storyteller change from project to project. As a younger photographer, much of my process was bogged down in making sense of the craft and learning to navigate a professional landscape. In many ways, I was bluffing my way through assignments, trying to make sense of geopolitical dynamics in Asia and the Middle East, and at the same time as using photography, which is an inherently limited medium, to make a statement. There has been a sense of freedom that has come with being established, now all I have to worry about is telling the story.
- Rena, you came into documentary photography with a self-initiated and deeply personal project on the current state of your home country, Azerbaijan — the consequences of the oil boom, the conflict in the region and the toll that the post-Soviet changes have taken on the people. How did you find your stories and your voice?
RE: I took my first photographs in 2001 in the neighborhood next to my home in Baku that was undergoing major urban transformation. Historic courtyards and homes were razed to accommodate the oil fueled construction boom raging in the city and forever changing its face. Instinctively, I set out to document these changes, as it was happening right on my doorstep. At the same time, I was photographing the industrial landscapes on the periphery of Baku: sprawling turn of the century oil fields left-over from the Soviet-era oil exploration, neglected lakes of petroleum mixed with garbage where noxious fumes rose into the atmosphere. These two stories became the first chapters in my long-term project on the human cost of oil. In the years to come I followed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline across Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to document the socio-economic impact of this multi-billion dollar project on the region, especially the vulnerable communities of people living in its direct vicinity. I managed to sustain this long term project with the Getty Images Editorial grant, as well as a few magazine publications, until I finally published the monograph of this work. I realized that the publication of the monograph was a powerful platform in itself for showcasing the work internationally: along came interviews with the mainstream media, exhibitions around the world, more magazine publications and a TV documentary.
- Zack, you have been working fluently between stills and film for years now and you found your thing pretty early on by making a personal project on California, with your film collaborator Drea Cooper. What did the success of this shorts series teach you about positioning yourself as an author?
ZC: I’m better at doing my thing than someone else’s thing. I enjoy making the work that I’m passionate about. Assignment work often doesn’t line up that way so I self assign. A lot of self assignments. A lot of exploring stories I think might be interesting. California is a place was the first long form version of that model and the thing I’m most proud of is that it was in our voice.
At the heart of this thing we all do is our voice. In a bloated documentary world, my voice is the thing that I have to trust … so, yes, authorship matters to me.
THE VALUE OF PERSONAL TAKE
- When did you realize that your subjective take on the story and deep understanding of the context have value in the current media landscape? Have you been hired specifically because of your long-term projects?
AF: Once I was professionally comfortable with working editorially, there was room for my own voice to emerge more. I think this was part of me maturing more than something dictated by clients. My clients have always given me the room to explore and be authentic.
When I look back over my career, I was too inexperienced and naive to actually realize that I had the freedom to call it or tell it how I saw it. Now, it seems the more I infuse personal style or voice into my work the better it is received. In the current state of photography, the only currency I have is my authorship.
ZC: I’m a better photographer when I know the place and the landscape and the players and the language. Parachuting into a story that is brand new to me isn’t ideal and I’ve found I can be of much more service to the story and to the current media landscape by focusing my energy on a place or a theme. Flint was the right fit for me at the time and I tried to maximize my work there. After years of working in that area, I know how to operate. And I think the work reflects that. It’s personal. It’s about a place I care about and want to see if I can play a role in its recovery.
RE: I began to receive regular editorial commissions after the publication of my first book. I was asked to embark on stories that traced history rather than depicted current events. When I look back on many of my assignments I realize that I often photograph people and things that are no longer there. I have to find a way to visualize the invisible, just like the oil pipeline, buried 10 meters underground, yet its presence is felt strongly above ground.
While visualizing the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi in India I traced his ghost across the Indian subcontinent in my attempts to put flesh and bones on his dreams and ideas. In Chernobyl I focused on still life images — victuals, household items, relics of the disaster to portray the long-term effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, as well as nature’s ability to thrive with life, not long after destruction. Even during the Georgia-Russia War (2008) rather than focusing on the fast pace of unfolding events, I photographed interiors of abandoned, shelled homes in a tenement buildings bombed by Russian warplanes. Which objects were taken and which were left behind when the people fled the shelling? What survived the blasts? Love letters, ghost frames, kitchen paraphernalia piled up with corrugated metal and blasted cement. For me those empty interiors with things that were not there, were very evocative in their articulation of the fear and loss of war.
Last year in Siberia I was asked to photograph a story about the only man in Russia who took legal action against Joseph Stalin for the murder of his great grand father in the NKVD purges of the Great Terror. Most protagonists of this story have long been dead or gone, the places are buried with layers of history, almost untraceable. I enjoy this kind of challenge. It makes my brain work in a different way, looking for visual clues everywhere.
PLACING YOUR WORK AND NAVIGATING PLATFORMS
- Where do you position yourself strategically in the media landscape? Which platforms and audiences are crucial for you to make your work meaningful?
LA: I still feel strong resistance from the market about the stories I make. For me finding corners, strategies and holes in which to deliver these stories in doses, is part of the work itself. The feeling of breaking barriers and going against the current does not just disappear. I always have the reader, the visitor, and their experience in mind while … and how they are consuming my work. Without an audience (a recipient) no exchange is created.
I am the daughter of the generation that saw the fall of the traditional editorial system. That was happening as I was on the verge of becoming a professional in that system myself! It was a necessity to manage platforms and different languages. In my case, it was a blessing. I am much more interested in the platforms crossing over, since they mix targets. The worlds of communication and art merge, the realities overlap, and through all this new possibilities are opening for the artist and experiences are enriched for the audience.
AF: The more personal I make a story I think the more valuable it is. We live in a post-documentary photography world, the only real contribution now is to go deep, to spend time with subjects, to have an opinion. I hope through a strong sense of bias my work will mean something. I definitely do not subscribe to the neutral observer school of thought.
But having said that, my work primarily exists as journalism in an editorial context. My ultimate contribution is images that reach a mainstream audience through traditional media platforms. The most significant work I have done was made on assignment for Time Magazine, The New York Times and National Geographic. My ideology is contradictory to one of traditional photojournalism, which is ironic.
RE: In addition to photography, for me writing is an essential tool. One needs to articulate their purpose and motivation for applying for grants and writing pitches and do so with both clarity and passion.
I write copious notes when I am photographing and the beauty of it is that in writing you can describe the photographs you did not manage to get. As a photographer I am not omnipotent, I am not able to capture every microscopic emotion and the mood of every single moment unfolding in front of me, but this does not mean that my eye takes a break when I don’t photograph. The eye still works, as I can capture these moments in writing, those that I missed with my camera. This is where the two mediums harmonize.
I recently directed an experimental non-fiction short film in Spirit Lake, North Dakota. I wanted to capture the sounds of the place, the voices of the people, and the movement of the landscape, be it ripples on the lake or the wind blowing through a field of grass. People responded to the video interviews with raw emotions sharing with me their testimonies of abuse. I felt that in Spirit Lake, the voices needed to be heard. There are ways to weave stills and videos harmoniously into one visual narrative that is powerful and effective.
MARKETS AND FUNDING
-How did your primarily fund your work and which markets have been the most crucial to help you support your projects?
LA: On Eating Disorders was created while working as an editor and staff photographer at Colors magazine, so my personal projects were created in “my spare time” or with the support of the FABRICA scholarship. Since the end of 2014, I have tried to focus solely on my personal work. Obviously its development is currently slower, not just because of the funding issue — grants and scholarships would probably be the largest percentage of funding I receive; but because each process, each time, each stage has different rhythms. I am entering a more mature stage in my career: a lot of changes in how I conceptualize what I do. I am enjoying some parts of the process more than others now, and want to open even more the frontiers of practice.
RE: I have worked on a few assignments for the National Geographic magazine, which has given me the time, resources and creative support for the kind of in-depth and thorough visual storytelling that’s akin to a long-term personal project. In many other cases, I funded my work through art grants and collaborations with museums and foundations. For example, in North Dakota I worked on Spirit Lake Native American reservation documenting the community’s struggle with abuse and the importance of spiritual practices in grappling with trauma. This work was made possible by a collaboration with the North Dakota Museum of Modern Art, the National Endowment for the Arts grant and an artist grant from the Rauschenberg Foundation in New York.
My Chernobyl work was shortlisted for the Prix Pictet and consequently toured museums and galleries around the world, which resulted in print sales. It began as an editorial assignment. As a result of my personal work, I received an award from the Prince Claus Fund. My second book Liquid Land was also funded partly by the Prince Claus Fund. Liquid Land is a collective portrait of communities living amidst the cataclysmic landscapes and oil spills of Baku were juxtaposed with color images of butterflies hunted and photographed by my father Soviet entomologist Rustam Effendi.
ZC: I need partnerships to get the work out there and fund additional work. But partners have different wants and needs and I’m always trying to get them what they want and then also get what I need out of the partnership. Especially when you work in film. Especially when you work with collaborators. Film costs more money so often I need multiple partners to make a project work which can be hard to balance because you need to find the right partners.
Editorial partnerships are part of the strategy to make the project sustainable and public. They often help cover the costs of production but with a multi-faceted project like Flint is a place we need other sources of revenue — non-profits; tech startups; grants; licensing; assignments; fellowships. They are all working together to keep FIAP in business. It’s a tricky needle to thread but we’re trying to make something new and ambitious and independent and this is what it takes to do so.
With Everything Water Touches, an interactive documentary film about the water crisis in Flint, Jessica Dimmock and I worked with Verse (a tech startup) and The New Yorker to make the project come together and find an audience. With the film Briana I worked with CNN’s Great Big Story and The Economic Hardship Reporting Project. These were great partners but you need to communicate clearly exactly what everyone wants to gain from the project.
- What was the most exciting development resulting from a story that you worked on? Commission or exposure coming out of the left field?
AF: I had an established film director read a story I worked on then she commissioned me to turn that story into motion for an awareness campaign. The influence of pictures is most often qualitative, but my involvement in this project may actually change a few girls lives.
ZC: The bigger more utopian goal is for this sort of personal work to pay the bills. It’s getting there. For example, one of the Flint projects was picked up by Netflix (Flint Town coming March 2nd!) which definitely is a step in the right direction. But I still need to do commercial work when I can. I still need to apply for grants and meet with non-profits and I’ve done crowd-funding. It all plays into my business. It’s a bit of a juggling act but no one should get into documentary because it’s a great business model.
Work begets work. It’s such a cliche but I find it to be so true. California is a place led to a number of commercial opportunities. Flint is a place led to a Netflix series about Flint. It’s not something you can count on but yea, this is also part of the business model for my work. If I do something that I care about, other people will eventually commission new work from me or license something I’m already working on.
Adam Ferguson and Liza Faktor will be teaching Screen Lab Express at RMIT University in Melbourne, March 17–18, 2018. Participation is open to practicing photographers and visual journalists, and advanced graduate and post-graduate students.