Shannon Ghannam, Global Education Director at Magnum Photos and judge of The Independent Photographer’s 2021 Open Call Award, reflects on her time working at the prestigious agency and offers some key advice for emerging practitioners.
Shannon is responsible for the renowned agency’s global educational programming, including, Magnum Learn, their online learning platform for photography and visual storytelling. During a photographic career spanning two decades, she has worked in a variety of roles and collaborated on a number of publications; international exhibitions, and multimedia projects, including, the Emmy award-winning photojournalism app Reuters The Wider Image.
What is your favorite or most memorable moment from your time working at Magnum?
SG: I am incredibly proud of the program my colleague Pauline Vermare, I, and others have been working on this summer called Beyond Magnum, an in-depth talks program created to address and explore some of the challenges facing the Magnum agency and our industry today. Through a series of free talks in chapters addressing Archives, Representation, and the Future of Photography, 50 speakers shared thoughts and engaged in debate across a range of issues. Each section was led by respected figures from the world of photography and speakers ranged from practitioners to academics to subjects of photographs. You can find all of the recordings online and I think it is such a rich and important resource for students or lifelong students of photography.
Do you have a favorite series/body of work and why?
SG: That is so hard to answer but Occupied Pleasures by Tanya Habjouqa is an eternal favorite. It is a project that is dear to my heart as my father is Palestinian but also I credit it as one of the projects that made me really understand the way that images work in society. Tanya’s images of Palestinian’s only highlighted the lack of nuanced, human, personal, joyful, complex, layered images of a people and a place that I had seen in my lifetime and by looking at the work we start to question why that might be the case, who was taking the pictures I was seeing, what impact does that have on the narrative, how do visual narratives work, who do they serve and how? So many of the most important questions about photography and representation are asked so beautifully in Tanya’s work.
What attributes do you look for in an image?
SG: The three things I look for in an image I paraphrase from some advice I heard many years ago from Michelle McNally, a great image makes me learn something, makes me feel something, and ideally shows me something unique that I have not seen before. I would add that these days I also want to know the story outside of the frame, what was the photographer’s relationship to this subject, how do they work, what are their motivations for doing the work. I want to celebrate work for all of these reasons, not just the aesthetics.
What are your top tips for up-and-coming photographers?
Understand the context
SG: Study the work of other photographers – the greats and your contemporaries, read photographic theory and online debates, understand how visual communication and culture work, and the wider context you are making and presenting work in. Not only is it interesting, it is the foundation for making informed, relevant and engaging storytelling.
Find your own voice
SG: The best photographic work feels like something we have not seen before, whether that is a story, a style, or a feeling that it evokes. When conceiving a project, ask yourself the hard questions about why you have chosen this story: Are you the best person to tell it? What are you adding to the genre, or the story, that has not been said or done before? Why do you care and how are you going to make an audience care? Give yourself a head start and choose the project or the approach that helps you answer these questions well.
SG: Don’t think you need to show a client that you can do everything. Clients want to see clearly who you are as a photographer; they will be looking for a style or approach that will best suit the project they have in mind. Every emerging photographer needs to have a personal project that shows what you are capable of, that expresses what you’re about. This may take years to develop but it will be the launchpad for other commissions and will help cement your individual identity as a photographer.
Ask yourself what will sustain you photographically
SG: Photograph the thing that you are obsessed with, the thing you are angry about, that you are fascinated by, that you want to understand. Make sure it is something that will sustain you photographing it over many years. The best photographic projects develop over time. Every photographer should have a project that they are chipping away at around other work.
Do the work!
SG: Do the work than spend time sharing it, selling it, promoting it, entering awards etc. There is no way to get around this part. Get comfortable with the fact that making good work takes time. When you are hustling, it can feel like a very lonely, thankless pursuit. Keep at it.
Go where your audience is
SG: The making of a book is a beautiful way to get your work out into the world, but it is not the only way. What impact do you want your work to have? Who needs to see it to have this impact? Where are they looking? How can you reach them?
Build a community
SG: Photography can be hard and lonely. Build a community around you. Reach out to people whose work you like on Instagram. Organize a meet-up. Attend a workshop. Be generous with your time and ideas, help others and others will help you.
Expand your practice
SG: Photography is just one tool in a storytelling kit. How an audience understands and feels a story is in your hands. Whether that is a choice of frame for your exhibition, paper for your book, music for your multimedia piece, and edit of your accompanying text, every single choice you make is a chance to make the work sing. The job does not end in the camera.
Kill your darlings!
SG: Editing is crucial. If you can’t be brutal with your own images, find someone you trust who can. If you are working on a project over a long period of time, you will edit out many “good pictures”, but the overall work will become better for it.
Break the rules
SG: Read the rule book, then throw it out the window. Listen to all of the advice, and then do what you think is best for you and your practice. This singular, dogged approach is a hallmark of the best, pioneering photographers, and it is how the medium evolves.
Enjoy the journey
SG: In an interview with Magnum on her love of musicals, nominee Cristina de Middel said, “Photography can be playful and propose more questions than it gives answers. That’s the greatest thing photography can do – raise questions.”
It won’t be easy, but it certainly won’t be dull, and that is the magic of a life lived through photography. Enjoy the journey!
All images © their respective owners
Sections of this article were first published in the Magnum Theory and Practice section.