Blog: Inspiration Between the Lines

Q&A with Noelle Flores Théard of the Magnum Foundation

As a hub of emerging visual storytelling talent, Magnum Foundation has cultivated an ecosystem of global voices that celebrates individual perspectives as well as our shared interconnectivity as human beings. 

Founded in 2007, sixty years after Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour launched Magnum Photos the agency, the trailblazing efforts of Magnum Foundation are reflected in their dedication to the support of long-form photo documentary practice and innovations in the field. Real-time examples include a piece that supports citizen journalism, Immigrants Are Bearing the Brunt of the Coronavirus Crisis, published in April and co-created by photographer Cinthya Santos Briones, The Nation and Magnum Foundation. For more insight into the organization we reached out to Noelle Flores Théard, Magnum Foundation Program Officer, to hear her reflections on broadening and diversifying the field of documentary practice.

Image from the project Just Like Usby photographer Eric Gyamfi, produced with support from Magnum Foundation


DUGGAL ART SCENE: Let’s start with the Magnum Foundation’s mission—Expanding creativity and diversity in visual storytelling. How does your approach to visual storytelling broaden the perspective on questions surrounding what is documentary photography or what is photojournalism? 

NOELLE: Expanding diversity has kind of a double meaning for us. First, bringing in historically underrepresented voices into the field of documentary photography is of critical importance for the field, and Magnum Foundation has centered this as a core value in all of our grant and fellowship programs. In addition, we also think about diversity in form. While traditional reportage will always have its place, documentary photography benefits from a diversity of form as well. 

We seek to expand creativity by supporting photographers to experiment and allow for unconventional approaches to documentary photographic storytelling. I would say that especially in the past three years, we have found ourselves supporting fewer projects in the pure photojournalistic space, because we embrace and encourage a sense of subjectivity in photographers’ work. That said, a sense of ethics is critical to the practice of the photographers we support, so although they may not ascribe to the rules of journalism, they are transparent and clear in their decisions around how to produce their work.

For example, Indian photographer Soumya Sankar Bose’s project Where the Birds Never Sing is a powerful project on the Marichjhapi Massacre which took the lives of thousands of Hindu Dalit refugees in 1979. In order to tell this history, he collaborated with actors who travelled with him to meet, then embody, the memories of the survivors. We consider this method of re-enactment to be part of his documentary practice.

Another really innovative project that we were excited to support was the Nepal Picture Library’s Feminist Memory Project. This was the first major archival project supported by the Magnum Foundation, and the funds went to support researchers traveling to rural areas in Nepal to bring to contemporary audiences the history of women’s centrality in Nepali public discourse and culture. The project “rides on the feminist impulse to memorialize women’s pasts in the belief that their historical visibility will advance the case for liberation.”

Ghanaian photographer Eric Gyamfi did a project called Just Like Us which focused on queer communities in Ghana and their precarious position in society. He photographed his friends and colleagues and actively exhibited the work, encouraging participation from audiences through comment boards that shared both questions and support from the public related to understandings of queer identities in Ghana.

Kathmandu | 1981 | Women from all walks of life gather for a mass meeting in Kathmandu to submit a letter of protest to the government following the rape and murder of sisters Namita and Sunita Bhandari in Pokhara that rocked the country. Image from the archival project Nepal Picture Library for the project Feminist Memory Project, produced with support from the Magnum Foundation


DUGGAL ART SCENE: The specifics of the Magnum Foundation’s mission include production support, mentorship, education, grantmaking and training, with an emphasis on photographers working within their own communities. Can you tell us about why you prioritize image makers working in their own communities? 

NOELLE: While we are sensitive to the fact that photographers should be free to travel and work on projects that are compelling to them, we believe that being from and living within a community gives photographers deeper insight into their societies. 

We also want to work to subvert some of the power dynamics that impacted who was able to tell what story. In the near-recent past, mostly white, Western, male photographers were sent abroad to tell stories about the world. This isn’t a blanket critique of those in positions to tell others’ stories, but rather a deliberate investment in image makers who have an inside understanding of the cultures they come from. It is also a necessary corrective for an industry that has faced considerable challenges in regard to diversity. Likewise, we also understand that this concept of working from within a home community also applies to white photographers looking at their own cultures, which we also believe is very important. 

That said, we also don’t want to create the inverse problem and relegate historically underrepresented photographers to tell only stories about their own communities.

O'odham villiage in Mexico, Cu:wi I-ges*k / San Francisquito, Mexico, abandoned since 2015 after being taken hostage by cartels. Image from The Place Where the Clouds Are Formed by photographer Gareth Smit, produced with support from Magnum Foundation


DUGGAL ART SCENE: Are there one or two projects that the Magnum Foundation has supported that were unusually challenging in terms of content or logistics? What qualities does it take to persevere in these types of situations?

NOELLE: Two projects really stand out for me, both funded by the Henry Luce Foundation to support photography and collaboration.

I was incredibly inspired by the thoughtfulness, perseverance, and ingenuity of Gareth Smit, whose project The Place Where the Clouds Are Formed combined photography, historical text, and poetry to investigate the borderlands of southwestern Arizona, the land of the Tohono O’odham. He collaborated with Tohono O'odham poet Ofelia Zepeda, whose work enriched and deepened the project beyond photography. The border cuts this Native American nation in two, and his ability to navigate the complex bureaucracies and dexterity in facing the challenges of producing this work was exceptional. He managed to have exhibitions on both sides of the border, engaging communities from local townspeople in both Mexico and Arizona, as well as museumgoers at the Tucson Museum of Art. 

I also deeply appreciate the work of Mexican photographer Yael Martinez whose collaborative project The Blood and the Rain explored indigenous spirituality. With the seemingly insurmountable challenge of visualizing rituals and ceremonies that were not allowed to be photographed, Yael photographed as much as he could, and also collaborated with graphic artist Orlando Velasquez, his brother, who used etching and drawing to represent what they had seen and experienced in their extensive time with indigenous communities.

Portrait and tiger masks. Image from The Blood and the Rain by photographer Yael Martinez, produced with support from the Magnum Foundation.


DUGGAL ART SCENE: What are some of the more lighthearted or humorous projects that the Magnum Foundation has supported? Is it important to reflect the range of human emotion in the work you support or is your focus more on urgent social issues?

NOELLE: This is such a great question that makes me realize how humor is a more unusual quality in the projects we support. Overall, the social justice issues take priority, and most of fellows and grantees supported projects are imbued with a sense of seriousness.

That said, there is a delectable sense of ever-present cleverness in Mari Bastashevski’s Magnum Foundation-supported project State Business, with its undertone of sarcasm that, as she puts it, “generates cracks in the culture of uninterrupted and automated production of war.”

In a very different way, Endia Beal’s project Am I What You’re Looking For invokes a sense of play but with very real consequences as she focuses on young black women who are transitioning from the academic world to the corporate setting. She photographed them posed in front of an office backdrop in their homes, and had them recall conversations they experienced during interviews. “The women explain how employers would tell them that their natural hair was unprofessional or their name was too difficult to pronounce, suggesting they alter themselves for the job.” 

Christina, 19 – “I feel that I am looked down upon in the corporate space simply because I am a woman of color. Corporate spaces attempt to suppress my “blackness” in the way I dress, talk, and even the way I style my hair. As a double minority, I must be extraordinary in all that I do to prove myself equally competent to my white and/or male counterparts.
Crystal, 24 – “As a black woman in a corporate space, I feel empowered to defy the stereotypes that society has placed on us. I have a venue through which I can show that my work ethic, professionalism, and dedication is just as evident in the workplace as that of my male Caucasian counterparts. I also feel empowered to show young Black women that they can stand out and be successful in a corporate space, as long as they are passionate about what they do, and always give their best.”
Image from Am I What You’re Looking For by photographer Endia Beal, produced with support from the Magnum Foundation


DUGGAL ART SCENE: Lastly, what do you think is the importance of visual storytelling and long-term projects within the context of society at large? What unique perspective do these projects add to how we understand, interpret or contemplate what it means to be human?

NOELLE: I myself have learned so much about the world through my work at Magnum Foundation and believe that visual storytelling is capable of broadening public discourse way beyond photography alone. It is incredibly inspiring to engage with photographers from so many different backgrounds and perspectives.

















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