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.

Jason Pagan

Jason Pagan is the president of 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 71 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 with Black Star's 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…).” 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, let's say, technology, economy, religion, and culture, and even then the coverage would have to be much more specific: medicine equals small herbal remedy store and large modern pharmaceutical company; economy equals street vendors and multinational CEOs; culture equals 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 assignments. 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: What kind of shortcomings are you finding in the training of some photographers? What are you recommending to younger or emerging photographers whose skills are not up to the level you want?

Jason: I should start off by saying that there is no photographer so great [that they cannot] benefit from having their work critically reviewed periodically. That said, as part of the Anarchy Images standard contract, photographers may be required to take courses provided by Anarchy Images to remain affiliated with us. By including this clause in our contract, we are not only able to maintain very high standards but to constantly improve. In most cases an Anarchy Images photographer will be teaching the course to his or her peers. These courses can range from “Laying out an Essay” to “Working with Multimedia” to “Finding a Fixer.” Some reasons for this requirement are to keep up with changing trends and technology.

As far as shortcomings I have been finding with photographers—and what a photographer can do about it—with the advent of digital photography many formerly required skills have been “lost”—or at least become rusty. This is in no way a tirade against digital photography, it’s simply an observation. One of the problems I have been finding is the lack of some intermediate and advanced skills. These skills include editing images, arranging images, waiting for the shot, consistency. I would consider basic skills your technical and camera operation (though there are different levels of these). At minimum a photographer needs to know how to get a sharp photo in most standard situations to fulfill “basic skills.” Much of what I am going to mention here I addressed in the internships I managed at Black Star.


1. Basic technical skills. Take courses, read books. Learn every aspect of your camera, every button, every light, everything! Then shoot! shoot! shoot! And don’t stop until you can recreate any shot you want or least have a very good idea how.

2. Framing shots / waiting for a shot. Now is the time to stop shooting. Study photography books, I mean really study. Was the photographer kneeling? Sitting? Or face down in the mud when a certain shot was taken? What is the quality of light, angle? Now shoot incredibly sparingly. Limit yourself to one to three rolls (or their equivalent per self assignment), no more. When these are shot, no more! Even if you are only half done. Go home and review what you have shot. Did you miss anything because you had to go home? Good! Next time you will be more conscious of how much you are shooting. Try doing the same shots over from different angles: kneeling, standing, lying down, hell, standing on your head if you have to! Understand what effects these changes have on your images. During this whole process, no cropping, no altering, use only one format.

Too many photographers want to shoot in multiple formats before having mastered a single format. My response to this is usually, “So you want to suck in multiple formats now?” Inevitably, there is the “but so-and-so does it,” and of course the referred to photographer has usually been shooting for 40 years. My advice to young photographers is to master one thing at a time.

3. Editing. I have known many great photographers that were lousy editors. It’s a separate skill set. The biggest problem I find is “JGL Syndrome.” This is when photographers describe the importance of an image in terms of the larger social impact of the issue, or their personal emotions or how they had “Just Got Laid” and were really happy when they took the photo. Images should primarily be included in a selection for what was captured in the frame.

4. Arranging images. Images must flow together to expand on the story or event—not to showcase a photographer’s pretty pictures unless it is a portfolio group of singles. There are opening, detail, transitional, portrait, situational and closing shots. Learn how to use them and organize them.

The next two problems are my own personal pet peeves: consistency and horizontals. I will explain. Within the context of a single story or essay avoid mixing formats: black and white with color, digital with film, 6x6 with 35MM or panoramic. This can be very visually jarring and distracting from the content from the images, which should be the primary focus. Yes, lots of photographers mix formats, but incredibly few of them do it well. Images can be inconsistent even when shot in a single format. A story or essay should have a natural flow, not jump back and forth between random situations and tonal levels (see Problem No. 1). My other major pet peeve is “horizontals.” Yes, I said “horizontals”—rather, any full story or essay that is all horizontals. This is a pretty sure sign that the photographer that shot the story is either a hack or lazy. Yes, I said it! Common excuses:

* “I didn’t have any verticals I liked.” Then you did not shoot enough.

* “My slide show is not set up for verticals.” Then change your slide show.
* “Someone can just crop it.” You lazy bastard!

Art directors and photo editors need verticals for layout purposes. It shouldn’t be their job to correct something by cropping when you should have framed the shot in your viewfinder. In addition, whether hanging on a wall, in an exhibit, in the pages of a publication, or even a web slide show, verticals provide a simple visual cue to pause by breaking up the linear progression of images. Simple test: place 20 horizontal images in a slideshow and place 16 horizontal images and four vertical images spaced roughly evenly throughout in a different slideshow. Notice how much more easily it is to zoom through the 20 horizontals.

While these were not the only problems I ran into, I would say these were the biggest I have run into and the most common in terms of photographers having multiple of these problems and not having a clue that these were even problems.

Then, of course, there are a few schmucks that talk about “vision” and “style” without any concept of what these are. In response to a photographer only shooting 18MM: “18MM is a lens not a style!” And “Vision” is much more then a loose concept, it is complete, it is done before the first shot is taken.

It may seem I am being overly harsh, and perhaps I am, but someone should be. I would like to add that working with the photographers is the greatest joy in what I have chosen to do, and when photographers take the time and effort to show the work they have labored so hard to create, I feel a responsibility to provide feedback that is constructive and useful. Too often, just giving out praise without critical observations can be more detrimental than the harshest criticism. When a portfolio is submitted to me I feel I owe the photographer the respect of real feedback, which many times can slow the portfolio review process. Anyone submitting a portfolio to me should expect real feedback, and if they can’t accept it they shouldn’t submit.

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.