What Can it Mean to Truly Collaborate as a Photography Collective?

The ability for individual photographers to have any kind of cultural impact feels diminished and diluted when you consider just how many are working towards the goal of producing meaningful work.

Where individuals are limited in the time they can spend, the ground they can cover, and the final result they can output, a group of individuals is able to multiply that effort. When applying themselves to telling the same story, a group of photographers will find themselves much better equipped to do a deep dive into a subject than someone working alone.

While it may be obvious that many hands make light work, it can be interesting to watch the role of the artist’s ego when collaborating on such an idea. Long-term documentary photography is a huge investment, and the classic agencies that would tackle such projects would rarely allocate more than an individual photographer to one story. Individuals can often want their account to be sacred and presented according to their own vision — not an approach that lends itself to collaborative effort. 

I think this can be seen clearly when looking at compilations of work, compendiums of collected portfolio pieces presented in coffee-table books like Magnum Contact Sheets or The Street is Watching — both absolutely outstanding photobooks that every photographer should spend some time with, but when it comes to the presentation of work it is very much divided into presenting each artist individually, one at a time, with a clear border once that particular piece is closed.

Truly collaborative groups, where no border or boundary exists to differentiate ownership when experiencing the work, are few and far between. Some of the most well known mainstream examples are partnerships between couples — like Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, or Narelle Autio and Trent Parke, who collaborate beyond just combining their images in sequence, but in the written copy and other aspects of presentation.  

Another duo who I think really erase the line between individual and collective effort is Vera Torok and Robert Pap who have a very clear intention behind the way they work as one. In their own words, “In the field we both photograph at the same time, and in the same place. We are two merged element with two cameras, four eyes, one heart, one picture.”

When looking to work like this in a partnership of more than two there are some important hurdles that need to be navigated. To start with our goals have to be mostly aligned, shared, and understood — as these evolve over time, communication throughout is essential. The scope of the project will always extend beyond any of us, but this is an asset when working beyond the ability of an individual.

We can truly work in more than one place at a time and trust that the other members are applying themselves just as hard to their role as we produce our own photographs. No jealousy, just support and feedback, and open, ego-free criticism really helps shape the direction we find ourselves moving in. 

The collective I’m a part of, New Exit Group, finds itself in a healthy place, as our values are shared, and when it comes to being at odds with others we are comfortable enough to hash it out and work towards a compromise, or towards helping others to understand our position. 

Our work complements one another’s, with the shared aesthetic of mostly short lens, black-and-white 35mm-film-based storytelling images. This means that even when I produce a detail shot with a long lens it can coexist alongside a wider scene photographed by one of the others.   

We understand that foisting our perspective onto the final product is not the objective, but rather bringing together the best aspects of what will make that final product absolutely what it needs to be. This requires consensus on more than just whether or not individual images happen to be good, or to fit, but on how the sequence can flow effectively, bringing about an artifact that is larger than the sum of its parts. 

When working on our collaborative projects, the photography aspect itself is almost a given. We all recognize the work put in by ourselves and one another, and are confident that we have brought our A-game images to the curation pool. Curation occurs with the finished product in mind and is not an exercise in putting forward anything other than the holistic story.

We are not attached to our images, but instead allow the story to unfold based on how we weave together all of our work. We even find ourselves advocating more heavily for work made by someone else in the group than our own, as we will see aspects that they did not. 

When we were curating our debut photo project, BARDO: Summer of ‘20, we used over 400 6×4 postcard prints in order to make our curation session as visceral and practical as possible.

It was essential to edit out many genuinely excellent images in service of the story we had committed ourselves to telling. While they may be standout images they simply did not fit the flow of the sequence. Similarly, images we’d overlooked at the start of the session suddenly became valuable, even irreplaceable as gaps emerged between other images, and needed that image to act as “glue” to bond two previously disparate ideas together.

I think that this way of working shows a really powerful way of thinking in photographic storytelling. The co-operative nature of our group is so distinct from any collective which advocates individual work, showcasing portfolios rather than any effort that was actually collaborated on by the group. I can’t think of a better way for grassroots photojournalists to approach documenting their lives and communities than by building up their own documentary co-operative with shared values and working together to achieve their goals.

The potential for reach and impact made by multiple coexisting artists is so much greater than individuals working and advocating individually, and the creative space that can exist between respectful peers is unrivaled by anything offered through social media. 

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on working as a cooperative collective! You can follow us on Instagram or check out our debut zine, BARDO.

About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.