Kōan: Creating Community

Photojournalism can be a lonely profession, especially as a freelancer working in remote areas. That’s why photographers Alex Potter, Allison Joyce, Amanda Mustard, Cooper Neill and Nicolas Tanner decided to form Kōan, their own collective.

Although they all live in different parts of the world, from Texas to Bangladesh, and have never been in the same room together at once, their experiences and goals led them to seek community. The collective model isn’t a new idea, but visual journalists and artists keep coming back to it because there is value in having a support system.

We spoke to Kōan co-founder Cooper Neill about the benefits of working as a group, and where they’re going from here.

CV: What is Kōan?

Cooper Neill: Kōan is the collaboration of five young journalists exploring both new and traditional means of communication and creating unique narratives – through text, photography and the moving image – that present distinct ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Recognizing the challenge of navigating the changing landscape of freelance visual journalism, we joined together to use each individual’s talents and experiences to support one another with personal projects, foster creativity, and showcase work to a greater audience.

CV: Why did you decide to form a collective?

CN: We are all in similar situations: trying to work as full-time freelance photojournalists, and living in areas where there aren’t big photo communities. We all attended the Eddie Adams Workshop (EAW), and though we didn’t all go together, we saw how good having a community can be for photographers. Having people to bounce ideas off of, help edit work, share contacts, and just being a support system. We’re all in places where you can’t have that.

We all have family and friends whom we can talk to, but that’s very different than the newsroom mentality where you have coworkers that you can talk to about work and your professional life. In a way, we wanted to start our own little support group.

CV: What are the advantages of being in a collective?

CN: One great thing is that since we’re all so spread out, none of us feel like we’re competing against each other. The freelance world is so small, and so ultra-competitive, that people will try and steal work from you, undercut you on day rates, or pretty much anything you can think of to try and get more work.

We are so spread out that we don’t have to worry about that. We can share freely and never feel like somebody is going to be taking a paycheck from us. It makes things a lot easier.

CV: What are your goals?

CN: We’re not the first collective, there’s been a lot of collectives before us, and a lot of them that have disbanded for various reasons. We want this to be something that’s fun. We want it to be something everybody enjoys.

Our goal is to help everybody become more established in their professional careers. We want to help showcase each other’s work. We are all relatively new to this, especially compared to other collectives, where you have to be an extremely established and successful photographer before you can even be considered to join. But we don’t want to wait till we’re established to be able to tap into the resources we have as a group.

We all have very unique styles of editing and we all shoot very different things. Whenever we have a project, we put it in a Dropbox and everyone gives it their own edit and sends it back. It’s really having four different sets of eyes other than mine giving me feedback on work, and then giving me different places I should contact to get it published.

CV: What are your future goals as a collective?

CN: We’ve talked about doing something like a scholarship at EAW or doing an application process and picking a young photographer to work with us for a couple months, so that they can get feedback. We’ve all seen how important a community can be, and we want to share that with others. We would love to do a  workshop like some of the other collectives are doing. But that’s a long way away.

We would also like to do some collaborative projects as a group. Pick some topic and everybody shoot a story in their respective country that deals with that topic. It’s nothing new but it’s something that’s new for us and something that would be challenging but would be very rewarding at the same time.

CV: What advice do you have for people entering the business?

CN: If you’re going to be a freelance photographer find a support system. Speaking from my own experience, as a freelancer you rarely have face-to-face interaction with photographers or editors. I get emails telling me where and when to go,  and then I send in my work, and then I see them in print. I work from home. I don’t have a lot of interaction with other people, and it can become an incredibly lonely profession. Find people you can talk to about your work and preferably people who are in the same situation, because you can share experiences with other photographers and learn from each other. It will make you feel better but it will teach you a lot more than you expect.

After talking to the Kōan crew we decided to offer feedback to students or visual journalists seeking other eyes on their work. If you’re interested in getting feedback from our staff here, we have five people who would be happy to do a live edit with you in our office or online. You can tweet us a link, share via our Facebook page or send us an email at ColumbiaVisuals@gmail.com. If you’re a Columbia student, make an appointment to see us. 

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