A few weeks ago, Stephen Mayes – CEO of the VII agency in Dumbo, Brooklyn – announced that he would resign form VII on May 30th 2013, following his “need to pursue new creative projects that will combine (his) experience and passion in many different parts of the photographic world”.
Stephen was kind enough to invite me for tea in springy Brooklyn for a delightful conversation.
“It was all about growth,” says Stephen Mayes about the five years he spent at VII; Growth of the agency and the photographers but also in a very personal way he adds. When he came to VII, he was cynical about photographers wanting to change the world. But through the years, photographer Ron Haviv taught him that “you can change the world if only one life at a time”. Stephen says that when he fully understood what that meant, it completely changed his perspective; he realized “how much good you can do if your ambition is appropriate”. He then engaged VII towards projects that could have practical effects and help solve problems in real life. He mentions the Starved For Attention project (starvedforattention.org), a fantastic and effective collaboration of VII, and MSF/Doctors Without Borders to talk about the complexity of malnutrition and help draw the attention of the biggest donors on the planet of the quality of the food they give.
On another level, Stephen also mentions personal projects by VII photographers including “Bedroom of the Fallen”, beautiful photographs of bedrooms of soldiers who didn’t survive the Afghanistan war by photographer Ashley Gilbertson – “a powerful and elegant way of visualizing something that is not visible”.
Stephen is a strong believer in Susan Sontag’s position that a photograph can change things if it is co-opted by an active movement. Unlike more pessimistic professionals, he sees the changes in technology as an amazing opportunity to go towards a better communication between the person who shoots a picture at one precise moment in a given situation and the person who sees that image at another moment and in a different situation. He is thrilled by the idea that with the evolution of new technologies, the photographer could position himself not only as a witness but also as a mediator to help the viewer understand and therefore give him a better possibility to act.
This is the message that he would like to leave when he steps out of VII on May 30th.
When I asked about regrets, Stephen shares this bitter sweet memory: “In 2010 Tim Hetherington put his head round the door, gave me his big smile, pulled me outside and said: ‘Steve I need to talk to you, we need to work together’. And I said: ‘Yes we will but not now because I am busy with VII and I am doing something very interesting’. And of course less than a year later, he was dead.” Stephen pauses and adds: “In a sad way, I will fulfill my promise to work with Tim since my new mission is to be the Executive Director of the Tim Hetherington Trust.”
He then shares his intention of organizing a major retrospective of Tim’s work, but also of reconnecting the network of amazing people that Tim worked with and engage them in encouraging, supporting and facilitating new work. He wants to imagine, build and create a new vision for the future inspired by Tim’s vision and incredible energy.
Stephen also has plans to develop a different professional media related project and keep what he calls a ‘blank space” to allow for new ideas and unexpected opportunities.
3 weeks before his last day at VII, Stephen is conscious that the agency needs new energy and he needs a new landscape. He admits being emotionally exhausted after 5 years of a challenging business and human experience. He says if he could do one more thing for this group of 23 photographers, he would like to help them go towards a completely new sustainable and expandable line of business implying new technologies.
On June 1st, Nick Papadopoulos – director of VII International – will step in to manage the company following the annual meeting when all photographers meet to discuss and decide with Stephen where they want to go next.
Many thanks Stephen for this cup of tea that was certainly the best one I ever had. And good luck to you!
Stéphanie de Rougé