September 15th, 2015

How Maggie Steber Turned a Brutal Portfolio Review into Career Success

Maggie Steber ©TK

Maggie Steber ©Jim Virga

During our interview with photojournalist Maggie Steber, she observed that the photography business is now so challenging that you have to be a “never-say-die person” to succeed. But it was no easier for Steber when she was starting out than it is for any fledgling photographer. She explains in this excerpt from the interview how she learned to persevere through failure, and prepare for her big break.

PDN: You mentioned you had to come up with ways to think about the business so it doesn’t crush you. What were your strategies for that?
Maggie Steber: If I had a bad interview, or somebody didn’t like my work, I would go home, and I would cry, then I would look at my work and realize that I had to be better. I had to be really honest with myself. In some roundabout way, those people were trying to help me. I turned whatever negative thing I could around. You have to do whatever it takes to stay positive in this business, because it can be discouraging–and more so now because it’s so much harder.

PDN: Was there a particular incident where you got kicked in the teeth, that taught you how to handle setbacks?
MS: I was very young, I just graduated. I had saved money, and went to Paris for three months, and I was street shooting, thinking I would be the next Cartier-Bresson, which everybody thinks! Somebody decided to [revive] Look magazine [in 1979]. Eliane Laffont, who used to be in charge of Sygma, had been hired to be director of photography. They were having a portfolio review day. I was there with my silly little portfolio. I waited and waited and waited, and finally got to go in and see her, and she went through it very quickly and said, “I don’t know why you are wasting my time with this. You’re just a dilettante. What is this? There’s no story. Who do you think you are? Cartier-Bresson?” And every time I tried to say something, she wouldn’t let me finish. She just said, “You’re wasting my time, you’re wasting your own time. This is silly, thank you, goodbye.” I went home, and I cried, then I looked at my work and I thought, “This woman is exactly right. She’s absolutely right. I have these pictures, and what do they say? They didn’t really say anything about France. They don’t even say anything about me.”

PDN: And so what did you do?
MS: I thought: Why do I want to take pictures? Why am I in photography? I decided what I really wanted to do was to tell stories, so that’s what I started to do. I started really small. I found a magic shop that had a cat that did card tricks. I found a doll hospital, [owned] by this eccentric man who repaired dolls, and he had this whole relationship with these dolls. Little bitty stories. Then I started  going to Cuba on my own time and my own dime, and I did a lot of work and I was terrible. I was learning how to tell stories, how to do a long-term project.

Now, Eliane and I are dear, dear friends, and she did me one of the biggest favors anybody ever did for me.

PDN: How long did it take you to get your chops?
MS: I had a real ally in [veteran photo editor] Jimmy Colton, who gave me enormous opportunities throughout my career. He had my back. Every time I would come back [from Cuba], I would make a tray of slides, and I would go show Jimmy at Newsweek. He would give me ideas and feedback. I couldn’t get my foot in the door at TIME, at all, or if I did, I had a very bad experience. Which told me right away: Don’t go there, that’s not the place for you. That was a good lesson to know: Where do you fit in? Who’s welcoming you with open arms? It wasn’t like Newsweek was publishing my work at the time, but they were open to looking.

And then [in 1984] for the 25th anniversary of the Cuban revolution [Newsweek] sent me to Cuba with a writer—their UN bureau chief, a woman—to get an interview with Castro at the 25th anniversary [of the Cuban Revolution].  I had about 20 minutes to photograph Castro. [Newsweek] ran [the interview and pictures], and every Miami Cuban cancelled their subscription after it came out. [Castro loved it.] The next morning, a convoy of Jeeps came down the road, and who’s driving the first jeep, but Castro.

All these big journalists had ignored us, these two little girls. We got into [Castro’s] Jeep, to the great surprise of all the famous journalists. We went to a little private farm, and we walked in, there was a barbecue. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was there. Castro held court. We ate, and drank. I was taking pictures like a nut. It was remarkable. I really wish I had been a better photographer. At one point, Castro laid down in a hammock, and pretended to be asleep, even though he was smoking a cigar. He was playing with us, because he loved, loved the interview.

So I got lucky. It had nothing to do with me, it was that Jimmy Colton sent me, and we had this great opportunity presented to us. So developing relationships matter. Find at least one person who says, “I can’t use this but I see something in you.” [And then] you have to prove yourself on your own time, and your own dime.

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September 11th, 2015

Marcus Smith on Navigating the Photography Business as an African-American

Marcus Smith. ©Paul Elledge

Marcus Smith. ©Paul Elledge

Women have “made huge headway” toward equality with white men in the photo industry, photojournalist Maggie Steber says in an interview in the September issue of PDN. “Now we have to make sure minorities are making more headway.” For minorities, she explained, there’s still “a lot of benign racism.” Marcus Smith, a successful advertising photographer, told us during an interview in 2013 that he worried about race at the the start of his career. In this excerpt from that interview, he describes what he experienced, and offers advice about confronting racism–benign or otherwise–to young African-Americans aspiring to launch careers in photography.

PDN: Are there particular challenges to being an African-American commercial photographer, because of race?
Marcus Smith: Going into it, I thought there would be. I would talk to my mom about it and say, “I don’t know if this is going to work the way I think it is because so much of this industry is about networking and personal relationships. And I wonder if I’m going to be able to relate to people.” I’m a lot younger than a lot of people in the industry, and also, my background and where I come from is a lot different, too. I thought about whether I would have a level playing field. But the less I thought about it, the less of a problem it was–when I was, “OK, whatever. It is what it is. I’m going to be who I am and find the people who accept that.” And those are the people I’m looking to work with.

I had an agent tell me that I needed to have more white people in my portfolio, and I thought that was the craziest thing ever. There’s a lot of Caucasian photographers who shoot lifestyle, fashion, whatever–and they have a book full of white people. And nobody’s telling them, “Hey you need to shoot more black people or you need to shoot more Asian people or Hispanic people or whatever.”

So I was like, OK, I’m not going to listen to you [the agent] because that doesn’t make sense to me. People should be able to see what they want and see what you’re capable of, regardless of whatever race [the subjects are] in front of the lens. So I was going to keep doing what I do, and photograph what interests me, and I’m going to show people. I wanted to take what’s “lifestyle” to me and “culture” to me, and present that to people, and hopefully they see my passion for that and respond to it. And they did. It doesn’t matter to me what color my subject is.

PDN: What advice would you give to other aspiring African-American photographers who might feel daunted being in a minority in the photo industry?
MS: My advice would be to be yourself. People are a lot more alike than you think they are. And people like a lot more of the same things than you think they do. Just because you may have grown up in the inner city, or whatever, and somebody else may have grown up in the suburbs, doesn’t mean that you can’t find a common ground to stand on. It doesn’t mean you don’t possibly listen to the same music, or that you don’t both hate the San Antonio Spurs, or something like that. You never know what kind of random common thread you might find. And you could become the best of friends on the basis of that commonality. And then you have someone you could be different with. I think that’s what makes all of us so interesting: you come from this background, I come from that background. You could have these interesting dialogues [because of that].

PDN: What advice would you give those photographers who may fear overt racism in the industry?
MS: You shouldn’t have fear of that, because you would never know where it comes from. When you can’t pinpoint it, it can paralyze you if you let it become a part of your thinking. You have to have faith that people are not going to do that to you, and if they are, then those are not the kind of people you want to work with anyway. I can be a testament that most people in the industry are not like that. I’m not saying everybody [in the industry] is past [racism], but I can say a big majority of people I’ve come into contact with haven’t responded that way.

Photographer Maggie Steber on Women, Minorities, and How to Nurture Talent
PDN Video: Marcus Smith on How to Attract the Clients You Want
PDN’s 30 2014: Marcus Smith

September 10th, 2015

Getty and Instagram Announce Winners of $10K Grants For Underreported Stories


An image by Adriana Zehbrauskas, one of the winners of the inaugural Getty Images Instagram Grant, which recognizes photographers using the social media platform to tell underreported stories. Here, a woman holds her daughter before her baptism at Mexico City’s Basílica de Guadalupe.

Getty Images, in partnership with Instagram, have announced three winners of the first annual Getty Images Instagram Grant, which recognizes photographers who’ve used the social media platform to tell underreported stories around the world. The winners, all of whom are experienced professional photographers, have documented communities in Bangladesh, Latin America and Russia. They will each receive $10,000 and mentorship from Getty photojournalists, and their work will be part of an exhibit which opens today at Photoville in Brooklyn, New York.

Brazilian-born photojournalist Adriana Zehbrauskas (@adrianazehbrauskas), who lives in Mexico City and whose clients include The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Sunday Times, was recognized for her photographs covering climate change and the everyday lives of Latin Americans. Zehbruskas, who worked as a staff photographer at a Brazilian newspaper for 11 years before moving to Mexico, says she began publishing her work on Instagram “naturally” and that her feed evolved from a place where she shared personal images to a space for professional work. “The fact that you could share something in real time appealed to me, maybe because of my newspaper background,” she told PDN via email. She says Instagram allowed her to “post images that were true to my vision and style” without having to conform to the wishes of a publication. It also allowed her to “build a story over time, in just one place.”

Ismael Ferdous received a grant in recognition of his project telling stories of the survivors of the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse.

Ismael Ferdous received a grant in recognition of his project telling stories of the survivors of the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse. This image depicts the prosthetic leg of Raihan Kabir, who lost his right leg after a machine smashed it during the collapse, trapping him for 14.5 hours in the wreckage.

Documentary photographer Ismail Ferdous won for his project “After Rana Plaza,” which documents the lives of the survivors of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Ferdous created the @afterranaplaza Instagram feed to share those stories. Ferdous has an unusual way of sharing his stories on Instagram, publishing still images with audio commentary from his subjects.


An image of a child with Russian Airborne troops, from Dmitry Markov’s Instagram feed, where he often depicts orphaned and underprivileged children.

Dmitry Markov ( of Pskov, Russia, has used Instagram to share his photographs of orphaned children and highlight the work of charities for which he volunteers, such as the Russian Children’s Fund.

The three recipients were chosen from more than 1,200 photographers in 109 countries, Getty Images said in a statement. Judges for the grants were National Geographic photographer David Guttenfelder; TIME director of photography Kira Pollack; photographers Maggie Steber and Malin Fezehai; and photographer and @everydayiran co-founder Ramin Talaie.

The three recipients “could not better exemplify the original aim of this grant: to document and share stories of underrepresented communities that otherwise rarely come into focus,” said Elodie Mailliet, Getty Images’ Senior Director of Content Partnerships.

Zehbrauskas plans to use the grant money to start a new project creating portraits of the families of 43 students who disappeared from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers School last year. Family portraits are important as “a proof of existence, [and in] perpetuating memory and hopefully saving [the missing students] from the fate of being forever forgotten,” Zehbrauskas says.

Beyond the financial award, the recognition for her work “means a great deal,” she adds. “It means that someone is listening to what you have to say, that it is worth it to keep doing it and believing in it.”

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August 12th, 2015

Why All The Articles in PDN’s New Issue Are About Women Photographers

© PDN/Photo by Lauren Dukoff

© PDN/Photo by Lauren Dukoff

The articles in the September issue of PDN, now available to subscribers and in the iTunes store, offer our standard mix of technical advice, interviews, and insights into the photography business. The one difference is that all the photography we are featuring, from our news pages to End Frame, is by women photographers. Why are we interviewing and showcasing only women photographers in this issue? Because we can.

It didn’t take much extra effort to find women photographers who could provide valuable insights and inspiration on every topic we wanted to cover: lighting, video post-production, pursuing and publishing a long-term project, marketing, meeting the demands of fashion and portrait clients, and many other issues relating to establishing a name in today’s photography business. Women photographers have to contend with lingering stereotypes about what women can or can’t excel at. By filling every section of this issue of PDN with images and insights by women photographers, we hope to emphasize the breadth of talent, expertise and experience of women photographers working in every genre and style.

This issue, whose theme section focuses on portraiture and fashion photography, seemed like an opportune time to make such a statement. Zanele Muholi’s beautiful, searing exhibition “Isibonelo/Evidence,” which opened in May at the Brooklyn Museum, exemplifies a powerful (and empowering) use of portraiture in social activism. In the spring, Aperture announced it would be publishing a compilation of celebrated photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark’s advice on portraiture. When we arranged to publish an excerpt, we didn’t know that Mark was ailing, or that the book would be published posthumously. It seems fitting, however, that PDN‘s first all-women issue includes words and images by a photographer who blazed so many trails.

Another timely story is our feature on the proliferation of groups formed by and for women photographers. We’ve noted before that, in today’s fractured marketplace, photographers have benefited from forming peer networks, both online and in person, to exchange advice, support, and job referrals.  A few of these groups, we’ve noticed, look like all-boys’ clubs. Women have responded by creating their own networks and gatherings. Some, like Women Photojournalists of Washington, have been around for years, but new ones seem to be forming every day.

Why now? Organizers of these groups point out that while there are more women working in photography than ever, men still get the majority of solo gallery shows, editorial assignments, and other opportunities that lead to greater recognition. In an interview in the current issue, photojournalist Maggie Steber notes that the market is hard for every photographer now—not only women. Competition can be particularly intense for the few token slots set aside for more diverse voices and talents. Expanding the opportunities for success requires new ideas and cooperative effort. “Instead of going back to the same shrinking pie, we should be thinking differently,” says Jennifer McClure, who recently formed the Women’s Photo Alliance in New York City. “We should be thinking, ‘How do we make more pies?'”

–Holly Stuart Hughes, editor

May 7th, 2015

Getty Images and Instagram Launch $10K Social Media Photo Grant

Photographers who use Instagram to document and share stories of underrepresented communities are eligible for a new $10,000 grant announced today by Getty Images and Instagram.

According to an announcement from Instagram, the judges will pick three winners based on “the existing body of work represented on their Instagram account, focusing on the quality of their imagery, their photographic skills and on the project and stories told through their photos.”

“Photographers in all corners of the world use the Instagram platform to share unique and authentic stories that otherwise rarely come into focus,” Getty’s senior director of content partnerships Elodie Malliet Storm said in a statement.

“This grant captures the global enthusiasm from photographers to continue to push their craft to new levels,” added Instagram community director Amanda Kelso.

In addition to the grant money, the work of the winners will be shown at the Photoville photography festival in September in New York City. Winners will also receive mentorship from a Getty Images photographer.

The grant boasts a distinguished list of judges. They are: TIME magazine director of photography Kira Pollack; photographer Malin Fezehai; photographer Maggie Steber; photographer and National Geographic Fellow David Guttenfelder; and photographer and @EverdayIran co-founder Ramin Talaie.

Applications will be accepted through June 4, 2015 at 11:59 p.m. GMT. Getty and Instagram also released a hashtag to help spread work of the grant: #GettyImagesInstagramGrant.

For more information or to apply, visit:

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June 12th, 2012

MediaStorm Now Charging to View Its Stories

Multimedia production company MediaStorm says it will start charging viewers $1.99 for access to each of its stories under a new system it calls Pay Per Story. “We have decided it is time to try a new model that transfers a minimal cost to the viewer,” company founder and executive producer Brian Storm said in a prepared announcement. “We believe that our industry is in need of a sustainable business model that will allow us to continue to report and produce compelling stories.”

Until now, MediaStorm has produced and distributed stories for free, relying on revenue from workshops and corporate clients to sustain the company. But Storm said in his announcement, “[T]he reality is, no company or industry can sustain itself for long without producing a product for which people are willing to pay.” He told PDN that production costs for MediaStorm stories vary, but can be as high as $100,000 for the largest stories.

MediaStorm is initiating Pay Per Story with the launch of two new stories about old-age dementia: “A Shadow Remains” by Philip Toledano, and “Rite of Passage” by Maggie Steber. Both stories are about the decline of the photographers’ parents, and their struggles with the responsibility of being their parents’ caregivers.

“We’ve earned the right to do this,” Storm told PDN of his decision to charge viewers. “We’ve put a lot of [stories] out there for a long time, and built a great audience.”

Most of the more than 30 stories the company has produced since 2005 have had a million or more views, Storm says. Many are issue-driven stories, which draw large audiences outside the photo industry, he says. The stories are also what he calls “non-perishable” so views accumulate over several years. “We’ll make our money back over a long period of time” under the Pay Per Story system, he says.

The big question is whether viewers will be willing to pay for the company’s long-form stories, which cover serious topics and have run times of 12 to 20 minutes. In other words, the stories aren’t light entertainment, and require time commitment on the part of viewers.

Storm is confident viewers will pay in significant numbers, however. Asked what pay-per-view content models he was taking cues from, Storm said, “iTunes–30 billion apps downloaded.” He also says MediaStorm “could have easily” charged more than $1.99, “but that would have resulted in less sales and we wanted a price point that was low enough where people wouldn’t think twice about the cost.”

At the same time, though, he said he doesn’t expect the $1.99 fee to fully cover the costs of production. “That would be amazing if it did,” he said. For that to happen, the most expensive stories would have to attract 100,000 viewers–or up to 10 percent of the current non-paying audiences–who are willing to pay (MediaStorm is splitting the download revenues 50-50 with the photographers who provide the story content).

Storm told PDN that MediaStorm has not made projections about viewership under the Pay Per Story model, however. Asked whether MediaStorm might stop producing stories if it turns out that not enough viewers are willing to pay, Storm said, “No, we will continue to do what we do no matter what happens as this is only one of the various ways that we generate revenue.”

MediaStorm has made a deal to embed its proprietary Pay Per Story player on MSNBC’s web site. It claims 50 million unique visitors per month. They will be able to watch trailers for the MediaStorm stories for free. Storm is optimistic that exposure will contribute significantly to MediaStorm’s paying audience.

Storm said in the Pay Per Story announcement that MediaStorm plans to license its Pay Per Story player to other companies in the future “so they can also leverage the business model and functionality that we have developed.”

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June 10th, 2012

Look 3 Report: Alex Webb on His Creative Process, Kodachrome, and Magnum

Magnum photographer Alex Webb’s conversation with author and photography critic Geoff Dyer at the Look 3 photo festival provided a sweeping retrospective of Webb’s career, from his earliest black and white work through his development as a revered master of color photography on projects from Haiti to the US/Mexico Border, Florida, Cuba, and beyond.

Throughout the presentation he described his methods of working and ways of seeing, while giving credit to the happy accidents that resulted in several of his most iconic images.

But the program began on an emotional note for Webb: he told the audience that he was dedicating the presentation of his work to his mother, who died “somewhat unexpectedly” two and a half weeks ago, shortly after being diagnosed with leukemia. Webb went on to say that his mother, a sculptor, was “courageous in her art,” and taught him and his siblings “how to be committed artists.”

Webb’s conversation with Dyer proceeded chronologically through his career and work. Webb’s start was ordinary: he got his first camera at the age of ten, but a passion for photography didn’t ignite until he was about 15. The first two books that captured his imagination were Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment and Robert Frank’s The Americans. “When I started of course serious photography was black and white,” Webb said. “Color was sort of crass.”

By about 1975, he was photographing the American landscape in the spirit of Lee Friedlander and Charles Harbutt. By the age of 22, he was a Magnum nominee, which Webb downplayed as less of a big deal than it might seem now because there was a lot less competition back then, and nobody was talking about the death of photojournalism. Despite his early success, however, Webb said his work “wasn’t really going anywhere.”

Between 1975 and 1978, he realized that he needed to photograph “far away from New England, where I was from.” He made his first trips afield–to Mississippi, Haiti and the US-Mexico border.

The change of scenery “really shook me out of something,” he said. “I grew up in what felt like a slightly complacent world” of New York intellectuals (his father was a book editor and publisher, who worked with several famous writers.) The new places he was exploring were strange without being completely divorced from his cultural experience. “Some semblance of the world I understood intersected with this other world [he wasn’t familiar with.] I can’t fully explain it, but clearly there are certain places that have gotten my photographic juices going.”

Initially, he continued shooting black and white, but soon realized his images were missing an element essential to Haiti and the US-Mexico border: color. By the late 70s, he was shooting in color because it “was the emotional photographic response to the places I was working in. If I had stayed in New England, I don’t know whether I would ever have started photographing in color,” he said.

The transition was awkward, however. While he was still shooting black and white personal work, he occasionally shot color when an assignment demanded it. “It was lousy, it was shit,” Webb said of his early color work.

But he explained to the Look 3 audience that he gradually developed a sense of color, including the color of light and how it can change so quickly outdoors. “Color is about emotion. That’s what I began to see and understand as a photographer,” he said. “On a trip to Haiti in ’79, all of the sudden I started to see in color,” he recounted.

Webb worked on numerous projects for years, many of them simultaneously: Haiti, the US-Mexico border, Florida, Cuba, the Amazon, and Istanbul. He also showed images from shorter projects and assignments in France, Germany, and Spain, and other places.

His Haiti project, for instance, began in 1975 and continued until 2000. He finally completed his US Mexico border project with the publication of his book Crossings in 2003. He made his first trip to Cuba in 1993, but didn’t begin shooting there in earnest until 2000, continuing that project through the publication of Violet Isle in 2009 (the book is collaboration with his wife, photographer Rebecca Norris Webb, whose images are interspersed with Webb’s throughout the book.)

Webb says it takes him a while–sometimes several years– to figure out whether exploratory trips to a new place will turn into a project worthy of a book. For that reason, he tends to have several projects percolating at the same time.

“I don’t always know a project is going to be a project until I’m well into it,” he said. Later in the presentation, he elaborated:  “A project is like stepping off onto journey, but you don’t know where it’s going to take you or where it’s going to end,” he said. “As Rebecca [his wife] says, one’s photographs are wiser than one’s self.”

Lately, he’s started exploring a project about America’s industrial heartland, and expressed optimism about the prospects of that project at his Look 3 presenation. He’s visited cities including Eerie, Pennsylvania, and also Rochester, New York, to explore the demise of his film of choice: Kodachrome.

The discontinuation of the film has forced him to start shooting digitally, which raised questions from the audience about how the change has affected his work. Webb compared the difference between digital and film to the difference in sound quality between CDs and vinyl records. Digital “is a little cleaner than the world. Film feels like the messiness of the world,” he said.

But he’s resigned himself to the change. Had Kodak continued making Kodachrome, he said, “I probably would have been happy to photograph in Kodachrome until I died.” But the market is requiring him to switch, and he says, “I realized I can be a bit of a dinosaur, and stick with things too long. I thought that maybe it’s time to move into the 21st century.”

Describing his approach to his projects, Webb said he doesn’t do much in-depth research in advance. “I’ll read some fiction to get a taste of the place, and maybe read some guidebooks,” he said. “I bring books with me, and read them while I’m there. I want my visual knowledge of place to grow at same rate as my intellectual knowledge.” The danger of knowing too much before he goes, he says, is that it primes him to make images that represent aspects of the place, according to what he’s read, at the expense of what he might experience.

That approach of limited research, he noted, “is different from how most photojournalists [work],” but he added that he does more advance research before he travels to new places for assignments.

Webb says he prefers to shoot alone. “For me it’s a very solitary process. First of all, hanging out with me while i’m photographing is really boring. I’ll be here, I’ll be there, I’ll circle around, and come back.” (There are occasions when he needs to hire a fixer, and he’s worked along side Maggie Steber and other journalists in the Haiti when political tensions made it particularly dangerous there. “Another photographer or writer can pull you out if you run into trouble,” Webb said.)

Webb’s is capable of making images of enormous complexity, with shadows and light, reflection, color, optical illusions, juxtapositions, symbolism, and multiple layers of content. (See some examples here.) Not all of his images work so hard (and challenge viewers in the process) but almost every project includes notable examples.

When Dyer reminded Webb that the photographer has questioned the meaning of some of his own complicated photographs of Haiti, Webb responded, “I like photogoraphs that ask questions and open up possibilities. I certianly don’t have answers,” so his pictures shouldn’t pretend to have them.

One other noteworthy topic Dyer raised was Magnum. “How does it suit you being a Magnum photographer?’ he asked.

Webb said he was closer to other Magnum photographers earlier in his career. “But we all have gone different ways. We have families. Our work is going in different directions. Some aspects of Magnum are really great, some are problematic. Every Magnum photographer has gone through, ‘Im going to leave this fucking agency. I can’t stand so-and-so.’ It’s not an easy place, but anyone at any agency would say something similar.” He then added, “There’s a real question about whether Magnum is needed…The reason for its existence when it was formed sixty years ago isn’t there anymore.”

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