Though both Evans and Francesca Sears, who Evans poached rather skillfully from her role as Editorial Director at Magnum, insist there is no hierarchy to be gleaned from the division of the photographers into two groups, Panos Profile and Panos Network, it is hard not to gravitate towards the ‘top twenty’. The fluidity of the apparent divide is stressed by its architects, however, and the rationale behind it means it will necessarily change when a photographer embarks upon or concludes a specific body of work.
Sears was brought in as director of the Profile photographers, and she is clearly relishing the chance to be involved with every step of a project, moving beyond the purely administrative into more creative realms.
‘I’m excited by the idea of working on specific projects with this group of photographers. Panos have a good solid reputation and an ethos I like very much,’ she says. Sears is also drawn to the collaborative atmosphere fostered at the agency across the road from her former employers, where she honed her ability to grapple with the multi-faceted nature and the broad and varied reach of much contemporary work.
Evans is unstinting in his praise of Sears:
‘We couldn’t do it without particular resources … yes, I do mean Fran. What’s good about her is that she obviously has background working in another big agency but she also has experience in publishing, working in galleries, and has an overview of everything that’s going on. She’s incredibly active, very driven and she gets things done. The challenge for her is that we have a great name, but it’s in quite a small pond – we need to push on to the next level ourselves.’
In looking at the list of the Profile photographers, it’s clear that Evans’ vision – and he admits to the list being a fait accompli before Sears’ arrival – is to play to his agency’s core strengths, choosing the more obviously progressive photographers like Chris De Bode or Yann Mingard as well as strong stable mates like Stefan Van Fleteren. Panos are well known in the field of social documentary, and for their work with NGOs, yet it is only now that Evans is beginning to tap the potential in this area, affected chiefly by two related factors: the death of the newspaper commission and the increased competition for NGO work. It occurred to me that there is a marked shift in where the interesting work can be found these days. Whereas once the most innovative creative work would find its home in magazines or newspapers, and stereotypical images would identify NGO literature from a two mile radius, these roles seem to be switching. Paolo Pellegrin’s recent work with the Magnum agency for Save the Children is a case in point.
Evans wants to start the conversations with NGOs earlier in the cycle, at the strategic stage, not least with Panos Institute, the aid agency that gave birth to Panos Pictures, and that still benefits from a share of the photo agency’s profits. Evans says he has not shouted about his agency’s charitable links in the past because he didn’t want to be used so that people could feel good about themselves. ‘It has to be a level playing field,’ he says, while acknowledging that it’s hardly the climate to invoke a kind of inverse snobbery about who your clients are or why they chose you. Working in this way means that Panos Pictures buils ‘CSR’- corporate social responsibility – in from the beginning. Perhaps they should offer their services to banks.
‘So many photographs are illustrative, “ says Evans. ‘I’m looking for people who want to interpret the world, for their singular vision. Not many people have harnessed the power of the web to use pictures in a truly interesting way with a/v presentations. Photographers don’t yet have the skill sets to make a decent a/v package. They can acquire them, but they don’t appear by magic. They need to get out there and do some radio journalism. While newspapers won’t pay for multimedia presentations, they are still very much needed as crucial disseminators and distributers of the work. In terms of payment, we’ve been paid by DFID and by NGOs, but the media obviously won’t pay. It’s the holy grail, to find that model, or so everyone says. I think it’s more a question of building a programme of activities, with different jump-off points for different people and institutions.’
In photographers like Carolyn Drake, Evans’ wish for singular vision is certainly granted. Her project Paradise Rivers has grown out of two rivers in Asia that have sustained human life for 40,000 years. The Amu and Syr Darya are two of the four Rivers of Paradise, according to medieval Islamic texts. Their changing course through the rise and fall of empires is rigorously and exquisitely documented by Drake, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship last month. I can’t remember the last time a body of work captivated me so vividly in content and execution.
Tomas Van Houtryve has also been busy, in his case documenting 21st century communists in Comrades Revisited. He’s been to all the usual places – China, North Korea, Cuba, Nepal – but his imagery is far from commonplace. Like Drake’s work, these photographs are world-class, and will certainly succeed in shifting the perception of the work of Panos photographers from the worthy but marginalized to the popular but smart.
Sears and Evans acknowledge that rumblings of dissent have been heard among those who are not in the initial Profile selection.
‘It’s understandable,’ says Evans. ‘What’s different is that it’s not for all time. It’s fluid. It all depends on where you are in your career, and which projects you are working on. We don’t want to create an a and a b. We want to work with everyone – and we will do by redeploying staff in the agency. Fran has an eye out for all the photographers on our books, over a hundred of them.’
We can expect new and exciting projects from the likes of De Bode to be unveiled in the next few months. Stefan Van Fleteren, a superstar in his native Belgium, will seek to gain wider recognition with his new work from the photojournalist’s Mecca: Congo. He has created 50 portraits from a cross section of Congolese society to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence.
As Panos Profile celebrates its first official day of operation, a new Britain will be unveiled. The wind of change is in the air. Unlike most political parties, Panos knows what it is and what it wants: ‘We’re reinforcing what we are instead of becoming something different.’
Panos Profile and Panos Network