Magnum and me

Magnum and me. NGO’s, Social Advocacy and Special K

Sim Chi Yin-Rat Tribe

This weekend I attended another one of Magnum Photos educational workshops. The topic of this one was; NGO’s, Social Practice and Advocacy. The two-day event was held in London and consisted of four guest lecturers, a portfolio review and as per usual, post-event drinks in The Slaughtered Lamb, AKA “networking”. The speakers where Alexia Singh, a photographic producer at Save the Children, Richard Burton, Amnesty Internationals Photographic Officer, Magnum Nominee Sim Chi Yin, and Anthony Luvera, a photography academic and artist. 

The first session began as usual with all the 40 participants giving a 3 min introduction into who they were, the work they make and what expectations they have about the course. A broken projector prevented the images from being displayed on a large scale and instead, we had had to make out what we could from a computer monitor placed at the front. Annoyance at this soon turned into relief. The images were largely shot in third world countries and tended to show the same subject matter, black children, migrants and people from communities struck by disaster. It was hard viewing at times. There was, of course, the occasional optical Amuse-bouche, like the work of Alex Parkyn Smith, who has spent some time in Ukraine documenting a theme park called “The Museum of Corruption”. Mostly, however, I was sat in a room that predominately consisted of white privileged people traveling to Africa or Asia trying to make a difference with their cameras. It is fair to say that by the end of the mornings’ introductions I felt extremely uncomfortable. One of the photographers in attendance was a Dutch Beekeeper. She presented a selection of beautiful photographs but unfortunately, none of them contained the worlds most economically important pollinator. Rapid declines in Bee populations has put additional stress on an already unstable food supply by depressing yields and agricultural efficiency. But instead of using her photographic superpowers to document this, she chose to present a project about school children in Africa. A Polish photographer traveled to Asia to fight for women’s rights and yet in Poland strict abortion law remain. I am not suggesting that geographical location should dominate how we see and photograph the world, that would make for extremely sterile storytelling. Nor I am questioning the intent behind any of the image makers who attended. I met some very compassionate social advocates who truly wanted to help contribute to change by using their camera, but the question of colonialism and white privilege came up several times in the course of two days. I left feeling like it was never fully answered or fully addressed. Perhaps the real elephant in the room was not the number of white people photographing Asian and African communities but the lack of people of colour actually in the room debating it. Does this speak more volumes? HELL YES. Mostly I was left feeling deflated after the morning session. Partly because of some of the horrendous stories I heard, partly because of the lack of diversity but mostly because I never got to see a photo of a Bee. I bloody love Bees. 

The first lecture began with a talk from Alexia Singh. This felt more like a focus group than a discussion on what Save the Children’s expectations are when working with freelancers. The afternoon session picked up rapidly with the appearance of Chi Yin. The work she produces around human rights issues in China is striking. She uses her journalistic instinct to find and make work that is visually stunning and profoundly important. The stand out piece being a series she made called “dying to breath”. Without giving anything away about the content, I would like to put the link out there and ask you to watch it.


Amnesty International’s Photographic Officer Richard Burton was next up. The highs that Chi Yin offered where soon met with lows when the discussion shifted back to “things to consider when trying to get a commission from an NGO”. I could feel bile rise up into my mouth when the word “Brand” was used in the context of human suffering. For participants who had attended in order to work with NGO’s, this was probably helpful. I was there for the social advocacy bit. If the lecturers from Amnesty and Save the Children thought me anything it was that I would never want to work with an NGO unless I had full creative control, including distribution. This is not a reflection on them as people, the job they do or the charities they represented, more a self-reflection exercise on what I deem important when making work. In my opinion, these are not my stories to tell. I know I wouldn’t do them justice nor could I work in ways which required such caution and diplomacy. I know if I ever returned to a humanitarian crisis I would end up adopting more ethnically diverse children that Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and Mia Farrow combined. Once upon a time I could have done it but not anymore. I’m older, wiser and understand just how fucked this world actually is. Cynical? Yes. Honest? Always. 

The final lecture of the day was from Anthony Luvera. At this point in the workshop, I was questioning my decision to have attended the course. Anthony opened his talk reciting from what seems to be a premeditated speech. He read with fluency and I was engaged immediately. He discussed ethics and responsibility by quoting a variety of different photographic academic texts and granted, some of the time I struggled to fully comprehend but what he said he said with an integral and sincere voice. He displayed his images and discussed his methodology but that all came second to the subjects. Anthony could name all of them and recite their stories fluently. This was, in my opinion, true social advocacy. I was reinvigorated by his approach and I wanted to stand and the chair and scream to the room “this is how it should be done!!!! fuck the term “brands” or suggestions of “efficient caption writing”, this is what is needed.” As the ultimate Tony Benn fangirl, I nodded vigorously when Anthony asked: “In whose interest are you serving?”. Indeed.

To summaries day one I preferred the talks of Chi Yin and Anthony to those of Alexia and Richard. That is not to say they were completely unhelpful. I left knowing for sure what I did not want to do with my practice just as much as what to do with my practice. Overall a good day, challenging topic, interesting content, but honestly, Magnum, for £349 could you not of laid on some cheese butties and a selection of vol-e-vents?

Day two did not get off to a good start. My business cards did not arrive. In a desperate effort to ensure the people who interested me had my details, I stopped at a Tesco express and bought a box of Special K. Below was the outcome.


The portfolio reviews where interesting. The work present by Tessa Chan and Tom Merilion were the stand out portfolios for me. Their visual ability to humanize the subjects and tell an emotive tale are advocates as to why image making should be open to all, including women and 50-year-old white middle-class men. You can quote Abigail Solomon-Godeau all you want but sometimes it’s about removing your head from Susan Sontag’s rectum and asking “what feels right, not what is right”. These portfolios felt right. 

 As for my work, it was mostly well received. It was completely different from the majority but that’s not a bad thing. We swapped business cards/cereal packaging and I met some interesting people. Overall this was another good course produced by Magnum. The speakers where well informed and important industry figures for those photographers wanting to work in this field. There was a distinctive lack of diversity within the audience and this did trigger anxieties within me. I think other people felt it too. Maybe it was a white guilt thing, I am unsure. For me, it was a silent voice in a debate that should have been more inclusive. Overall, good job Magnum, ow and to finish, #savethebees

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