Prime Collective is a journalistic organisation made up of six award-winning photographers from around the world: Dominic Bracco II, Melanie Burford, Brendan Hoffman, Pete Muller, Lance Rosenfield, and Max Whittaker. Between them they have had their work published throughout almost every major news channel worldwide, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Time magazine.
Each member is based in a different part of the world, working out of some of the fiercest hotspots on the globe, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Honduras, and Mexico – out in combat zones taking risks every day of their lives. We sat down with Prime’s Peter Muller, TIME Magazine’s Wire Photographer of the Year, and Dominic Bracco II, recipient of the Pulitzer Centre grant, to find out what motivates them and why obtaining these images is really an effort towards making sense of our complex world.
I think it’s wonderful work that you all do, and a very authentic goal you have set yourselves. Maybe one of you can tell us how Prime Collective came into being, what was the genesis of it all?
DOMINIC BRACCO II: It actually started around a time in our careers when we were trying to get connected with photo agencies – agencies were really quite important in the photo industry – because that was the way that you got work and got seen. You had to have a representative agent to connect you with publishers or newspapers or magazines. This was really more of a thing before the internet; a photographer would work directly with an agent, who was probably based in London or New York or Paris, and then that agent would be the one who sold the work and connected the work with art buyers.
Then things started to change; the industry went through this huge shift after digital, etc. I’m the youngest member of Prime, I was 22-23 when I came in the industry, coming into the photo business at this time when everybody is saying photo journalism is dead and there’s nothing left for you to do and the agencies aren’t selling stock like they use to and the newspapers aren’t buying, it was also the time when all these publications were cutting staff like crazy and basically killing all their foreign bureaus.
I think that, in a lot of ways, put us ahead of other folks. I was working in Washington, DC, I had done an internship with Washington Post and after I finished that I was freelancing in the city, where I came to know Brendan Hoffman, who’s also a member of Prime, and Max Whittaker – who was actually my mentor – happened to be part of an agency that was made up of Brendan and him and a bunch of other really great photographers. The three of us just started to email and talk to each other about stuff. There was no support group to teach us simple things, like how do you negotiate a contract, or how do I licence this picture when I don’t have a representative or someone who’s taking care of that?
It was also at a time when collectives were just emerging; we were by far not the first collective that arose from that time period, there was another one called Razon and one called Luceo – a lot of them fell apart quickly. There was this festival in Charlottesville, LOOK3, where me and Brendan were hanging, and I was thinking: we spend all this time and energy trying to push our work into the market and nobody’s paying attention to us at all, nobody’s looking at the work. We’re young photographers, how are we going to get in front of the people that we need to?
It started with us just joking around, saying “let’s make a little clique”, like a ‘photo gang’ where we share ideas and collaborate. It just started out with me and Max and then it grew. It took a good steady year for Prime to really get off the ground, it was a lot of planning, organisation and stuff. What’s interesting is that we’ve done a really good job of getting ourselves out there, it worked instantly – I was in New York when Prime launched, I had sent out tons of emails and I couldn’t get a single meeting, when Prime launched, within a day, I got an email from the director of photography for The New York Times magazine asking to meet with me, which was really incredible. It was working right away, and it was such a simple idea; six photographers can get attention that one photographer can’t get, it’s a lot easier as a group to draw in attention by collaborating with each other, sharing contacts, etc.
The freelancers’ world is highly competitive – I think now it’s changing. Before, a lot of freelancers would guard their contacts and sit on them, but, we just threw all of our stuff together, we went from having a few contacts each to all of a sudden having sixty or a hundred. We would represent each other; if they like working with you, they’d like working the other folks. So, that was our first goal and mission.
Your mission statement says, “we believe that we can produce narratives that shine a light on the human condition. We may further human understanding, though it is just as likely that the stories we produce will serve only to highlight the complexities of mankind.” It’s a very honest ethos. Do you still feel the same way, so idealistic, after all these years of doing this work?
PETE MULLER: I think I oscillate quite a bit between maintaining a high degree of idealism in terms of what we might be able to do, from the stand-point of photographers as activists, and feeling that the issues that we deal with are incredibly complex and, ultimately, what is our role in this? We’re highlighting things, we’re making sure people are paying attention to things, hopefully we’re positing something that looks, not necessarily like a concrete solution, but something possible to be done about these complex issues. I’m just deeply interested in the issues. I have my beliefs about the way things could or should be resolved in certain instances, but, fundamentally, I’m interested in the complexities of the issues and exploring them. That’s what resonates with me and keeps me pushing forward with my work, and what I think keeps most of the members pushing forward – not that we could solve the issues, but that we could create some type of constructive dialogue about them through photography.
DOMINIC BRACCO II: This is something that I think I was struggling with a lot last year; we all come into this field with the perspective of carrying this tradition of photo journalism from the Vietnam era, where they had really strong social change, but we’re living in a different world now; photography is a powerful tool but we’re bombarded by images all the time. I don’t buy this idea that a documentary photographer is a total fly-on-the-wall thing – we have strict ethics, like we try not to meddle in scenes and we’re not posing anything unless it’s intended to be posed – we’re conscious that when we’re there we change circumstances.
In my work involving young people, I find myself often filling this role model or example role where I… I dunno, I find myself around these kids who are at these very delicate points in their lives where they’re teetering on the edge between self-destruction and doing something good with their lives. Just having a photographer there who has an interest in their lives, in a part of the world that doesn’t necessarily get much attention, who’s from the U.S, come and visit them, is really strong in and of itself. I was interviewing this kid, we spent 5 days or more with him in Juarez, Mexico, a couple weeks ago, and I knew the guy for a long time – he was a gang banger and all of the above. You’re always conscious of using someone’s time and sometimes I get a little insecure about it and feel a little bit bad, because we’re doing these really intense, long interviews. I said to him, “Hey, if you need a break, let me know.” And he said, “No, man, it’s not like everyday that somebody comes along and cares about what I have to say.” I needed to hear that, because it’s a reminder. The distribution and the end product is really important, but it’s also important when you’re in the field as a photographer or whatever you’re doing.
Peter, you said that you don’t want to sit on the sidelines and you’re not an objective person. We interviewed the anthropologist Wade Davis recently and we asked him the same question – do you feel like your work exoticises the subjects?
PETE MULLER: I think there’s a huge difference between straight-up news coverage and more in-depth documentaries, sometimes anthropological approaches to photography. I think that the news industry is predicated on providing people with what it believes to be the most relevant, pertinent, timely, information about something – there’s not necessarily a lot of time to really flesh-out the inherent complexity in anything. Something that binds us together in Prime is that we all believe in the incredible complexity of all of these various experiences; not just wars and conflict and things that captivate attention, but ordinary life is usually incredibly complex with a lot of layers. The news business is not necessarily there to provide that to people. While all of us contribute proudly to the news media – a number of different newspapers – and it’s something I truly believe in, it’s fundamentally not the same as these larger, fleshed-out photographic projects. Dom has been working in northern Mexico for almost 5 years now, I worked in South Sudan for 3 years putting together a historical, somewhat ethnographic, history of what was transpiring around the time that South Sudan seceded from the Republic of Sudan. These are things that I think take a much different approach; to work on photography and understanding, working on things over a much longer period of time, which often are not published in the premier news outlets, but are published as books, exhibitions, monographs, these kinds of things.
"Pete has been in a lot of conflict, where guys are shooting bullets and bombs at him."
Dominic Bracco II
DOMINIC BRACCO II: What’s interesting about photo journalism as a tool in general, is that it’s a lot like really good literature; it can be really nuanced. I remember an exhibition I had in Texas about some work here in Mexico, and there was a photo of these men in prison. When I took the picture I was a little bit intimidated by the whole day, there was this whole series of crazy events and I nervously took this picture of these guys and it has a completely different context for me, but, this woman got really upset and was about to cry. She came to me and said this picture was really bothering her; she was thinking about these men and how their families are all outside of this prison and going through this hell and they can’t be there with them – I had never thought about that. I think that’s a really cool and powerful aspect of photography, it can be interpreted and used in many different ways.
Has there ever been a time in your work, Pete or Dominic, where you’ve genuinely feared for your life?
PETE AND DOMINIC: Yeah… Haha.
DOMINIC BRACCO II: This is a recent one, so it’s the most fresh in my mind: I was filming this guy who I know and we were going up the side of this mountain, we went really early, it was like 5am – the whole day was really off; we’re walking around the neighbourhood and there was drunk guys messing with us, it was fine, but it was throwing off the vibe – the kid I was filming was a little bit hungover and seemed a bit nervous, but he was this dancer and he wanted to show me this place that he goes to dance at sunrise.
I was thinking it would be really cool because it’s overlooking the city. It’s this weird area of the neighbourhood, so we’re walking up this mountain and we get to the other side of this house, so I start filming and I see a couple of guys coming from round the corner, and by this point they’re already on top of us, there’s nothing you can do about it, you can’t get away or whatever.
They were masked guys who were gang members, they had a .38 pistol, they stop us and ask us, “What are you doing?” My natural reaction, and it’s often a safe one, is I act like I’m bored. You just kind of… You’d think you’d freak out, but naturally I do something different, I freak out an hour later, but in the moment it’s like, “Okay, this is happening”. So, I started just having a conversation with them, telling them that I was just filming this guy, and he knew these guys so he was just telling them everything’s cool. So I just kept filming and was like, “Alright, see you later…” and they left, they ended up just leaving us alone because they knew the guy I was filming. As soon as they were out of sight we packed up and immediately left. I think there were apparently some other gang members who had been in that area and they were worried that we were them. So, we got lucky. I think the cameras and stuff actually helped us. In many places it doesn’t, but we couldn’t have been rival gang members rocking around with a video camera… But, you never know, sometimes that can get you in way more trouble. That sort of stuff happens, not all the time, but it happens. Pete has been in a lot of conflict where guys are shooting bullets and bombs at him.
Pete, perhaps you could walk us through a story. How do you find it? How do you prepare for a story? What does it feel like to be on the ground covering these very tense situation?
PETE MULLER: I suppose there’s a lot of variation in how these things work. I’m thinking of a story I worked on last year for the Washington Post that was about cyclical violence in one small village in a very volatile district in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It was a very remote area and we went there with the ambition of creating a portrait that would be emblematic of the broader dynamics in that area by looking at this one village that embodied the type of recurring strife that’s been going on over the past 20 years. Once we’d isolated a particular place which fitted well with what we wanted to do, then we just set about exploring the place and various aspects of the story arose, just by hanging out and talking to people. Sometimes stories evolve in a somewhat organic way, where you have a sense of what you want to accomplish, and in some ways that’s the best way – in that case we were really fortunate. Talking about the priorities of newspapers and things, this was an instance where a daily newspaper gave us a really lengthy time-frame to be able to explore this story. I think, all told, I was there for maybe 25 days, which is a lot for a paper.
DOMINIC BRACCO II: It’s a ton for a newspaper. Most of the time they send you on a 3-day gig.
And what does that feel like when you’re there? Is it just like, no hesitations, just go?
PETE MULLER: Not for me. I’m incredibly cautious when it comes to combat situations. I think, before I had ever gone into any combat situations, I also had this impression that you’re running around hoping you don’t get shot, and that’s really not the way that it goes, at least not in the experience I have. You really try to do the best you can to ensure that you’re not taking unnecessary risks; you move in ways that allow you some protection, I tend to try to move into those types of positions, get the pictures that I feel are necessary, and then move back, so I’m not putting myself in any risk – it’s really not a cavalier affair.
DOMINIC BRACCO II: Something you said that I thought was really interesting was about how we have very precise ideas of where safety is or what’s not safe; it comes down to the street or the area. Do you remember that?
PETE MULLER: Yeah, I think that’s good to bring up, because I’ve thought about that a lot. People who do work in very hostile environments, we have these incredibly refined ideas of what’s safe. Like Dom said, maybe that means taking one road rather than another, or moving to artillery positions but not moving to infantry positions, moving at a certain time of day. From the outside, someone who doesn’t do this kind of work would think this was all crazy, but there really are – of course things can happen at any time – things that you can do to mitigate the risks that you face. It becomes a very exacting process of figuring out how you can be safe and do your job.
When you’re in a safe environment and you’re talking to your friends or someone asks what you do, do you find it difficult to explain the magnitude of the work you do and what you’re creating?
PETE MULLER: It depends on who I’m talking to. There are certain people who have an interest in what I do at home and with those people I’ll be quite forthcoming to the extent that I think they’re interested. I think there are other people who don’t relate to it or they don’t find it interesting or sometimes it makes people uncomfortable, in which case I’m perfectly happy to just listen to what other people have to say – I don’t like to force conversations onto people that makes them feel uncomfortable or disinterested.
"It started with us just joking around, saying, "Let's make a little clique." Like a 'photo gang' where we share ideas and collaborate."
But, looking at the work you all do, not every single citizen out there gets to see the magnitude of the work you’re doing and the philosophy behind it. By the time it gets to me or anyone sitting having their breakfast, they see an image with other people’s images just strewn together and they have to make their own narrative out of it.
PETE MULLER: We can do something about that. I think it relates to what Dom was saying on the outset about the inception of Prime and what it means. There was a democratisation of the controls over publications with the advent of the internet and everybody being able to have their own websites and decimation channels and stuff, and we’re working with clients and those clients will publish elements of the work that we do, but we’re self-publishing – Dom’s publishing hard copy material, he’s planning a book – we do exhibitions, we’re increasingly moving in the direction of educational institutions, presenting material for academic and educational consumption rather than just information consumption through the news and trying to find new ways of presenting the stories as we see them, that are in some cases more sociological and anthropological than they have been in the past, so we’re really trying to push for that.
DOMINIC BRACCO II: The pictures become a tool for us to engage in the conversation. Over the last couple of years, I’ve visited close to 50 high-schools across the U.S and Mexico, talking about these issues of violence and youth and urban failure, and that’s the heart of what Prime is most interested in. What you were talking about is something that we’re aware of as visual artists and people who are creating content about these social issues. We’ve got to get our work in front of people in the best way possible.
Sometimes it’s the first time people have ever talked about these things. I was in Washington working in an advanced Spanish course, most of the folks in that school were native Spanish speakers, most of them from central America. I presented the work and it was the first time any of them had ever talked about what happened to them. Many of them crossed the border when they were, like, 8 years old and had some pretty horrific stories about what had happened to them. The teachers were like, “Wow, I had no idea this had happened to them.” As a result of that, I’ve been trying to create a program with a social worker in Texas who specialises in childhood trauma – which is basically PTSD in young people – and to build a workshop using photography that has a lesson in the end about coping skills in the classroom.
My last question for both of you is, what one photograph are you most proud of and why?
PETE MULLER: There was a picture, maybe a year and a half ago, outside of a city called Beni in north-eastern DRC – Beni at the time, and still, is a place where there was a large amount of activity from a particularly vicious rebel group and there was a counter insurgency operation underway from the military – I was working in tandem with an organisation that was helping to support the survivors of sexual violence. One of the things they were doing was providing micro-finance funding to women to make clothes and things. So, we went into this sewing studio in this small village and it was full of women who had survived sexual violence and their kids were there, there were some men around, and this picture is heavily chiaroscuro with lots of highlights and deep shadows and it has an aesthetic quality of an old dutch painting. I think it’s an interesting picture and one that’s in my top rating of pictures I’ve taken, because it’s such an unexpected picture from Congo; it’s a picture that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the war and the conflict and all the egregious things that you hear about. It really shows it from a different perspective. I think, visually, it’s interesting, content-wise it’s interesting and sort of surprising. It’s one that’s close to me.
DOMINIC BRACCO II: There’s one that most represents me now and what I think. I was working in Honduras a few years back, I chose to go there because most of the migrants coming north to Texas are from there. I had met a Honduran woman on the border and I was always interested in finding out what it is these people are fleeing from. So, I went there with a friend, we heard that a large percentage of the population lived out of basically recycling garbage. We were doing a story for The New Yorker magazine about the elections, and we thought it might be an interesting place to go talk to people about how they felt about the current situation in Honduras.
So, we were driving around and we got to this place, there was a couple of guys off to the side, a couple of young men picking garbage, and I just approached them and started talking to them and they stuck with me because they were just so freaking smart. The conversations that we had were some of the most eloquent of all the folks that we interviewed while there. I took some photos of them digging through the garbage and up until then I had never taken many portraits, but I just shot this picture of them that I ended up really liking. I think about those guys all the time. Guys like them are the reason why I continue doing this kind of work.