PDN: Dominic Bracco II won in 2016 with his
project “The Backs of Men,” about cultural and
socio-economic forces affecting the lives of
people along the U.S./Mexico border. How did
that project fit the goals of the Visionary Award?
SM: He was born near the Mexican border,
so it’s a story that was very close to his heart.
He found it to be a very nuanced story, not at
all black and white as it’s often represented
to be. He felt frustrated that he couldn’t tell
the whole story with [photography]. So he
taught himself to write, and spent seven
years developing a stage play and writing a
novel. [He had] the energy and imagination to
broaden the combination of media.
PDN: He was a finalist for the Visionary
Award in 2015. What was different about
his 2016 application that made it a winner?
SM: Each jury has a different perspective. But
in particular with Dominic, what seemed like
an incredible and impossible task he had set for
himself in the [2015 application], he subsequently
managed to achieve a large part of [by the time of
the 2016 competition]. The jury was so amazed.
PDN: What was the impossible task?
SM: In the intervening year, he had worked
with a director, and gone into early stages of
developing a stage production of his play.
[To the jury in 2015] it seemed incredible that
a photojournalist could do that, or would have
the motivation to do it, and sure enough, he did.
PDN: How much money comes with the award?
SM: £ 20,000 British pounds.
PDN: How important is the applicant’s plan
for distribution? What kinds of things are you
SM: The distribution is very important, and
that needn’t be to a large number of people.
I’ve worked with artists and journalists
who have addressed tiny communities, and
affected huge change. It’s not the scale of the
distribution, it’s the imagination: Who are
they targeting, why, and what’s the outcome?
PDN: Who are the judges? How are
SM: We have five judges. We name them after
the [winner is selected]. There’s always one
person who had personal connection to Tim,
someone with an institutional connection to his
work, and a photographer. The judges change,
and their tastes change from year to year.
PDN: You told me [via e-mail] that you’re less
and less convinced that the standards of
20th century journalism are relevant today.
Can you explain what you mean?
SM: To my mind, the media machine
has always been a process of excluding
information. If we do a story on, say, food
scarcity, you create a set of pictures that
exclude all information except that which
relates to food scarcity. Pick any story, and
the process is like that. What you end up
with is stereotypes telling a larger story. One
individual becomes symbolic [of] a much
larger population, and much larger story.
PDN: What’s wrong with that? To help people
understand, you have to focus their attention
on specific information.
SM: No, I don’t think so. And of course life is
richer and more complex than that.
PDN: What’s the alternative that
SM: If you look at Instagram, for example, you
see everything that photojournalism excludes.
You see all the randomness of life, and any
single picture tells you nothing much. But the
compilation tells you a much, much richer
story than photojournalism can. So it’s not an
either/or, it’s not an instead-of, it’s an as-well-as. I see this expansion of media we’re going
through at the moment as really significant.
PDN: You’re talking in particular about
crowdsourced feeds like Everyday Africa. How
do you square that with how photojournalists
earn a living?
SM: Why does the world owe
photojournalists a living? It’s up to us—and
I include myself in this—to make ourselves
relevant, if we want to be paid for it.
PDN: How do you suggest photojournalists
make themselves relevant?
SM: In a world where there’s too much
imagery, what is valuable? It takes only one
[distinguishing] characteristic. It might be
the fact that you’re a woman. It might be the
fact that you’re living in Dakar, it might be the
fact that you have particular insight into the
LGBT community. Everyone has something
which distinguishes who they are, and where
they are in the world. And that’s what we
have to identify. We can’t rely on photos
being the value of our business, because it’s
manifestly clear that it’s not.
One of the things that comes along with
that is the need for photographers to take a
position. The old rules of neutrality served
us well in the 20th century, but I don’t think
we need to hang onto them in the 21st. A
photographer needs to say: “I chose to do this
story, I chose to follow this particular person,
for the following reasons, and I’m going to
stand behind them,” rather than saying, “I’m an
objective truth seeker,” which they never were.
You [also] have to incorporate your life
values in your work. What too many journalists
have done in the past, by the way, is talk about
issues which are not part of their lives, they’re
not part of their value systems. [Photographers]
have been following the prescribed [narratives]
that we expect to be in the news.
PDN: The media is besieged by accusations
of bias. How does your call for a rejection of
neutrality and objectivity make the media
more respected, rather than less?
SM: I think the adherence to 20th century
standards of journalism have led us precisely
into this mess we’re in today. The journalism
we see as standard and neutral is anything but,
[and that is particularly apparent] when you
step into another culture, and look back at it.
In the late ’80s, a Polish photographer
got commissioned to photograph the British
election. Afterwards, he said, “We didn’t know
what to believe in the [Soviet] press, but we
knew we were being lied to, so we took it
apart and made our own interpretations.
Here, people believe what you tell them.”
He was aghast. To have a media machine that
people believe is deeply dangerous.
All media has a world view, a position,
or a character, and that has to be stated. It
puts the onus on viewers and readers to take
responsibility for what they read. People may
feel less comfortable with this, but it’s a more
ABOVE: From Dominic Bracco II’s award-winning
project “The Backs of Men,” about life along the
U.S.-Mexico Border. He told the story with
photographs and video, then developed a stage
play to tell the story in another form.