How historic news business Magnum Photos morphed into a multi-revenue media brand

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Photograph by Bruce Gilden, courtesy of Magnum Photos' The Art of Street Photography

After amassing a 2.8 million following on Instagram, the historic Magnum Photos collective aims to change the world of photography by launching a $99 online education programme hosted by Magnum professionals, including Martin Parr and Susan Meiselas.

The profile of the agency, which was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and other photographic giants, has been transformed by social media and it is now targeting Chinese platforms, including Weibo and WeChat, to add to a digital audience that totals 5.2 million.

Its film-based online education will be available in Mandarin, as well as English, French and Spanish, and is intended to widen accessibility to the techniques and theory of photography, now that the spread of mobile phone technology has made the art form available to almost everyone.

The plan is part of a wider strategy to develop Magnum – which traditionally represents its photographers by distributing their work via newspapers and magazines – as a consumer-facing media company.

It’s also an indication of the collective’s growing understanding of its commercial potential. Early in 2019 it will launch a new platform aimed at commercial partners, highlighting its ability to produce native advertising campaigns, exhibitions and coffee-table books in conjunction with some of the leading photographers of the age.

Magnum’s digital focus has seen it morph into a reactive B2C news media brand, drawing on its vast archive and long-form commissioned projects to give unique visual insights into current affairs stories of the moment.

Thus, in the wake of the killing of American missionary John Allen Chau in the Andaman Islands on 16 November, Magnum was able to publish Raghu Rai’s remarkable set of pictures of the remote Sentinelese tribesmen who threw spears at his boat as he photographed them in 2002. With president Donald Trump threatening Honduras over a “caravan” of migrants headed to the US, Magnum’s Instagram carries a poignant image by Meiselas of a luxury cruise ship passing the Christopher Columbus statue in Trujillo, Honduras, where the explorer landed in 1502. “Migration issues are so important,” observed one commenter among more than 10,800 who liked the image.

It’s this immediacy and high audience engagement that sets Magnum apart on Instagram, a platform on which every contributor – from professional to amateur – is striving to be distinct. Its old rival Getty Images has barely a third of Magnum’s Instagram audience (1.1 million). “Magnum is an agency but it is also behaving much more like a media platform,” says Anne Bourgeois-Vignon, global digital director of Magnum Photos.

Magnum divides its output into three verticals; Newsroom, Theory & Practice and Arts & Culture. Together they represent the diversity of the agency’s roster.

The Newsroom strand is informed by content directors and editorial staff based in Magnum’s offices around the world, reacting to local and global stories. Sometimes this means commissioning new work, but often the Magnum library contains enlightening images which deepen understanding of the present.

“We have this amazing archive of over 70 years and millions of photographs, and that does give us a bit of a competitive edge,” says Bourgeois-Vignon. “It’s always very interesting to be able to re-contextualise the news.” When international focus fell on re-elected Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan this year, Magnum was able to show in pictures the story of modern Turkey.

The new Magnum Chronicles project is a nod to the agency’s long traditions in print – the first edition of this free magazine was released this year, curated by Magnum’s Peter van Agtmael and documenting the roots of Islamic State through the work of 19 photographers and over 70 years, back to the French mandate of Syria in the 1940s. Plans are underway for the next edition of Magnum Chronicles, which is distributed via cultural venues and bookshops.

But it is social media where Magnum is really finding traction, reaching a mostly young audience that is intimately connected to the phone camera. Magnum’s “very high growth on Instagram” has enabled it to “have a conversation about photography”, says Bourgeois-Vignon.

“We use it to tell the photographers’ stories directly to the audience without mediation. Bypassing some of those traditional media channels enables us and the photographers to curate how they want their work to be seen and perceived. It also enables us to tell the stories behind some of these iconic images in a way that comes straight from the artist.”

Whereas once photographers had to be content with a mere byline – if that – and to rely entirely on the image and the sophistication of the audience for how their work was seen, social media culture supports a more layered relationship.

This same approach, of lifting the veil on the highest levels of professional photography, is behind the online course. Reputed Magnum photographers, including Bruce Gilden, have spent six months revealing their secrets in order to compile the curriculum and content. “We have made films that are highly immersive with high production values so that people who want to go behind the scenes with one of their heroes, or who might just be culturally curious and interested in photography generally, can view these films,” says Bourgeois-Vignon.

Some might argue that great photographers are born and not taught. Bourgeois-Vignon says that Magnum’s roster (the hard-to-enter collective is made up of 70 living photographers and 26 estates) comprises people of varied backgrounds. “Martin Parr studied photography at Manchester Polytechnic, versus Peter van Agtmael who went to Yale and didn’t study photography per se,” she points out. “What we are trying to distill in the course is these years of experience that they all have and the ways in which they have grappled with their own careers and the ways in which that experience can be transmitted and turned into a set of working principles for the next generation.”

She says that it is part of Magnum’s historic “MO” to widen the practice of photography. “The whole idea is to make it accessible and democratic,” she says. “We are very aware of the difficulties in pursuing a photographic career.”

While the combination of phone cameras and Instagram means “there is so much room for… developing your own vision and potentially your career and own audience”, the ubiquity of visual media makes it hard for professionals to stand apart, she says. “There is a real search for excellence and meaning in photography, because everyone is a photographer there is sometimes a bit of a vacuum around what makes a good image and why.”

Instagram and Facebook (where Magnum Photos has a 1.2 million following) are not available to audiences in China, where the agency has big ambitions. In recent weeks, it has launched on the Weibo, WeChat and Mono social platforms. “It’s early days but we have seen interesting growth,” says Bourgeois-Vignon. “We have had a very good response to things that go behind the scenes of photographic practice."

Magnum already has a presence in China, working alongside partners and exhibiting at events such as the Photo Shanghai trade fair.

But the agency’s famous roots mean that the work of its education programme, its cultural department and its native advertising arm can be overlooked. The new commercial platform being launched early next year will highlight work on native campaigns and sponsored activities. “We are going to launch a platform that enables us to display portfolios of work in a slightly different way, that’s more aimed at creative directors, art directors, rather than the archive which is very much a research tool,” says Bourgeois-Vignon.

Magnum’s native campaign with the Macallan distillery took place over several years and included a permanent photographic exhibition and a limited edition whisky, named ‘Masters of Photography’. A Fuji Home project, supported by FujiFilm, involved 16 Magnum photographers who took pictures of where they lived and compiled the results in a book and an exhibition which toured seven cities around the world this year.

It’s different work from that most associated with Capa or Cartier-Bresson but Bourgeois-Vignon says that many Magnum photographers have worked in advertising. “It’s very much about integrity and personal representation – I don’t think any of our Magnum photographers would take on projects that they don’t want to put their names to.” Parr, who is especially well-known for his sharp visual documentation of England’s social classes, has also worked closely with Gucci, shooting in Cannes for its imminent fashion guide ‘lookbook 2019’.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. “Magnum,” says Bourgeois-Vignon, “is a very atypical agency”.

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

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