Interview with Bjarke Myrthu about Magnum in Motion

15 min read

How did the idea for Magnum In Motion emerge?
I met Susan Meiselas of Magnum in 2002, when I was in New York to receive an award for my thesis assignment of a web documentary that I did together with Peter Hove Olesen and Johannes Bøggild. She absolutely loved our project and offered back then, that I could start at Magnum. But back then the CEO of Magnum was totally uninterested in the web. Furthermore, I didn’t move fast enough. I was tired after the thesis project, was broke after four years at studying, and had just met a new girlfriend. So I could not quite grasp how I’d move to New York (where cool that could be).

But then in the summer of 2004 I changed my mind. To work for Magnum would be very cool, so I decided to try again. I sat down and wrote two concepts. One which I called “Magnum In Motion” which was an experience based photo magazine. And one that I called “Magnum Academy” which was a community for photographers (the two concepts were later merged). It took one afternoon, I had gone and pondered the idea for several years. I emailed concepts to Magnum and hoped for the best.

It happened that they gotten a new CEO, since I first spoke with them. He believes that the web is the great future. Susan remembered me and supported me. Mark Lubell (the new CEO) rang an hour after I sent the mail, and asked if I could come to the annual photographer meet-up. I ran out into the street in front of my apartment in Nørrebro, Copenhagen, and screamed to high heaven.

Bjarke Myrthu car
Bjarke Myrthu – Photo: Joi Ito https://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/

Four days later I was at a party in New York, with photographers like Nachtway and Cornell Capa. Fairly surreal. Then came some months of wrangling. Originally, Magnum In Motion was just my concept of a community and a web magazine. But as things have evolved it has actually become both the name of the website and the name of Magnum’s “development department” where we currently are two employees and a trainee. What we’re doing is not only a website, but a re-development of Magnum on a range of levels, which will lead to more new products and new ways to showcase our work (the last is sounds a bit vague, but that’s because I can’t reveal much right now).

What is your ambition with the project?
My big pet peeve is that too much web content is static and looks poorly visually. You are not using the web properly.

When radio journalism was born it was almost spoken newspapers, when television came to, it was the radio with pictures. The web is largely lacking in still finding it’s own standpoint. A self-narrative form. I think a lot of it is tied up in photojournalism and visual narratives.

The problem is probably that the media has always been in a sender -> receiver relationship that only goes in one direction. There is never a dialogue. You talk about “an independent narrative form” and “very visual narratives,” “too much web content is static and poor visual screwed together.” Isn’t it just old HTML in new bottles?
To through a lot of photos up on some HTML pages does not necessarily something dynamic and different narrative. But what if stills and moving images (video) flows freely in and out between each other, with, text items, interactive graphics and a soundtrack that binds it all together. Then we are approaching something more than “old HTML in new bottles.”

If you then also get interactivity into the project, it’s really interesting. It is precisely the confrontation with the principle of the story and the information always goes from the receiver to the sender which is one of the interesting aspects of digital stories. Interactivity can take place on many levels. It can be a way to break the structure of a story up, so that the receiver will get different inputs. It may be the recipient provides ongoing input to the narrator, who then uses his knowledge to change the story. Some of the American newspapers, for example, started to use web statistics from the grid in the editing of the newspaper. If there are many who click onto a particular story, you go deeper into the story.

Can you provide examples?
Currently I am working with an idea which is to create some small picture stories, where you follow certain people from a common starting point (in this case, a nightclub in New York). It is a 100 percent documentary project, and all the people are real. Nothing is arranged, the photographer follows them. The people all know each other and their paths crossed both at the nightclub and later during the night. The recipient can choose who to follow and take different paths as the story progresses. It is an example of a story that you can only do on a digital medium.

The big problem is that many of the mainstream media can not afford this kind of content because it is quite expensive to do, and because they have created a web culture where people expect to get everything for free. So I have long been pondered how to make some form of web media for visual multimedia stories that is sound economically.

How do you change people’s attitude from web content should be free. Can’t you just run google ads, because who wants to pay to look at archival images?
In principle, I would very much like to avoid that our site is plastered with banner ads. It’s not really Magnums style, although it may sound a bit snobbish. However, we are about to close a contract with a major sponsor, who puts a decent amount of money in the project in return for a discrete exposure.

But to return to the core of the issue, it is always very difficult to make people pay for something that used to come for free. It is much easier to go the other way. But I see a clear trend that more and more media start taking money for content. Look at El Pais you can not get anywhere other than the front page without paying. So it’s about to happen.

Elliott Erwitt
Eliott Erwitt – Photo: Alessio Jacona https://www.flickr.com/photos/blogs4biz/
At Magnum we will actually make it free for everyone to look at archive images (if you want to download and use them it is of course an entirely different matter). What people have to pay for are the things that are unique to us. For example, a virtual workshop with three of the best Magnum photographs, an online chat with Thomas Dworzak’s on his experiences in Iraq, or the story of how Elliott Erwitt was allowed to take the most intimate photos of John F. Kennedy.

Additionally, you will want to take money for some of our feature stories. Take for example the idea with the interactive club history. If it is bold enough, why should they not pay a few dollars to see it? People also go to the movies and pay, or pay to read a good book or a delicious magazine. We’re not talking about Omnibus news which is impersonal, and that anyone can deliver. One can see in the newspaper world, that this kind of content is being given away for free.

How much of the material will be new features and how much is from the archive?
As it looks now, it is around 80 percent from the archives. But interviews and other stuff is new. In the long run it will probably only be 50 percent of the images coming from the archives.

How have they accepted the project?
I met with some of the photographers, which of course ultimately are the ones who must give the green light. But all are quite fond of the idea. It was mostly a matter of economics. But they succeeded in getting into the deal that can give me shelter and little food and still be economically sound for Magnum.

Is this Danish modesty. Your idea has a market value, which you should be well rewarded for?
In the US, Magnum has actually been financially on the ass for several years. Paradoxically it was rescued by the September 11 attacks and actually got the office out of a larger debt, but there is still not very much money. It is going poorly with many of our traditional customers in the newspaper world. So Magnum In Motion is an attempt to make a “turn around” as it’s called in the business world. We will try to find new revenue opportunities for the kind of photography Magnum stands for. So a lot is at stake, as Mark Lubell (Head of Magnum USA) has to implement this (not economic, but more prestige wise). For me the stake is that I go for a very low salary, but I have a prospect of getting a substantial bonus if we start to make money on the project. But as it looks now, I could earn much more by taking a job in Denmark. So it’s not what drives me. I have not much to lose. If the project does not go, I will obviously be upset for a while. But then I could take everything I’ve learned and use it somewhere else.

Which title / status do you have?
My title is Executive Editor for Magnum In Motion. But the job includes more than editing. I am also a kind of development guy. I actually got my card last week. It’s a bit childish, but it’s damn cool to see it in print. So it feels a little like I’m an established part of the community.

I have currently only one employee and a trainee in my department. And as I said I receive no great salary. So in that way, I have no great status. But I am very close to Magnums top management, and we hold longer meetings almost daily. So in that sense, I feel that I have a great influence on Magnums renewal process, and I’m an important piece in the “turnaround” that I have mentioned.

The photographers are quite fond of what I do on the web. But I’ll definitely have to prove my self in the future to keep the high status among photographers. And that’s fair enough. They are people who have had all sorts of accolades and made fantastic projects. So a web documentary here and there, and a small prize here and there, doesn’t counts much in the long run. Denmark has suffered from a trend where there is too much focus on who now has won the World Press and so on. Such things are they are completely oblivious to here. They also do not care whether you are young or old, or who you know. It is the work and projects that counts. I think that’s pretty cool.

To eJour you say: “Maybe Magnum is a leader in terms of images, but they want to move more towards the Web and to a greater extent make use of all the various instruments: photo, sound, text, etc. -which characterizes the digital media. “Do you think the press photo is on it’s way to the grave, or will it takes a different twist?

Bjarke Myrthu lecture
Bjarke Myrthu – Photo: Joi Ito https://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/
I think it is with the press photography or photojournalism, as with everything else that is journalism. There are trends that come and go, and it is an area in constant development. What you see happening now is that all mainstream media moves away from telling coherent visual stories. Instead, the individual images are of a more illustrative character.

Why do you think that they are “moving away from telling coherent visual stories.”?
It’s a really good question, which I often ask myself. It’s probably ultimately a financial decision. They are afraid to use a lot of resources on the photograph, at a time when they are financially challenged. I think one could prosper as a traditional newspaper, if you bet more on the visual and feature substance. And then let the news run by the same concept as the Metro and the other free newspapers. But you gotta be careful. Those who are sitting and dealing with the day to day at the newspapers are talented people, so they have their reasons. It’s a bit like when we all criticize Morten Olsen (Danish Soccer Coach) for his tactics if the national team loses. But basically he is probably still a better coach than the man in the street.

But I have not the imagination to imagine that press photography will disappear. Some (especially here at Magnum) believe that the kind of photojournalism as Magnum stands for, is forever disappearing from the mainstream media. I am not so pessimistic. But in any case, I think that it’s good we have the web to maintain picture journalism.

Why keep photojournalism? There is probably a reason that people stop taking an interest in something?
I do not think people have stopped taking an interest in the narrative image journalism. I think it’s the editors and other gatekeepers who make the selections. But you’re right. Let fall what can not stand. But the novel was in crisis at a time, and today it does excellently. Movies have also occasionally problems. Therefore I think it is a trend of the times, more than a farewell to an entire genre.

Eyetrack studies show that “the reader focused on text and designs, rarely the visual elements, on a website” ( pressefotografforbundet.dk ) What is your comment on that?
Overall, I think that you have to pair this kind of studies with a good dose of common sense and practical knowledge. Otherwise it becomes a bit Erasmus Montanus like. If one concludes from such an eyetrack study, that visual elements on the web are not important, it’s like saying “a stone can not fly, mother can not fly, ergo mother is a stone.” The study shows just how people look at a particular website. But if you prioritized the visual content differently, the result may be very different. There is also a study (from Jacob Nielsen) showing that people only have the patience to wait a few seconds to download things. So it excludes the use of large images, video and other “heavy” content. But one forgets completely practical reason. What if the images is of a plane hitting the World Trade Center, wouldn’t people want to wait a few minutes to download that video.

What I am saying is, well, I still believe very much that the web is great for visual stories. There are just very few that really have created visual stories of equally high quality as a well-written magazine article or a documentary. Our thesis The Enemy Within had over 100,000 visitors in 2003 without any marketing. And it’s purely journalistic and narrative, I think it can be done much better than we did back in 2002. If such stories are being produced, and people are turning their backs on them, well then I’ll have to reconsider. But until then, I stand by the fact, that visual stories are amazing.

Why should Magnum have its own media platform? Shouldn’t photographers not just shut up and drive journalist to interview?
The reason why Magnum must have its own media platform is above all, that we can. It’s a great opportunity and we must not let any stone go unturned. We have an archive of half a million amazing pictures. Every day when I walk in the door and over to my desk, I go past meters of shelves with boxes where it says things like “The Spanish Civil War” “D-day landing” and “Kennedy, Berlin”. Historical images that most of the time just sit there. We want to enable them. Make them current by putting them into a contemporary context.

I see photographers as storytellers in line with journalists (many calls themselves photojournalists). A good story contains both concrete and abstract elements, and traditional photography and journalism complement each other well.

How can they complement each other well?

Bjarke Myrthu
Bjarke Myrthu – Photo: Joi Ito https://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/
If you see a photograph of as small child’s body that appears while workers uncovers a mass grave, it is a very concrete evidence. If the picture is good, it can also spark a lot of emotion. But if people then ask themselves where the mass grave was, how many were killed, how it happened also so on, so, most images fall short. There the traditional journalism takes over and you conduct interviews with experts, other sources and so on.

Journalism can also supplement the photograph, if, for example, they let people from the village tell about life before people were murdered and thrown into mass graves. It is something that has happened in the past, and therefore for good reasons can not be photographed. It always sounds a little trite with such an example. There’s thousands of combinations, when you think about how the two can complement each other.

Moreover, all stories get better by being created in the tension zone between several parties. If the photographer just keeps his mouth shut, he is an illustrator rather than a narrator. So I’d then invite the photographer to talk freely while he drives the reporter to interview. But also before, when the idea for the interview is set up. Otherwise, there is a tendency that the journalist does not think in abstracts and images. In practice, of course it is difficult sometimes, because it breaks with a long tradition of photographer and journalist as two autonomous sizes. A culture that both photographers and journalists have fed. I know that it is breaking up in the mul

Interview with Bjarke Myrthu about Magnum in Motio…

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