Kōan Collective: Why Do Photojournalists Team Up?

A month ago five photojournalists founded the Kōan Collective. One of it's members, Nicolas Tanner, explained to us the benefits of such collaborations.

Collectives first appeared on the scene as an independent form of organization not too long ago. One of the first was the Metro Collective, founded in 2004. Unlike photo agencies, such groups are formed not as intermediaries, rather for collaboration with specific projects – specifically, editing material with the aim of promoting it around the world. Among the most renowned teams are Prime Collective (Brendan Hoffman, Dominic Bracco II and Melanie Burford), LUCEO (Matt Slaby, Kendrick Brinson and Kevin German) and MJR (Matthew Craig, Julius Metoyer and Gareth Phillips).

In September 2014 another group Kōan Collective appeared on the scene. It united five independent photojournalists from different countries: Alex Potter from Yemen, Allison Joyce from Bangladesh, Amanda Mustard from Egypt, Cooper Neill and Nicholas Tanner from the U.S. Bird In Flight asked Nicolas Tanner about how his group works.

Nicolas Tanner, 31 years old

A photographer from Manchester, Massachusetts. Studied photojournalism at the University of Ohio and since 2013 has worked for Associated Press. For two years lived in a small village in the Tian Siang mountains in China. Nicolas is the holder of a scholarship from the Magnum Foundation project, his works have been published in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Time’s “Lightbox” and The Wall Street Journal. He is fluent in five languages, including Kyrghyz and Russian.

How did you meet and why did you decide to work together?

I met Alex in 2011 at a master class of Ron Haviv, co-founder of the VII Photo Agency, and a sometime later met Kuper and Amanda at a master class conducted by Andy Adams. Kuper was the brainchild of the Kōan Collective. He contacted me in the spring of 2014 and we began thinking about people doing similarly motivated work, and who were located around the globe in distinct areas.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/koan_01.jpg”, “alt”: “Alex Potter 01”, “text”: ” Photo by Alex Potter, Rise of the Houtins series. A Yemeni tribesman keeps watch from the top of a mountain during a Houthi gathering for Mawlid al Naby – birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, January 24, 2013 in Heziez, Yemen.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/koan_02.jpg”, “alt”: “Alex Potter 02”, “text”: “Photo by Alex Potter, Rise of the Houtins series. A young girl visit the martyrs cemetery in Marran, Saada, March 27, 2014.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/koan_03.jpg”, “alt”: “Amanda Mustard 01”, “text”: “Photo by Amanda Mustard, Revolution Lost: Egypt series, 2012.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/koan_04.jpg”, “alt”: “Amanda Mustard 02”, “text”: “Photo by Amanda Mustard, Revolution Lost: Egypt series, 2012.”}

According do the description on your website, Kōan Collective is the “collaboration of five young journalists.” What does that mean?

First of all, it means combining our efforts for the creation of works by the Kōan Collective. Secondly, it is one of the main principles of our work, – to share skills, experience and resources in order to achieve our ultimate goal. Our main task is to work as a team on each of our individual projects. We discuss and criticize all photos. This was the main objective of devising the concept of the Kōan Collective.

The term kōan comes from the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. It signifies a question or a short anecdote that is designed to spark an epiphany or the new way of seeing and understanding in the listener. This does not mean that we are all great specialists on the topic of Zen Buddhism, but we want our photos to create such an impression.

How do you arrange your work? Who else works in the Kōan Collective besides the five of you?

We don’t have the administrative staff. Today there is no set policy on how do we divide responsibilities and luckily there have been zero issues with all of us stepping up to get tasks done as they relate to start-up or administration type work. Editors that want to order a shooting session by one of the members of the team or a project contact them directly. After that we jointly discuss the ideas we are interested in – from rates offered (or lack thereof) to safety and security issues. The Kōan Collective doesn’t have any leaders – not formal nor informal. We all work together for one another.

Who are your clients? What work do they order from you?

Among our clients are Getty Images, Huffington Post, NBC, The Guardian, Vice, AP, The Washington Post and other renowned media. We do everything – from daily shooting for internet news sites to magazine assignments and long-term projects. So far we have not formed our policy regarding orders that we will accept or not accept. I believe this is normal taking into account the borderline state of the news industry. We shoot all possible scenes.

Allison Joyce is currently in Bangladesh working on a project about spiritually sick people and the hardships that they and their families face. Amanda Mustard is preparing a subject on pigeon handlers in Cairo and Alex Potter just recently published his photos from Tripoli and Libya, which we edited together. Cooper Neill is working on a project on the fear of the Ebola virus in Texas and I am studying the connection between masculinity and violence in America.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/koan_05.jpg”, “alt”: “Allison Joyce 01”, “text”: “Photo by Allison Joyce, Life and Death in the Sundarbans series, 2011. A woman rows through a dense canal to fish in the Sundarbans forest. “},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/koan_06.jpg”, “alt”: “Allison Joyce 02”, “text”: “Photo by Allison Joyce, Life and Death in the Sundarbans series, 2011. Khalil Gazi (left) and his relatives collect crabs in the jungle just 10 months after his wife Nasima was killed by a tiger. “},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/koan_07.jpg”, “alt”: “Nicolas Tanner 01”, “text”: “Photo by Nicolas Tanner. Lebanon, 2014.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/koan_08.jpg”, “alt”: “Nicolas Tanner 02”, “text”: “Photo by Nicolas Tanner, The Walking Giant: Brazil series, 2013.”}

The Kōan Collective is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. What do you expect from social networks?

The process of how to use social media has always been a more intuitive process where we relied on our inherent knowledge of experience with those platforms. I’m sure that some SMM guru would probably find a hundred ways to increase the effectiveness of our presence on the Internet, but this is totally not what we are aspiring towards. We are not seeking worldwide fame. For us it is much more important to build up our image and authority in professional circles among editors, producers and industry leaders. We are currently moving in this direction.

Are certain financial investments required to organize a creative collective?

We never charged any admission or membership fees and nobody received any royalties for the projects that we created together. This does not mean that the launch of the Kōan Collective did not cost us anything – each of us contributed our efforts and time, which clearly cost money. The Kōan Collective is not a traditional agency, though we have thought about such prospects.

The term kōan comes from the philosophy of Zen Buddhism and signifies a question or a short anecdote that is designed to spark an epiphany or the new way of seeing and understanding in the listener.

It is difficult for me to predict what our main sources of income will be as we have so far not even calculated how much money we can earn on commissions. Even though none of us is swimming in a pool filled with gold in the morning like Scrooge McDuck, we all have something to offer to one another and the market – that is experience, practical skills and professional contacts. We teamed up because we understood that together we can achieve much more.

Now we are thinking about launching a Kickstarter campaign and holding master classes on photography and design. But everything in due time.

All of you live in different countries – the U.S., Egypt, Bangladesh and Yemen. How do you communicate working remotely?

Mainly through group chat sessions in social networks. We also use programs that allow us to edit photos and discuss them collectively. We don’t hold daily meetings and we don’t have strict rules in communicating with one another. This is what I like very much.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/rodeo1.jpg”, “alt”: “Cooper Neill 01”, “text”: “Photo by Cooper Neill, Angola Prison Rodeo series, 2014.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/koan_10.jpg”, “alt”: “Cooper Neill 02”, “text”: “Photo by Cooper Neill, Chasing the Title: Johny Hendricks series. Johny Hendricks goes through the Team Takedown circuit workout at Kennedale High School in Kennedale, Texas on March 5, 2014. “}

Did you take into account the experience of other collectives when you formed the Kōan Collective?

I don’t think we took an example from anyone specific. We studied how other collectives of photographers work – both renowned photographers and total neophytes – and sought those that would best suit us.

What professional goals does your team set for itself?

The most important thing for us is to effectively use common resources in order to maximize the potential of each member of our team. We want to be effective storytellers, which entails the highest quality of work and the ability to show it to the entire world.

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