Ken Lee



On the bleeding edge of conflict photography.

Ron Haviv, 41New York, NYHaviv utters the photojournalist's creed, "No picture is worth dying for," but he's come pretty damn close. Hooded and tortured by Serb forces, strafed by Taliban gunfire, and held captive by the Iraqi Republican Guard, Haviv documents the kind of history the world often chooses to ignore: war, famine, genocide. "Photography exists to hold people accountable, to keep anyone from saying ‘We didn't know,'" he says. At age 23, the New York native scored the cover of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report with a photo of a Panamanian mob bludgeoning their vice president, which Bush Senior partly used as justification for invading Panama. Over a span of 10 years, Haviv covered the Balkans-from the very first murders in the Bosnian war to Slobodan Milosevic's arrest-culminating in his acclaimed book Blood and Honey. A consummate freelancer, Haviv says his lifestyle is not conducive to having pets or plants. -KEN LEEPlaces he's been in the last year: Haiti, Darfur, Democratic Republic of the CongoMore biographies at the bottom of this piece.

On The Bleeding Edge of Conflict Photography

"Sit down, shut up, and listen," said a concerned elder journalist to me, the young pup, on my first day of war reporting in Beirut. "There are guys you go into the field with and others you don't. Rule number one: stay away from the photogs.They're all nuts. You go with them, you'll get killed; they'll take a picture of it and win a prize." The photographers were indeed fearless, but what the senior correspondent didn't mention was that they also had the whole place wired like no one else. Unlike the expense-account-larded TV and newspaper hacks who decamped together at the laughably overpriced Commodore Hotel, the photographers steered clear of the pack. They lived in small, cheap apartments scattered around town among Beirutis. They knew before anyone what was going on and, as a result, were always first on the scene. Misfits and danger junkies, war photographers are a breed apart. They are the lone wolves of the press menagerie, the kind of people who catch wind of a hellhole even bigger than the one they're in and immediately book a flight there.And when they are talented, they produce images that slice through the digital morass of modern daily life, grab you by the lapels and force you to take notice. The work of these photographers-more accurately, photojournalists-captures a truth about their often horrific subject matter and tells us a story, often with extraordinary artistry. I'm thinking of James Nachtwey's harrowing 9/11 photo of the cross above Wall Street's Trinity Church, taken as the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed behind it; Antonin Kratochvil's recent photo feature on the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone; Eugene Richards' photo essay on drug addiction; Lauren Greenfield's recent book and HBO documentary, Thin, about young American women with eating disorders. Their work appears in every major publication in the country, in museums like the Smithsonian, and in coffee-table books that turn horror into art. Their photos document the human condition and form our understanding of the events of our time. Sometimes, they also affect those events. During the Balkan conflict, for instance, Ron Haviv photographed a Serbian soldier kicking the head of a Muslim woman whom he and his fellow soldiers had just executed, along with her family. The photo, taken at Haviv's great personal peril, was the first unassailable documentation of the ethnic violence going on there and alerted the world to what was taking place.Nachtwey, Kratochvil, Richards, Haviv-these are not the kind of people you imagine behind a desk keeping the books, balancing budgets, and attending to the minutiae of running a business. So when they and three other of the world's most acclaimed photojournalists announced days before 9/11 that they were forming their own agency, a lot of people in the photo world scoffed. "This was the lunatics taking over the asylum," says the agency's initial strategist, Gary Knight. "Even I didn't think it would last more than three months, to be honest with you." VII, named for its seven founders, has confounded Knight and everyone else twice over. If the Magnum photo agency, with its 59-year history and all-star roster that goes back to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, still remains the behemoth at the ball, VII is the bright and shiny new girl with whom everyone wants to dance. VII, in a word, is cool. "They're like the Rat Pack was in the '60s," says Vanity Fair's editor of creative development David Friend. "Marquee-name photojournalists who per capita have been the most celebrated, and whose high level of commitment and quality of subject matter is unique among peer agencies."The photojournalists at VII actually practice what they preach by preaching what they practice-in seminars and exhibitions around the world that allow them not only to interact with the public, but also to shine a light on subjects the rest of the media is all too happy to ignore. Their recent exhibition "Congo: Forgotten War," was produced in association with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders). Five of VII's photojournalists spent four months combing the broken country to produce an exhibition as beautiful as it is horrifying. "MSF came to VII and said, ‘Help us. No one's looking at Congo'", says Frank Evers, VII's managing director. "There was no money at all in it. But close to a million people have now seen the show, and that's great. VII has a sense of purpose. We want to report on things that need to be reported on and that need to get through."VII's existence is in large part thanks to the rapacious acquisitions of Bill Gates and Mark Getty. In the late 1990s, these two hungry titans began devouring photo archives and agencies as if they were potato chips. In a few short years, Getty Images and its competitor, Gates' Corbis, bought every image library they could get their hands on and changed the face of the picture industry. Some photographers were handsomely rewarded; others were arbitrarily marginalized. That's when Gary Knight and John Stanmeyer, two highly regarded photographers whose agency had recently fallen under the Gates Hoover, decided to take matters into their own hands. "We were inventing [VII] up as we went along," explains Knight in Friend's excellent book Watching the World Change, "everyone cleaning out their ATM. We paid the lawyer in [photographic] prints. We paid the accountant and the Web master and the guy who designed the logo that way."But Knight and Stanmeyer's business model was counterintuitive. At a time when photo agencies were consolidating, Knight and Stanmeyer realized that the digital age permitted just the opposite approach. Evers calls it the "virtual model," where each photographer, wherever he is, takes the lead-from organizing his archives to writing his captions to determining how pieces are put together. "We have never accepted the traditional way of running a photo agency and have reinvented the model," says Knight. "We continue to evolve, and whether we succeed or fail, we will have challenged the status quo [of the photo world] in doing so."VII rose from the ashes of 9/11. The day after VII was officially announced, one of its founders, Christopher Morris, a longtime White House photographer for Time, was about to embark on the agency's first official assignment: a story about internet gambling in Antigua. But Morris missed his plane from France. He realized he'd never be able to make it to Antigua and be back at his official White House gig on time, so he corralled fellow VII founder James Nachtwey to take his place. Nachtwey, the most acclaimed war photographer of his generation bar none, flew to New York on September 10, 2001, with plans to leave for Antigua the next day. But on the morning of September 11, as he was packing 100 rolls of color-negative film in his downtown apartment, he heard a bang. The images Nachtwey shot for Time were among the most iconic and harrowing of that day, and they almost cost Nachtwey his life.That was VII's baptism by fire, and it put the fledgling agency on the map. Today, VII has offices in Los Angeles, Paris, New York, and Bali. VII is currently planning a two-day seminar at London's Royal Geographic Society in April for some 700 ticket holders, which is to be followed by VII's biggest event ever: a photo festival in the DUMBO area of New York City, where thousands of people can participate. "It's the next step to bringing the message to a larger audience," says Evers. It's not just about the images, but about getting the issues out there, to communicate part of our raison d'être to the larger world."Will VII survive? "VII is a real family. It's not a feeling, it's a reality," says Marion Durand, a photo editor at Newsweek who worked at VII during its first five years. But families fight, and questions about VII's future direction have not always gone smoothly. A larger question is whether, in this age of image consolidation, a boutique agency like VII can compete effectively in the long term."There's a resistance to taking on new, young hot photographers at VII; its bylaws state it can't grow beyond 14," notes one critic who is nonetheless a fan. "That means that as the founders of VII age, in a matter of years VII will not be producing anymore." For the moment, though, the folks at VII remain unconcerned with that distant day. As Christopher Anderson, a Magnum photojournalist and a former member of VII put it, "For VII not to succeed is bad for all of us."

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