Magnum / Georgia

Magnum’s Georgian Spring is an incredibly interesting project, and possibly a turning point in photojournalism and agency work. This book, print, web and ‘multimedia’ project is a collaboration with the Georgian state itself, funded by the Ministry of Culture and arranged by photographer Thomas Dworzak with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and independently curated by publisher Chris Boot.
As Scott mentioned when this project first went live, 10 Magnum photographers are involved and are a very interesting cross section of what is being done in photojournalism today. Jörg Colberg, of Conscientious and photojournalism criticism fame, agrees in his review of the book. To quote him, “So there are ten photographic voices, all from the same photojournalistic agency – how could there be a crisis in photojournalism when there is such variety? Or asked in a different way: What kind of crisis?”
Mark Power / Magnum
I see Georgian Spring as the latest in a series of interesting photographer and agency-driven productions where people are “doing it themselves” with alternative funding methods. I think of two other Magnum projects directly that I’ve always respected: Euro Visions, about the ten new EU states in 2004 in collaboration with Centre Pompidou and Magnum Off-Broadway (a project that deserves a post in itself, definitely coming soon).
Beyond being a necessary development to continue doing the work we’re out in the world to do, these agency and photographer-led projects almost invariably produce more interesting and personal work. (But maybe this is because I’m a photographer? Wonder if there is a breakdown between publication-designed and producer-designed projects with the public?).
There has been some hubbub around VII’s recent efforts (especially on the public relations front) to get ahead of new funding opportunities, such as working directly with NGOs and then maneuvering to have the work published. In an era where the number of assignments is shrinking and our archives are our pensions, finding any way to photograph important stories prior to selling them is intelligent. So likewise getting countries to pay for portrayals of themselves is an interesting idea that just brings this idea to a new level, and shows impressive lateral thinking. The multifaceted distribution is terrific too, from podcasts to an impressive book (so says Colberg, I haven’t seen it in person yet), to an exhibition and interactive website (with maps and breakdown by region in Georgia, which is nice to see). All around, from ideas to photographs to presentation, extremely well done and I think (at this early moment, juries will tell in time) a new landmark in photojournalism.
Alex Majoli / Magnum
Thomas Dworzak has a long personal history of working in Georgia, having been (or continuing to be, as the website suggests) based in Tblisi. And maybe because of his close relationship with the country, and the president, his photographs in this project are the most contentious to me. Dworzak presents a love letter to Saakashvili, which is a curious choice given the mix of other work by his colleagues and the nature of the project itself. By all means I’ll defend his right to publish what he feels like but in such a project it is so strange to see this photo-profile of the president traveling the world, wooing its leaders and his domestic successes. The video presentation is especially strange, with lighthearted music, rapid pictures of the smiling president and running tourism-board commentary by Saakashvili himself. As PDN brought up in its piece Magnum on Georgia, For Georgia a “photojournalistic” project about a State funded by that State on the surface is begging for careful scrutiny of its objectivity. There seems to be ample distance between the creative and journalistic freedom of the photographers and their curator Chris Boot from the state itself, and many of the essays and their subject matter probably would not be picked up in tourist literature by Georgia.
Also enlivening from the PDN article is this quote:

According to Dworzak, the project set off some debate within Magnum. “It’s nothing extraordinary, Magnum has done it and other agencies have done it for many other countries, it’s just usually done in a very shitty way,” Dworzak says. That the Georgian government agreed to a completely hands-off approach “made it really easy to accept,” Dworzak relates.

On the other hand, I was blown away by many of the other projects. In some sense this was a narrow assignment, to bring photographers into one country and have them all cover it in their own way, perhaps putting photographers in positions they are not suited for in an obvious time crunch (the book was published roughly a year after the conflict with Russia). But just the opposite has happened, it opened each to do what they do best and it really compounds the impression of contemporary Georgia. As I said above, this project brings together ten unique voices and gives them freedom to search out their own stories and it is a treat to see it come together. I haven’t had a chance to watch through all ten ‘Magnum in Motion’ video presentations but two really have stuck with me, perhaps for obvious reasons.
Alex Majoli / Magnum
Alex Majoli has long been an important photographer for me but his work in Georgia, both here and in the recent war, has taken my respect for him to a new level. Please have a look at his piece for this project on Magnum in Motion. From two stark black and white title cards that tie his personal experience (and relationship to music, which is dear to my heart) to his early photography and then straight to the emotions and people he was photographing in Georgia. The soundtrack, from Italian punk band CCCP, provides stark cohesion with the best of movie scores. The images are raw, beautiful and confounding.
Guergui Pinkhassov / Magnum
Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov provides a similarly personal dispatch from Georgia, with terrific commentary (I believe his words, read by another person). Most of this piece is short video clips, fitting for a man who began his career as a cinematographer and working with Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. And they are ridiculously beautiful, absolutely in Pinkhassov’s ‘style’ but in motion. Indeed some of the videos are from scenes that became final photographs for his contribution to the book, such as the one posted alongside here. It is a moving and unique vision, and I can’t recommend strongly enough seeing his work on Magnum in Motion.

And have a look at the Jonas Bendiksen video, you just might spot him having a drink with the people at the party (in another short video clip, again used nicely). Glad to see the photographers getting involved personally!
Antoine D'Agata / Magnum
Another question, which I admit not giving much thought to yet, is the new “Hollywood” film about the war tentatively titled “Georgia”. Wired’s terrific Danger Room blog riffs on an AP story in a post titled One Year Later, Hollywood Re-Fights Georgia-Russia War. What does this other project Georgia-supported project mean for this Magnum work? The film isn’t funded by Georgia it seems but it has gotten state support, and Wired is framing it as pro-Georgia. Does this paint the Magnum Georgia a different hue?

In the end, I think it is a wonderful thing to have such a portrait about a nation in an interesting point of its history, and I of course want to see more projects of this sort of subject matter as well as innovative funding strategies like this. But the final product of Georgian Spring does still leave me with some caution, particularly with Dworzak’s piece included. Maybe it is the newness of this idea, having the subject fund the project themselves, or having potential conflicts of interest so close to the surface (that’s a good thing, but still something new to deal with), but I’m a touch uneasy still. A bold approach, ingenious in many regards, and its bound to ruffle feathers, and I’m happy that it has affected me that way too. Can’t wait to see what is next, and I’m inspired to think about all of these issues anew.

7 Responses to “Magnum / Georgia”

  1. M. Scott Brauer

    Great post, Matt. I think what you’re getting at with the concerns about objectivity will be the central difficulty of funding photography in the future. While claims of objectivity are necessarily suspect–photographers invoke their own subjectivity just by pointing the camera–government funded coverage of a country is quite a different beast. If this model and NGO-funded advocacy photography are to become the only viable methods of creating documentary work, it will be difficult to get “the straight story” in the future.

    That’s what we’re losing with the demise of newspapers and newsmagazines.

  2. Davin Ellicson

    Just saw a copy of it here in Bucuresti!

  3. jerry

    would it have been as cool as if they were paid by the (united) state of Georgia?

  4. Matt Lutton

    Scott, great points that go nicely with Colberg’s followup post that everyone should have a look at:
    hopefully Rafiqui weighs in soon, he has some strong feelings too

  5. Jeremy M. Lange

    As troubling as the initial brief of this sounds, it does seem to me that with a couple of exceptions, the photographers involved stayed clear of any obvious pandering to the client, ie the government of Georgia.
    I wish this evolving business model filled me with hope, but even as this particular project came out well for those involved, I fear that the autonomy of the photographer in other later projects could end up being continually infringed upon, much as we are constantly losing or being forced to underbid on new rights to our photos. “Ok, this time we let you run wild as you please, but could you just shoot a pretty picture of X for us, too?” Maybe not, but it does concern me a bit if our respective futures will be based on private, no editorial clients hiring us to shoot.
    Good post, very nice book and series of photos.

  6. Jeremy M. Lange

    There is some excellent work in here, not to be missed

  7. Worth a look: Consequences by Noor | dvafoto

    […] Magnum’s recent Georgian Spring, Noor’s Consequences addresses a broad subject through varied photojournalists’ […]

Comments are closed.