Art and commerce
For the past five years, VII Photo Agency has operated a gallery in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn. Located one block from the waterfront, VII Gallery stands on the corner bathed in a flood of light. The gallery, which is intimate yet commanding, offers a wide array of exhibitions, talks, and special events that focus on photojournalism. In keeping with its mission to use photography as a tool for positive change, VII Gallery provides a public space for humanistic discourse.
“This is our hub for exhibiting around the world,” says Stephen Mayes, CEO. The agency partners with its photographers, venues, and non-profit organizations to produce shows that draw attention to issues frequently overlooked by the mainstream media as well as the formal art world. Mayes, who had previously worked at Art + Commerce, is well verse in the challenge of producing photojournalism during a time when images have become a commodity unto themselves.
Mayes observes, “I think there is a level of frustration when looking at this work in traditional print formats. People do not know how to react to these images but these images demand a reaction from you. People want to care but do not know what to do. In addition to that, the aesthetic of photojournalism is difficult. These are complex images full of random information. They are not the pure, clean images of more popular, commercial work. Here, there is a lot of random information and people need to make sense of it, and that can lead to frustration.”
He notes that photojournalism is a tough sell to collectors who are looking for established names in the art market. Collectors tend to approach art as investors, looking to put their money into the known and familiar. Mayes draws a parallel between the sales of photojournalism and the Dumbo neighborhood, noting that while these are slowly becoming established in the fine art world, they are still peripheral.
That said, the greater mission of VII as an agency and a gallery is to highlight the stories that challenge us to recognize injustice and take action to right the wrongs. “Starved for Attention” is one of the great successes of the gallery. VII partnered with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières to produce a multimedia campaign exposing the crisis of childhood malnutrition in countries including Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, India, Mexico, and the United States. An estimated 195 million children worldwide suffer from the effects of malnutrition, and part of that is connected to the food supplies provided by charitable organizations. The result of this project (which featured the work of Marcus Bleasdale, Jessica Dimmock, Ron Haviv, Antonin Kratochvil, Franco Pagetti, Stephanie Sinclair, and John Stanmeyer) was that U.S. Aid made a policy change in order to review and address the double standards in its nutritional guidelines.
Mayes observes how our shift into a culture of social networking has allowed VII to take its mission viral and empowers people to participate and respond to the crises it covers. “People can share, comment, volunteer, and donate online. The consumption of photojournalism is growing enormously online. Our Instagram has 27 thousand followers, allowing us to publish directly to our audience and control the message.”
Mayes notes that where once it was the media that was seen as the source, as a result of digital communications, the photographer is now seen as a credible source. It is in this way that the mission of VII comes full circle, allowing their photojournalists to produce and publish stories that are distributed on several platforms, allowing the gallery to become a place for face-to-face interaction.
What makes an exhibition or an event notable is that the viewer must go to the work rather than having the work come to them. It is the gallery that mediates our experience of art in the age of reproduction, drawing a community together in real time and real space around the ideas the photograph addresses. And it is in this way that VII Gallery maintains its independence and its integrity, and continues to be a space for discussion about the issues that affect the local and global communities.