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Magnum Photos: Upholding Standards, Adapting to Technology

Some of the most iconic images of the past decade – from the photos taken of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to the passengers standing on the wing of US Airways Flight 1549 after a miraculous landing on New York’s Hudson River – have been taken not by professional photographers, but by amateurs.

We are sharing more photos per second than ever before in our history, primarily thanks to  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. With all those images available at our fingertips – and with a camera on every smartphone – how do professional photographers stay relevant (and stay employed)? 

That question, among others, is the focus of a three-day symposium beginning Friday at the Harry Ransom Center. Twelve elite photographers from the Magnum Photos cooperative will be discussing the future of photography and how the agency aims to navigate the transformation.

“I don’t think [there’s] easy answers,” says Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, best known for her work documenting human rights concerns in Latin America. “I think we’re all in the midst of the drama of the change and having to have new strategies that work individually – and certainly for Magnum collectively.”

Magnum was founded in 1947 by four legendary photographers, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. It was the first cooperative agency to be established and operated by photographers who both wanted to see the world and to be in control of their own work. Magnum’s members past and present are brought on board by invitation. Their images are among the photography world’s most iconic: from troops landing on the beaches at Normandy, to a lone protester stopping tanks in Tiananmen square.

Magnum is recognized as force in photography. But is it part of a dying breed?

People have been asking that for about 50 years,” says Jessica McDonald, chief curator of photography at the Harry Ransom Center.

“We were saying that in the ‘50s when television started to take over. We were saying that in 1971 when it looked like Life magazine was going to go away,” she says. “I think it’s going to continue, but … it comes down to economics.”

McDonald isn’t kidding. Newspapers and magazines are struggling, and photojournalism budgets are among the casualties. This past May, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire full time photo staff, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, in a cost-cutting effot. Its solution? Let reporters snap their own pictures.

“I think it’s sad that some publications make the decision to just give an iPhone to a reporter and try to see what he comes back with,” says Magnum photographer Moises Saman.

“I still think that there is a demand for understanding, there’s a demand for context in this fast-paced news cycle – and this is where we come in,” he says.

Saman has covered conflicts around the globe for more than a decade, including Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. He says though the number of days he spends on assignment may be shorter, demand for his images hasn’t waned.

“As long as you have a way of approaching an issue as a photographer,” he says, “or approaching a story that’s new, that’s fresh, that’s sympathetic, that’s sensitive, that’s intimate, there’s always going to be a need for that.”

A case in point is Magnum’s newest nominee, Michael Christopher Brown. He’s become known for his coverage of the Libyan revolution using his smartphone.

“I like it because I’m not thinking at all about equipment,” he says. “I just hit one button, and I can completely focus in – focus on what’s happening in front of me and inside me, and get into the flow of things.”

Brown says the smartphone has also given him access to situations in Libya he wouldn’t have been able to capture with traditional cameras. “It’s really small, it’s light, it makes no noise, it slides into my pocket,” he says. “Also I like it because it’s considered amateur – because when I photograph other people, they don’t think that I’m a photographer.”

Whether someone is considered a professional or not may cease to be relevant one day. But photographers like Susan Meiselas take the long view.

“I will die,” Meiselas says. “Others will die. We will die. Will the tradition and the traces we leave behind seem of importance to the next generation, such that they will find their own strategies to survive?”

 “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age” is a weekend-long symposium at the AT&T Executive Education And Conference Center. You can read more about the events on the Ransom Center website.

David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
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