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Inquiry

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Stephen Mayes, Managing Director of VII

It’s common to hear photojournalists described as the eyes of the world, acting as witnesses to events that we would otherwise not see. To some extent this is true, but it’s a simplified description that suggests passive observation and it denies the greater function of active investigation that defines great photojournalism. If all we want is a simple description of the world, the human race is equipped with four billion Smartphones (at the latest count) and the daily upload of over 300 million images to Facebook alone would surely satisfy our curiosity. But clearly we hunger for something extra; we want to do more than see the world, we want to understand it. The spirit of inquiry drives the work of VII Photo Agency and informs everything that VII does.

The process of inquiry starts with recognizing that a situation exists, followed by rigorous investigation to reveal the different facets and culminates in the magical transformation of knowledge into image. The diverse visual strategies employed to translate this hard-earned information into photographs are sometimes carefully calculated, sometimes emotionally reactive and sometimes just witty. Each approach tells us something about the inquiry, the images being as much part of the story as the subjects that are photographed.

Take for example Lynsey Addario’s images of the healthcare crisis in Mississippi. It’s a rich story but how do you show in pictures something that’s not there? Lynsey introduces us to the people with a mix of pain, joy and hope but in many ways the story is told by the spaces around them: desolate streets in the half-light of evening, housing lots and domestic spaces that tell us at a glance what paragraphs of writing can’t. Davide Monteleone takes a very different approach with his poetic description of the Northern Caucasus, sidestepping the clichés and instead arouses our imagination with light and colors that inspire a fresh look at a culture that we might otherwise too easily overlook. We look at these images and we have to know more about who these people are. Stefano De Luigi’s pictures of Kenya’s cruel drought straddle the boundary between brutal realism and lyrical evocation of a place that is both magical and tortured, where mighty elephants die and children play.

Tomas van Houtryve combines his sharp intellect and acute eye for metaphor and beauty in his multi-year study of the world’s communist states “Behind The Curtain”. Often creating uncomfortable tensions between what we think we knew and the truths depicted, the project introduces us to sometimes-harsh realities with humane intelligence. Gary Knight’s forensic study of the Mexican US border starts and ends with a deep compassion for the plight of migrants who risk everything in their quest for survival, yet the images show nobody, and at first glance might seem to even show nothing. But as the details sink into the eye we begin to understand the shocking significance of the traces left by the people who might once have been in the frame.

Marcus Bleasdale takes us directly to the story without detour and distraction with his evocative portraits of former child soldiers and victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose faces tell us what even their spoken testimony can’t about the horrors that they’ve experienced. Interspersed with images of abandoned homes we learn more than we might want to know about the war that ravaged so many lives. Adam Ferguson also brings us faces, but the story of Myanmar in transition is very different and the excitement and optimism of the people explodes from the images in an overwhelming testament of courage after long decades of repression. New beginnings take a different significance in Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s story of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Birth Encouragement Program, where the images are infused with a somewhat bleak joy of young parents creating life in an austere environment. Life in the paradise of Madagascar brings different challenges and Ed Kashi creates a story in conflicted images showing a people struggling to get by while enveloped in lush landscape and rich heritage that seems to promise so much more. Seamus Murphy brings us up close to the people of Syria who are actively fighting to change their situation, with a visual narrative that is part chilling and part inspiring in its mix of torment, aggression and desire for life.

Shadows, reflections and intriguing gestures wrap the mystery of Catholicism in Maciek Nabrdalik’s study of faith in Poland. Metaphor runs through the core of Donald Weber’s study of power in his shocking series of Interrogations. Wit suffuses Jocelyn Bain Hogg’s intimate reportage about the London underworld and a strange mix of irony, fear and nostalgia creeps into Ashley Gilbertson’s investigation of Wall Street. Each photographer gives us a different visual clue that enriches our inquiries with so much more than simple descriptive information.

Plainly not all the questions have answers, but the process of inquiry brings us closer to understanding and where the photographers have left off, it’s up to us the viewers to pick up. The inquiries that the photographers of VII have started are in our hands to continue.

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