They gathered a group of talented Iraqi photographers and trained them with photographers and editors from major publications like Time and National Geographic, filling in the knowledge gap left behind by more than 30 years of dictatorship. Since then, the agency has done assignments for Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, NPR, Monocle and many others.
Carini and Meyer talked to Columbia Visuals about their vision for Metrography, the challenges of creating unique work and how to achieve personal goals as a photojournalist.
Columbia Visuals: Tell us how Metrography got started.
Sebastian Meyer: The idea behind Metrography was to build up the capacity of Iraqi photographers, because they were really good but had zero training. They had no background, so they were working in a vacuum. The idea was to build up the capacity so we could — we being the rest of the world — get the insider view of Iraq. We had the outsider view, which is important, but we had very little insider view.
Stefano Carini: We worked with several photographers — all Iraqi — who would go and photograph what was happening. Being local, we had greater access. We stayed when everybody else left. The frontlines never tell you the real costs and consequences of war. The frontline is just how war appears, unattractive and dangerous. After doing that, we decided to focus on the human cost.
We’ve been working on a project about the internally displaced people who have entered Kurdistan since the beginning of 2014. The idea was to use the local photographers of the agency — who’d all been refugees themselves — and pair them with international writers from Syria, Italy, UK, America, New Zealand.
Do you feel like what you’re doing here is changing the narrative in terms of what people perceive about Iraq? Why is it important to widen the view?
SC: This is what it is about. People parachuting in — highly professional people, capable — but going here and there to photograph and bringing it back. My vision of Iraq was through foreign photographers only. My idea was to have local photographers become better at taking photos and using their own language to enrich the vision of a place that has been seen only through foreign eyes.
I think that through my experience there over the last year and half, I understand that the best thing that one can possibly do is to mix the two. Because the risk with the superstar photographers that are sent all over the world is, situations are complex and multilayered. If you’re there only for a few days without a very deep knowledge of the place, the language and all of that, you risk simplifying it too much, to bring back only superficial witness testimony.
Are publications coming to you and commissioning stories or do they buy completed stories?
SM: Fifty-fifty. Before the war with ISIS, it was majority assigned work. Editors like it to be their idea, so to be given a story that’s already done, the editor doesn’t have that level of control anymore so it’s less appealing. Until 2014, assigned work was the way that we got work as an agency.
SC: What is interesting is the best stories we produced were the ones that we were never assigned. There is no comparison between what we produced ourselves and sold, and what we were assigned for. What we were assigned was, for us, almost irrelevant. It was good practice for the photographers and it’s good income, that’s the job. But in terms of the stories, what the publication wanted compared to what we were seeing, was like “We’ll do it because it is the job, but you’re missing the point.”
What advice would you give to students who would like to be foreign correspondents and photographers?
SC: Students have expectations and ideals, like those embodied by people like James Nachtwey. That kind of career, that kind of persona will not happen. It’s not sustainable financially, it doesn’t exist anymore. That needs to be spoken out loud. What I find important for students or people who are starting out is to make sure that they understand that it is a very tough business.
My suggestion is always work on your own work and become the best at what you’re doing. If this means that you need to find another way to pay your bills, I strongly suggest that. You’ll have the freedom to follow a story for five years and make whatever you want with it without anybody telling you how, why and when. That is a huge difference in the approach to photography and developing your own language and understanding what is important for you. It’s important to know why you do it and then work towards it.
Of course, try assignments and try to get out there and advertise yourself and use Instagram and social media as much as you can. Remember that you’re learning a language, a language that is developing while you’re learning it, a very new language. It’s important to take the time to do that and it’s not just through a few years in school that you do that.
What are other ways you’ve paid the bills?
SC: I was in Istanbul last year and met some great street photographers. Street photographers make zero. They do commercial photography and they’re pretty fine. I have a friend in Italy — she pays her bills very well with wedding photography and then she does her own projects. Some others — maybe better known — they work mainly with big foundations and grants. That’s not easy at all. You have to really be very talented, lucky and know exactly what you want.
I understand the need to be a working, professional photographer, I respect that. I don’t want to tell people not to do that at all. For me the most important thing is producing great work, as unique as possible. That’s what I aim for, that’s what I feel I can share with other people and to do that you need time.
SM: This is specifically to all you photojournalists out there: Don’t forget that photojournalism is made up of two words. I think way too many photographers think it’s about being in the right place with the camera and that’s it. When I look at young Western photographers who go abroad, there’s a lot of lazy arrogance and they don’t think they need to do the work. They don’t think they need to research, and this is very basic.
Learn how to write — you’re not going to get a grant, write a caption, get a story, you’re not going to be able to pitch if you don’t write. Many photographers think they just need a camera and that’s not right. You need to learn how to write and write well. If you’re going to journalism school, focus on the writing and journalism. How do you sniff out a good story? What is a good story? How do you tell a good story? What’s a character? Learn storytelling techniques.
SC: I agree with that entirely. You have to be a good journalist. It’s much more important. A good piece of journalism goes with mediocre images. The other way around doesn’t work at all for me. Great images that are supposed to be journalism, but there is no journalism behind them, they leave you like, “ok…what is this story?” That is definitely important.
SM: I would also say for the working side, how do you make money? There is part of me that says, “you should be a master of one thing and be amazing at it.” And there’s another part of me that knows being a master of photography means being a master of something that will make you no money.
If you know how to write, you can sell written stories. If you know how to shoot video, you can get hired on video assignments, which are a) more lucrative and b) 10 times more common to get. There’s much more appetite for video. So learn how a video camera works, learn how to edit a video. Ok, maybe you don’t want to do that, you much prefer to be a photographer, but if you know how to do it you can put out a decent package in a couple of days and that will bring in some money.
But echoing what Stefano said, follow what’s passionate to you and do what it takes to pay your bills. There are romantic ideas about being a foreign correspondent but sleeping on a red pleather couch in an office building in a non-descript city in Kurdish Iraq for over a year — I hope that sounded as unromantic as it really was. It’s not romantic.
SC: It is not.
Why do you do this then? What’s great about it?
SM: Metrography is why. Spending six years of my life building up the capacity of Iraqi photographers and expanding the world’s visual understanding of a region at war? There’s no photograph I’ll ever take in my life, no story I’ll ever publish, no book I’ll ever make, no exhibition I’ll ever have that will have that impact.
SC: Similar for me. The “why” is I want to be part of a new way of looking at the world, or news or issues or images. I don’t mean extraordinarily new, I mean not repetitive. I don’t want to repeat.
I know that without me certain stories would not be out. For me that is a good reason to do it. I know the project we are about to launch would not exist, nobody else would have done it. For me, knowing that is a possibility to do these kind of things, that’s a good reason.
SM: The nice thing about journalism is that if you’re good and you’re ethical and you’re talented, but driven more than anything else, you can do it.
Columbia Visuals is a resource for visual journalists that explores and celebrates the creative and practical aspects of making visual journalism. It is a project of the Digital Media department at Columbia University's Journalism School.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Ferran Jordà.