August 27th, 2012

One Problem with Running Your Own Photo Agency: It Takes a Lot of Time

When LUCEO, the photographer-run cooperative agency, issued a press release last Monday announcing it had redesigned its web site to be more “client centered” and highlight the agency’s multimedia work, the announcement was overshadowed by news that three of its six founding members—Matt Eich, David Walter Banks, Kendrick Brinson—were leaving the agency “to pursue personal endeavors.”  Just a month earlier, another cooperative photo agency, Noor Images, had announced that founding member Jan Grarup was “stepping down” from the agency to pursue “a new line of work.”

We had to ask: Why would photographers have to leave a cooperative agency to pursue “a new line” of “personal endeavors” ?

The answers from the departing photographers point out one hitch in the cooperative-agency model: Running an agency takes a lot of time.

In July, Jan Grarup told PDN his departure was motivated by a desire “to move in my own direction and be independent again.” Months before he left, Grarup, who has been working on a long-term project about Somalia, had been selling signed, limited-edition prints in order to pay for security as he traveled in parts of the country controlled by Al-Shabaab.  Grarup told PDN  in leaving Noor he planned to “focus more on my work than company things.”

While Noor Images is run by photographers, it has paid staffers who help with marketing and administration. At agencies like LUCEO, however, all the “company things” are handled by the photographers themselves.

“Something that I am sure is true for cooperatives of any age is that they require an enormous amount of love, attention and upkeep,” Matt Eich told PDN after the LUCEO announcement. “It is a challenge for anyone, no matter how organized or motivated, to keep up with your own individual business, your own personal projects, a cooperative business, cooperative projects and of course some time for family or a personal life.”

Eich says that he’s been working on a three-part series looking at history’s continuing impact on American communities in Ohio, Mississippi and near his home in Virginia. Eich, who has a small child and a second due in early September tells PDN, “At this juncture it’s time for me to focus on getting these projects out into the world and to spend time with my family.”

David Walter Banks said he couldn’t comment on the wording of LUCEO’s press release, “as I was not a part of that discussion,” but his plans for personal work include collaborations and “continuing to build relationships with my clients.” Banks and  Kendrick Brinson, who are married and work both individually and together on assignments, say they plan to continue teaching and doing lectures “at places like Western Kentucky, University of Miami, Ohio University, The Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar and Roberto Mata Taller de Fotografia.”

In an article titled “LUCEO Splits in Half, Raises Questions about the Viability of Photo Collectives,” Jakob Schiller of the Raw File Blog noted that LUCEO has been “a flagship” for several “collective upstarts” who followed in their wake. And, as past and present members told Schiller, they’ve benefited from working with a team.

Dominic Bracco II, a member of the year-old cooperative Prime Collective, told PDN that the agency has recently taken steps to address the time-management issue.

“It’s something we’ve all had to deal with – if people are busy, someone else has got to pick up the slack,” he says. That can lead to resentment.

For Prime members, he adds, “Something we want to think about is:  How do we deal with it if someone has a family member who’s sick or one of us gets pregnant or is just burnt out?”

Prime, which has been seeking a new photographer to join the agency, recently decided to allow its members to take a leave of absence if needed, according to Bracco. “That just means you take a break and that you relinquish your right to vote,” he explains. “The organization continues. We still represent you as a member of our group, but you’re not actively participating” in decisions about the agency until the end of the leave. Though no member has needed a leave yet, Bracco says, “That seems like it would work out for us.”

The democratic process by which these cooperatives make decisions can be time consuming, too. Before Grarup left Noor Images, fellow Noor member Stanley Greene admitted that the agency has experienced “growing pains.” Speaking at the Look3 Festival in May, he said he and photographer Kadir van Lohuizen decided to try launching their own agency with fellow photojournalists after an evening spent “bitching about our agencies in a bar in New Orleans, like [photographers] do.”

Five years after that decision, Greene sounded like someone whose idealism had been brought down to earth.  “I go into things with a naive idea of community and communism, but I think with an agency, you have to be a dictator. When everything has to be decided unanimously, nothing gets decided. I have new opinions about agencies.”

 Related articles:

Look3 Report: Stanley Green on Luck, Film and Supporting Young Photographers