Jason Pagan Interview

Jason Pagan is the president of the newly-launched photo agency Anarchy Images. Prior to launching Anarchy, he was the former Special Projects Director for Black Star. He has also worked at the Bettmann Archive and Corbis during his 13-year photography publishing career. Jason says he pictures Anarchy as a place “where in depth journalism is nurtured and encouraged, and where the next generation of great photographers will be created.” He is a graduate of the criminal justice program at John Jay College.

Wayne: How did you go from studying Deviant Behavior and Social Control to work in photography?

Jason: Some might argue it’s not that much of a leap. For my own part, while studying at John Jay College there was a severe illness in my family. My parents and sisters moved and I decided to stay in New York to continue my studies. Since I no longer had this family support structure to rely on, I needed a way to pay living expenses and continue college. A friend I had met at John Jay worked at the Bettmann Archive and told me that they had an opening in their Production Department (read as “Mail Room”).

My time at The Bettmann Archive rekindled a fascination I had with photography since I was a child. Though this wouldn’t be realized or even completely understood until I arrived at Black Star. At Bettmann I became intimately familiar with each of the seventy-one Black and White collections. From the 11×14 glass negatives to the later UPI color images, I studied them all. By the time Corbis purchased The Bettmann Archive I had abandoned any thoughts of behavior studies for photography. I didn’t yet know where I was meant to be until I arrived at Black Star.

When I was very young, one day my father arrived home with a box of old National Geographics that someone had given him or thrown out. In those pages I was transported from our small East New York apartment to places I hadn’t known existed. At Black Star I found many of the old Kodachromes that once adorned the pages of my old National Geographics and all of the walls of my childhood room. It was at Black Star that I truly realized that I was meant to work in photography. Even then it took a lot of prodding from photographers to get me to take the leap on my own.

Wayne: What did you learn about the photojournalism market from your time at Black Star?

Jason: I learned about pricing, sales, contract negotiating. I learned it’s not smart to piss off Benjamin Chapnick. But probably most importantly I learned that the more things change the more they stay the same. Quality should always be the deciding factor on acceptance of an image or a photographer. For a small agency to be successful it must be clearly defined and recognized. Not only must the clients believe in the agency but the photographers and employees must believe in it as well.

Wayne: Can you talk about how you became involved in the internship program?

Jason: I guess my interest in the Internships came from speaking with Black Star photographers and listening to their stories of the late Howard Chapnick and how he had worked with them. I hoped that, in some small way, I could use what I had learned to help these young photographers develop. I had no pretense or assumption that I could possibly do anywhere near as well as Howard Chapnick, but I could do my best.

There had always been an internship program at Black Star I just changed the focus. Portfolio reviews were mandatory; so were story submissions and completion of stories by the time the internship was over. Interns would work three days a week for three months and would shoot their stories the rest of the time. I would do my best to work with the interns on the days they came in to review their images and suggest ways of improving. That’s not to say there wasn’t lots of grunt work but I like to think the interns really were able to get something out of their internships instead of just a resume bullet point.

Wayne: What thoughts do you have on what the emerging photographer should know about “professionalism” and becoming a professional?

Jason: “Professionalism” isn’t just dressing up or speaking in the proper tone. Professionalism is being able to deliver what you say you can, being able to accept responsibility without excuses when you can’t, and realizing that there are times that the client wants what they want, how they want it.

On more then one occasion I have had interns come in and boldly state “I am a photojournalist and I am never going to do… (Insert type of photography here….. Celebrity, travel, spot news etc…)” Professionalism is knowing that sometimes you have to do whatever you can to do the things that are important to you.

Wayne: How do you define narrative photography?

Jason: Thank Goodness you asked this question; there seems to have been so much confusion over my press release statement. All good photojournalism is narrative to some degree. When I say Narrative or rather Narrative voice I mean it in the most literal sense. Narrative photography is defined, for me, as usually a linear progression of images that tell a story. The best examples of this would be the early work of W. Eugene Smith (see Country Doctor and Nurse Midwife). The “simplified” version of this is the Day-in-the-life. Following an individual or small group and following their lives during the course of a day. This is usually presented in a chronological sequence. In a wider sense, a narrative would be taking a small group of individuals within a set of related circumstances and covering their lives over an extended period of time. A larger project using this format would require establishing shots, transition shots, and tertiary shots that place the narrative images into a greater dynamic.

This is not to be confused with the magazine feature photography, which is normally a photographer shooting individual aspects of a much larger subject. An example would be someone shooting “China Today” there would be almost no way to produce an in-depth narrative on the subject unless you were shooting over several decades. In this case a “feature” approach would be required. Covering aspects of modern china as lets say, Technology, economy, religion, and culture and even then the coverage would have to be much more specific …i.e. Medicine=Small herbal remedy store and Large modern pharmaceutical company, Economy=Street Vendors and multinational CEOs, Culture= rural farming and modern bustling city and night life. I used compare and contrast examples but I think you get the picture.

Wayne: Which photographers of the past have been its best practitioners?

Jason: As far as literal narrative, I would say W. Eugene Smith was one of the great practitioners. “Country Doctor”, “Nurse Midwife”, and “Minimata” are some of the best examples I would also have to say Joseph Rodriguez. “East Side Stories”, “Juvenile”, and “Flesh Life” are the stories of individuals and families placed in a wider context. To varying degrees, I would also include Donna Ferrato’s “Living with the Enemy”, Susan Meiselas’ “Carnival Strippers” and Eugene Richards’ “Cocaine True Cocaine Blue”.

What is interesting to me is that, through Smith’s work you can draw almost a straight line from his early work, through “Minimata”, into the above mentioned works as an evolution of the photo essay within a narrative context.

Wayne: Why did you see the need for a photo agency to refocus on narrative photography?

Jason: Anarchy Images isn’t just focusing on narrative photography. Though this is an area of my own specific interest, Anarchy Images focuses on photography of greater depth whether several days, months or even decades. There is so much more to the lives of people then can be revealed in an afternoon; more to their emotion, more to their humanity, and more to their existence. The need for this type of agency comes from the editor that is not satisfied with a few hours coverage, or perhaps the editor that has only a few hours but needs a photographer that knows how to make the best of that time. The need comes from the photographer who needs someone to believe in their work. Perhaps most of all the need comes from me, as something I have to do. Only time will tell what the true “need” really is, but I’m willing to wait and see.

Wayne: What kind of market do you see for it, and who are the logical buyers and consumers?

Jason: While documentary and In-depth photography are the focus of Anarchy Images, we have no intention of ignoring traditional outlets like editorial, corporate and advertising assignment. We are including collector’s prints alongside of decorative prints. We are seeking to work with NGOs as well as corporations to produce images of lasting significance. The interest in Anarchy Images has been extreme. We are even in talks for foreign distribution in a half dozen European countries.

Wayne: In your call for submissions for Anarchy, you request images from long-term projects. How similar or different are your ideas here to Eugene Smith’s thoughts on the importance of immersion in the subject?

Jason: That’s a tricky question. Immersion in a project is great when you have the ability and resources to carry you through. Personally, I feel the most important type of immersion required for a project is the mental kind. A fixation, obsession if you will, is required with the subject, the images, and the need for the project. Physical and logistical immersion is wonderful when you have it, but mental immersion will see you through even if you have to go back time-and-time again to get the story told. I would also place a huge emphasis on preparation. If a photographer is not well researched and prepared with a thorough concept and vision in place, no degree of immersion will help them.

Wayne: You clearly want photography that stands best in a series, but how important is it that a photograph stand alone in its power over the viewer?

Jason: The quality of the individual image need not be sacrificed in the essay. While the single image may be the test of quality for the photograph, the essay is a test of quality for the photographer.

Now would I turn down a modern day Weegee should he or she appear to me? Of course not, but there are so terribly few Weegees in the world today.

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2 responses to “Jason Pagan Interview

  1. Pingback: Through the Looking Glass: Photographer Interviews « Eight Diagrams

  2. Pingback: Through the Looking Glass: Photographer Interviews « Eight Diagrams

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