Photography may be a solitary job, but it allows you to work your own hours and pick your own jobs and clients. So why join an agency or a collective? Some tips and plenty of links.
A number of practical and ideological motivations exist for collective and collaborative practice. These range from the simple need to share skills and equipment, or the desire to combat isolation and self-doubt, through to socially and politically motivated artist groups, who come together in order to address particular issues. Some groups form to assist their entry into the established artworld. Other groups are deliberately anti-institutional, forming in order to escape from commercialism or to explore alternative forms of validation and promotion. 1.
Louise Mayhew, art historian.
Juliet Taylor, The POOL Collective
Collectives have existed for centuries: from the ‘collegia’ of ancient Rome onwards, trade and crafts guilds have promoted and protected their members’ interests. Nor are collectives new to photography, despite the medium’s comparatively short history.
Arguably the world’s most successful and enduring photographic collective is Magnum Photos. Born in post-war Paris, the agency was founded to serve its early members’ professional and financial interests, liberating them from the confines of big photo agencies. It supported rather than directed its photographers, who retained copyright of their photos. Magnum has grown into a highly influential collective, with over 40 members around the world, all able to follow their own stories while being part of a group.
“Being a photographer can be very isolating,” observes Juliet Taylor of Sydney’s POOL Collective, “and being part of a network provides the formal structure where we’re able to succeed commercially as well as with our personal work. It’s like having support for both the left and right-hand side of our brain – having production support as well as peer support to discuss ideas, thoughts and share work.”
Ilvy Njiokiktjien, VII Agency
Surveying photo collectives around the world tells us a lot about their motivations and aspirations. Like Magnum, some exist to offer financial support and organised frameworks for their members. Ron Haviv, co-founder and Chairman of the VII Agency, founded in 2001 by seven leading photojournalists, explains: “Economic stability and a good business sense have been elements required [of our members], as we all own the company together.” This allows them to report on current issues and – through The VII Foundation and The VII Academy – to educate and support a new generation of photographers, creating impact and bringing about social change.
Sean Izzard, The Smoker, The POOL Collective
The POOL Collective in Australia also has a ‘giving back’ strategy. Started 2008 by Sean Izzard and Simon Harsent, POOL employs a managing director to run the day-to-day agency business. As well, they organise the POOL Grant to assist emerging photographers – funding a mentorship program that culminates in solo exhibitions.
Far Away so Close, Ruang MES 56
Indonesia’s longest-running photography collective, Yogyakarta’s Ruang MES 56, takes the idea of education and public outreach even further. Founded in 2002 by a group of students to promote photography as an art form, it now runs regular podcasts, a broad social engagement program, and exhibits and collaborates locally and internationally.
Suan Lin, Women in Street
The incentives that bring collectives together are often targeted more to particular communities. Women in Street, the brainchild of Casey Meshbesher, curates, showcases, interviews and celebrates women working in the street photography genre, through an evolving platform and a team of collaborators.
Linda Maclean, Unexposed Collective
Similarly, Unexposed Collective, founded by Rebecca Wiltshire and Julia Coddington in 2018, operates an open membership but only promotes the work of female, non-binary and intersex street photographers. No stranger to Head On, the group exhibits and runs workshops actively promoting its members’ photographs and the genre.
Earth’s Wonder, The Light Collective
Environmental concerns have stoked the passions of the Australian group The Light Collective since its inception in 2014. The group aims to awaken a greater sense of awe, ownership, and responsibility for conserving some of Earth’s most vulnerable wild places through breathtaking photographic collaborations.
Pau Buscato, 04, iN PUBLiC
Not all collectives take an altruistic overview – many exist simply to promote their genre of photography. iN PUBLiC, established in 2000 by Nick Turpin, focuses on street photography, capturing the ‘everyday’ rather than big news stories. Another street photography collective, Burn My Eye, shares and promotes the passion of its 16 photographers spread over five continents.
Marina Sersale, Hikari Creative
The international focus is also seen in the Hikari Creative, formed in 2014 by Iranian photographer Ako Salemi, a winner of the 2016 Head On Mobile Awards, and New York-based Japanese documentary photographer Q. Sakamaki, who exhibited Unseen Everyday Japan with Head On in 2017. With the motto, ‘We are brought together by photography to affirm art as essential to our lives’, the group has a strong Instagram presence, participates in exhibitions worldwide, and publishes members’ work.
Ashley Gilbertson, VII Agency
Photography’s strengths – its popularity (everyone’s a photographer nowadays) and its ability to transcend cultural, generational and linguistic differences – makes it the perfect medium to bind like-minded practitioners. But the notion of starting a collective shouldn’t be taken lightly. Those we interviewed stressed the need to research your options and work out if your values align, be willing to contribute and be “contributed to”, and to share an underlying passion for the cause. Ron Haviv of VII agency notes the key to a successful collective is understanding the business aspects of running a company, while collective Ruang MES 56 advises to keep your own ideology, not “becoming someone you are not.”
Renata Fiippi, Unexposed Collective
In the sage words of Unexposed’s Julia Coddington:
“Sustaining a collective over the long term is hard work – a bit like a relationship or marriage. It requires constant maintenance, passion and stamina as well as collaboration, cooperation and communication between members. It may seem like a great idea at the time. But think twice before you either start or join one, and ask yourself if you’re prepared to be in it for the long term.”
Header image: Sam Ferris, Burn My Eye
 A history of women-only art collectives and collaboration in Australia 1970-2010
About the Author
Paula Broom is a writer and an environmental artist who works in sculpture, photography and installation. She works for Head On Foundation, writing for and editing Head On Interactional.