In a fascinating interview with Image Source Art Director Stephanie Cabrera, Photography expert Stephen Mayes explores the work of photo-journalist Tim Hetherington, the wider impact of stock imagery and the rapidly changing future of Photography
There’s one name that connects many of the major players in photography over the last 25 years. Stephen Mayes is: a former Creative Director at Image Source; was part of the founding management team at Getty Images; was Creative Director at Eyestorm, the company that aimed to introduce Fine Artists such as Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, Richard Misrach to commercial and private clients; as Director of the Image Archive with Art + Commerce, he represented the archives of Robert Mapplethorpe, Steven Meisel, David LaChapelle and others; in the world of photojournalism he was Director of Network Photographers in London and CEO of VII in New York.
This is just to say, that when Mayes reflects on the current state of commercial photography, and on where it might go, it’s worth paying attention. Mayes is also Executive Director of the Tim Hetherington Trust. When photojournalist Hetherington was killed in 2011 on the frontline while covering the war in Libya, his death received widespread coverage. Not just because he was a Western journalist whose work appeared in many high-profile publications. Or because his name had wider public recognition due to being co-director of the Oscar nominated 2010 Documentary film Restrepo, an account of the year he spent embedded with the US military while on assignment for Vanity Fair. But because Hetherington was known among professionals as a photojournalist who thought through the conventions of war reporting, how war is represented in pictures, how ideas of masculinity are constructed in imagery of soldiering.
In the following interview, Image Source Art Director Stephanie Cabrera, asks Stephen Mayes about his discussions and explorations with Hetherington in essays such as The Theatre of War, where Mayes was a sounding-board for some ‘disconcertingly honest’ ideas Hetherington was working through.
Mayes also discusses the wider social impact of stock imagery, the need to experiment as a professional photographer, and how the use of photography in social media has heightened awareness of the visual language of photography
Could you outline a few key ideas from your essay The Theatre of War, and what what kind of response it received?
Stephen Mayes: Tim Hetherington spent several years trying to understand what it is about men that draws us to conflict. We often discussed aggression and male sexuality and eventually he asked me to help him thrash out some ideas which turned into the essay “Theatre of War”. It’s disconcertingly honest, dealing with “flesh, pulsing blood and that hot, wet loss of control that marks the start of life and its end.” Part of Tim’s motivation to involve me was that he was a little embarrassed to speak in the first person about such intimate things and it’s tremendously gratifying that the piece has been embraced by everyone from art critics, friends and even his parents. I think that if you’re sufficiently honest about yourself, other people will recognize themselves and this short-circuits embarrassment. I drew many profound insights from this last conversation with Tim before he died in Libya in 2011, but the one that most sticks in my mind is his description of why he photographed in conflict. He was frustrated by the common fixation on the drama of war and he said, “The truth is that the war machine is the software, as much as the hardware. The software runs it and the software is young men. And in some ways I’m part of the software. I was a young man once. I’m not so young any more but I get it, I get the operating system. I am the operating system.” The result was an astonishing body of work that became a study of men in uniform but emotionally naked.
Could you fill us in on the development of the Tim Hetherington foundation?
Stephen Mayes: The Tim Hetherington Trust is established partly to supervise Tim’s legacy, but more importantly to promote new-thinking about reporting on the human condition and to nurture emerging talent developing ideas where Tim left off. Tim was always more interested in pushing boundaries than in preserving past successes and this will be the Trust’s main objective.
In your Wired magazine interview with Pete Brook you reflected on how social photography influences the imagery of the professional photographer. Could you elaborate?
Stephen Mayes: Social media is impacting our work in so many ways it’s hard to know how to pinpoint any single aspect of the changes that we’re experiencing. But fundamentally, everything has changed with the emergence of a visually sophisticated population that uses imagery as easily as conversation to exchange ideas and to express themselves. Facebook users casually share pictures to tell us how they feel, where they are, what they’re experiencing… This is new and it’s exciting. Suddenly everyone is fluent in the language of photography and we can really push the limits because anything we do as professionals is being read in new ways by a sophisticated audience that understands as much as we do about the image.
There’s so much to say about this and the consequences; I’ve just written an 1800 word article for the next issue of Aperture Magazine and I still couldn’t cram it all in. It publishes in January 2014.
You gave an account of an afternoon spent by VII photojournalists playing with cellphones – your observation on how the professional camera changes the photographer’s sense of self was a fascinating insight. How important is ‘experiment’ for professional photographers wanting to develop their work?
Stephen Mayes: I think that the imperative to experiment is personal to each of us and we all deal with change in different ways. But there are very few photographers who are so securely established that they can afford not to experiment in order to adapt to the new rules, if any. I would go further to say that failure must become an essential part of all our work; if you’re not failing it means you’re working in a comfort zone and as the visual world changes at breakneck speed, to live in a comfort zone is itself a failure! However, don’t bet the ranch on any single experiment: try many things and be prepared to fail often but in little ways
You have an impressive background in stock photography as well (Anthology, Getty Images, Photonica, Image Source). What are your impressions of stock photography’s influences in our market and in society?
Stephen Mayes: The impact of stock is hugely undervalued, even by those of us who work in the industry. Stock imagery is designed to reflect social values so that it can be a vehicle for commercial communication. But actually the production of stock imagery is a circular process that both reflects culture and also shapes it. It’s inevitable that the values we express become reinforced through the massive distribution of our work; our imagery seeps into every pore of society and our messages slowly push the boundaries of how society views itself. This can be as small as showing a new hairstyle, or as significant as representing racial minorities in authority positions or same-sex couples bringing up kids. What we say is absorbed effortlessly into people’s consciousness and the world moves a little bit every time. No single stock image will change our understanding of the world (although I recently heard an awed reference to Getty’s Gandee Vasan who was the first person to create the image of a goldfish jumping from a small bowl to a larger, which is now an everyday cultural reference) but collectively we’re rolling the ball uphill.
As we come across more and more award-winning and campaign-driven stock imagery, what do you think of the creative legitimacy of stock these days?
Stephen Mayes: As I say above, stock photography is tremendously powerful and it has huge legitimacy. But the sad thing is that it is largely invisible and there’s little or no pubic recognition for the quality of work that’s produced. We all need to be more proud of our contribution to visual culture; we should be shouting our successes from the rooftops.
You have been working at the edge of change in commercial photography and over the last 20 years, step into your Tardis/Time machine and imagine what photography will be like in 20 years time?
Stephen Mayes: I stepped into my time machine and dialed 2033 into the system but I crashed somewhere around 2015… Things are changing so fast and in such unpredictable ways that even a year ahead is a deep mystery. Have you heard of Snapchat? Today in December 2013, it’s the world’s largest platform for photography with 400,000 image uploads every day; and the strange thing about Snapchat is that every upload exists only for 10 seconds after the recipient opens it and then the image vanishes. What does that mean for the future of photography?… Every day I’m amazed by what’s happening.