Conversations in photography: 25 years of Panos Pictures

The photo agency Panos Pictures is 25 years old this year, and to mark this milestone, they’ve produced a great short film, ‘Conversations in photography‘, embedded above.

Featuring Panos director, Adrian Evans, in conversation with curator Harry Hardie, and a range of Panos photographers, the film takes a look back at some of the key moments in the agency’s history, as well as discussing some of the contemporary issues in photojournalism. It’s just under half-an-hour long, and well worth a watch if you’re at all interested in independent photojournalism.

I wanted to blog quickly about this for a couple of reasons. One is that Panos are one of only a small number of independent photo agencies that specialise in concerned, in-depth photojournalism about global social issues – including the environment, human rights, poverty and the developing world. The agency was born out of the Panos Network, a charity conceived to provide objective information to journalists and NGOs on key global issues. I’ve been aware of Panos Pictures for many years, and it’s been a privilege to be able to work with them and some of their photographers occasionally over the last couple of years in my current role.

The second reason for this post is that it struck me that Panos have produced a wonderful film about photojournalism at the same time that many of their photographers are producing photojournalism using film, and I wanted to write a little about this.

It’s become increasingly common place over recent years for photojournalists to shoot and produce stories using a combination of still images, audio and high-definition moving pictures – thanks in large part to improvements in digital SLR cameras over the last few years that have made it possible for photographers to do all three of these things, almost simultaneously. I’m sure there are many other drivers for this as well – shrinking commissioning budgets, social media, citizen journalism – but I’ll save those thoughts for another time. Suffice to say that technology has revolutionised photography in a relatively short amount of time.

Panos have long embraced changes in the way photojournalists work, as part of their ethos – as it says on their website, ‘we believe in the photography of ideas’. So it comes as no surprise to see multimedia (or audio-slideshows, or ‘photo-films’ – whatever you want to call them) being placed increasingly at the heart of what Panos photographers do, at the centre of how they tell stories visually.

It’d be easy to think of this as a purely contemporary aspect of photojournalism, but the ’25 years’ film features the work of Martin Adler, who, the film points out, was shooting both stills and video as far back as the early 1990s. Martin was tragically killed in Somalia in 2006, a sad fact in a way echoed by the recent, similarly tragic, death of another Panos contributor, Tim Hetherington, in Libya (although I should point out that, as I understand it, Tim was not working for Panos when he was in Libya).

There are obvious parallels between the work of both men, and to some extent the nature of the environments in which they placed themselves – which cost them their lives – reflects a harsh reality for Panos: as much as the agency and its photographers want to specialise in stories from ‘the places that no one else goes to’, the reality is that from a commercial point of view, some photographers at least either have to, or will want to, go to where the big news stories are – and that increasingly means war and conflict zones. As the film points out, Martin was pretty much the only photographer Panos had at the time who reported on conflicts during the 1990s, whereas now the agency represents a growing number of photographers that do this (even though many of them would not necessarily call themselves ‘war photographers’).

But it’s interesting that many of the multimedia films being produced by Panos photographers are not about conflict at all – certainly not in the ‘live-news, war zone’ sense. Perhaps this because of the slightly greater ‘distance’ required in order to produce it – it is *relatively* straightforward to file a number of still ‘news’ images from a conflict zone, but somewhat more involved to produce a mixed package of stills, audio and video whilst working in the field as a solo photojournalist – I should imagine that a conflict zone environment doesn’t necessarily lend itself to this type of work. David Campbell raised this question a couple of months ago, in his blog post, Missing Multimedia: where are the stories from Egypt, Japan, Libya?

Instead, a quick look at the ‘multimedia‘ section of the Panos website brings you recent stories on gay rights in London, urban poverty in Bolivia, Catholic devotion in Poland and maternal mortality in Sierra Leone, to name but a few. All of these are stories told slightly more in their own time, and seem much closer to the original ethos of Panos than the world of the war photographer – even though many of them feature as much moving image as they do still photography.

I think this development in photojournalism reflects the very nature of traditional documentary photography – the inherent ability of the medium to slow time down, and to present a constructed narrative through a series of carefully edited and selected moments. Except that many photojournalists now are doing this with moving images and sound, as well as with still images, and often in short, sharp chunks of three to five minutes (cue another blog post about attention spans).

The word ‘panos’ has ancient, historical roots, from Greek, Latin and even Nepalese; beacon, torch, lamp and universal are all words with which it is associated. It’s as inspired and apt a name for a photojournalism agency now as it was 25 years ago.


With many thanks to Panos Pictures for granting permission to embed their film in this post


About russellphoto

Photographer and multimedia producer/editor working in international development. Also on Twitter @russellphoto
This entry was posted in development, multimedia, photography, photojournalism, technology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Conversations in photography: 25 years of Panos Pictures

  1. Pingback: Friday Links « st84photo

  2. Pingback: 24 posts later: a year of blogging on Developing Pictures | Developing Pictures: photography+development

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