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Magnum signs five new photographers after its lack of diversity comes under attack

As the photographic agency shows signs of moving towards greater inclusion, affirmative action is a hot topic at the annual general meeting

New Magnum member Khalik Allah’s 25th Street and Lexington Avenue; Harlem NYC; August 2018 (2018) © Khalik Allah

Magnum Photos has announced five new members to its roster, including three Americans of colour, as well as the agency’s first female president. The news comes after the photography collective—considered the world’s standard-bearing agency—endured sustained criticism from voices throughout the photography world for a perceived lack of diversity among its membership in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protests.

Olivia Arthur, the British documentary photographer, hailed the collective’s recent “growth and change” as she was appointed president at Magnum’s 2020 annual general meeting. Sohrab Hura, meanwhile, was announced as Magnum’s first Indian full voting member. The outgoing president Thomas Dworzak hailed the increasing diversity of the agency’s membership as the key to “what builds the future”.

Caitlin Hughes, Magnum’s chief executive officer appointed in October 2019, placed furthering agency and membership diversity at the top of the agenda. The issue dominated conversations throughout the four-day meeting, which was conducted online for the first time as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

“The last few months have been an important moment for Magnum,” Hughes says. “We’ve reflected on the question of diversity and what that means in terms of our unrelenting search for talent. We’ve asked ourselves whether we’re looking broadly enough, whether we have a broad enough gaze to recognise talent when we see it. Magnum has a fantastic reputation with roots in a certain tradition, and we’re very proud of that. But in a globalised world where everyone is able to take photographs, we recognise there is no longer an absolute authority on what quality means. We’re open and vulnerable to that in a way that will progress the collective so it’s a truly diverse collection of talented voices.”

But Chris Steele-Perkins, the British-Burmese photographer and Magnum’s first British member of colour, also raised concerns that Magnum’s new drive to include different perspectives and backgrounds might run the risk of being tokenistic—with debates around affirmative action taking place repeatedly over the course of the AGM between 24-28 June.

Why has it been so hard for the agency to fully welcome new voices in? It's because the old guard have struggled to give up power Mark Sealy, director, Autograph ABP

“The difficulty arises because you don’t want to do a box-ticking exercise,” Steele-Perkins says. “You want people to come into Magnum on the same terms you’ve applied historically, but from a wider variety of backgrounds. The Black Lives Matter agenda has affected everyone, and it’s turbo-charged our thinking this time round. But positive discrimination could come back and bite you. If you get tied into an agenda, what happens to the people who don’t deliver if it appears you’ve given them a hand up?” The influential curator Mark Sealy, the director of Autograph ABP, also called on Magnum to publish a “strategic action plan” on its pledges to open the agency up to new perspectives. “They need to come out with a strategic plan that includes measurable achievements and that properly address the things they want to change,” Sealy tells The Art Newspaper. “Until then, it’s just rhetoric.”

Colby Deal, Image 32. August 31, 2017 © Colby Deal

Magnum’s identity as a collective, in which each voting member has equal say in a non-hierarchical system, combined with a strenuous four-year application process, has, members say in private, conspired to stop the agency from making the progressive steps it might otherwise have made.

Magnum was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour, and was designed as a co-operative business agency owned equally by its members. It now has offices in London, Paris, New York and Tokyo, and represents many of the world’s most revered documentary photographers.

“The hardcore membership has got a vested interest in the agency remaining as it is, because, in doing so, it will continue to serve them,” Sealy says. “Why has it been so difficult for the agency to fully welcome new voices in? It’s because the old guard have struggled to give up power. The more inclusive voices gain power, the less opportunity they will have for themselves.”

Magnum’s new 2020 members are Khalik Allah, a New York-based photographer documenting street-based multiculturalism; Hannah Price, a photographer from Fort Collins, Colorado, whose work is primarily interested in documenting race politics; Sabiha Çimen, an Istanbul-based self-taught photographer with an emphasis on Islamic culture; Colby Deal, a photographic artist who uses photography to explore his life as a young black man from Houston, Texas; and Yael Martinez, whose work focuses on “fractured communities” in his native Mexico.