Interview with Søren Pagter, Head of the Department of Photojournalism at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus

Once again this year, the Leica Oskar Barnack Award (LOBA) will be based on proposals presented by international photography experts. Around one hundred nominators will submit their candidates. A select jury will then consider all the nominees and choose the winners from among them. In the coming months we will introduce some of the expert nominators and ask them about their ideas and experiences. We start by interviewing Søren Pagter, Head of the Department of Photojurnalism at the renowned Danish School of Media and Journalism (DMJX) in Aarhus. In this interview, he shares his thoughts and experiences with regard to the LOBA, as well as his assessment of the currently-changing world of photography.

From your point of view as a teacher and photographer, how do you assess the importance of LOBA and what experiences have you already had with it?

I knew about the LOBA even before I became a nominator, and I have always followed the news about the recipients. In 2017, our student Terje Abusdal, received the LOBA award for his “Slash & Burn” project, which he started at our school. In a world where the traditional media industries are challenged and there are less opportunities for photographers to have their work published, I find it important that there are other platforms available for documentary photography. To publish your work through a competition, a grant or the like, can be just as important as getting it published in the traditional media. In particular, because the organizers often do a great job of sharing the work. You can often see that stories shared through exhibitions, a competition or such, reach a larger audience than through the traditional media. In this light, I see LOBA as one of the most important platforms when it comes to showing and sharing documentary photography.

“I see LOBA as one of the most important platforms when it comes to showing and sharing documentary photography.”

How do you consider the relationship between applied photojournalism and the free work done for the competition?

We have a very broad view on photojournalism at our school. We call ourselves a photojournalism programme, but we are actually teaching what people would call documentary photography based on knowledge and research. Traditionally speaking, photojournalism represents pictures that are used in the media and therefore they are looked upon in a specific way, and must fit within specific rules. We teach this to our students, so they know how to work journalistically for the media. But we also allow our students to work on their own, independent stories. Here, they have more freedom and can plan to publish the work in an exhibition, a book or similar. I like the fact that LOBA is open to all kinds of documentary photography, since I find that stories can be told in many different ways.

What was particularly important to you when selecting your proposals?

I see a lot of photography and meet a lot photographers in my role as a teacher of photojournalism; but I don’t have a fixed idea about how a story should look or what I’m looking for. I like classical reportage just as much as experimental work. For me, the most important thing is that I can feel that the photographer has something on her or his mind; that it is about more than just photography. I like when I can see that the photographer has done research, knows about the story and has chosen a style that fits with what she or he wants to tell.

“I like the fact that LOBA is open to all kinds of documentary photography, since I find that stories can be told in many different ways.”

How have you experienced the changes in the photo scene/photographic market over the last year, marked by the Covid pandemic?

There is both negative and positive change. The negative one is that the number of assignments has gone down. When the economy is challenged, it is often the communications and creative businesses that suffer the most. So, this has hit photographers – especially, considering that we’re a market with many freelance workers.

The positive side is that I see a lot of helpfulness across borders. For instance, we have learned that we can help and teach any photographer no matter where they are in the world. I’ve had online session with photographers in Egypt, India, Canada, etc. This was also possible before, but I didn’t really do it.

What do you wish and hope for photography in the future?

That’s a difficult question. I see a lot of really good and important work from all over the world; but, as we all know, it’s hard to make a living from these kinds of stories. Personally, I miss being inspired by going to festivals and seeing work, hearing lectures and meeting people that I hadn’t expected to be inspired by. The disadvantage with acting online is that everything is so planned. It’s hard to get surprised, and I miss the organic feeling of an exhibition.

What should change in the future?

I see a lot of significant work done in a collaborative way; and not only due to the pandemic. It has become more and more important for photographers to work together on stories - and to co-operate with others as well. We encourage our students to co-operate when they work on larger projects. Unfortunately, this isn’t always shown in grants and competitions, where the organizers still want single submissions. This doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve had several really strong projects that couldn’t be submitted, because they were produced by two or three people. When it comes to video documentary or online story telling it is normal to work together; so why not with still photography?

That’s a good suggestion. Thank you very much for your time.

Søren Pagter

Søren Pagter is Head of the Department of Photojournalism at the famous Danish School of Media and Journalism (DMJX), where he has been teaching photojournalism to both Danish and international students since 1998. He is a trained press photographer and worked as such for ten years, before dedicating his career to teaching. Pagter still does photographic projects and assignments to stay in touch with the media. He lectures and gives workshops all over the world, and has also be a member of many different juries.

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Portrait: © Jens Bangsbo/DMJX