RUIDO Photo, Spain
Established in 2005 in Barcelona by a group of photography students, RUIDO Photo is a photography agency but also a non-profit organisation specialising in human rights issues. Three of its co-founders – Edu Ponces, Toni Arnau and Pau Coll – remain as associates, working with two employees. Money earned through publication of images in the media is supplemented by funds raised via foundations, national grants and EU funding.
Mission: revealing stories to inspire change
As described by Edu Ponces, RUIDO is a photography agency with a difference: “We not only produce the photo stories, we assume the responsibility for making those stories public, because we want our photos to change something in the real world.” Over the years the organisation has expanded the tools it uses to tell those stories: as well as selling images to mainstream media like a classic agency, it also publishes its own literature and produces exhibitions – particularly outdoors on city streets. This has been necessary because: “We think that part of our job is not only to produce the journalism but also to be the media. Our experience of trying to make this kind of work in the media is that it’s almost impossible. We found a wall. And when you do work there, you’re not doing the kind of photography you want to do. If you want your work to have a good effect, you have to take responsibility, because the media are not doing that.”
Doing so has required the group of photographers to develop multiple additional skills: “We had to learn how to write a project, how to talk to donors, how to get the money to do that, and after that how to get results, how to influence people. Now we work 25% of our time doing journalism and 75% of our time doing all these other things. But when we are doing the stories, that 25% of our time, we can do things in the way we want. You don’t have an editor saying no: we make all the decisions based on our journalistic interest.”
RUIDO has also become an NGO, although not one that relies on volunteers: “We are non profit but work like a professional team: everybody in RUIDO receives money, but we can only receive money for our work on the projects. All the money we earn when we publish our stories in a newspaper goes to RUIDO, to invest in other projects.”
As students, the founders of RUIDO were “interested in the classic values of photo journalists – ideas coming from the Vietnam War photography or these kind of stories that changed things in the real world”. As the collective has pursued this path, it has developed three distinctive methodologies “to make that idea real”:
1: Street exhibitions
Inspired by JR, a French artist who creates huge installations using photography in public settings, whether Parisian streets or the wall between Palestine and Israel, RUIDO developed its own strand of street exhibition, not only locally in Spain but in Mexico, across Central America, and in US cities including Miami. As Ponces argues: “We are not interested in a public that goes to an exhibition in an art museum; we want to reach the common people, not the art market. We don’t want to be alternative, we want to be popular – our responsibility is to be popular, because we want our message, our work, to reach a lot of people.”
The next step with these exhibitions is to learn how to evaluate impact: “We are trying to be more professional with this, for example creating verification tools, questionnaires for people going to our exhibitions.” The group has also worked with a specialist consultant to learn new ways to be “more effective in the street”.
2: Long-term projects
Those exhibitions draw on an embedded photography practice that might see a single story pursued for two years. “Our main topic in RUIDO is migration: we’ve worked for two years on the migration route from Central America through Mexico to the United States, travelling with the migrants, talking about the motivations for migration, the violence or medical reasons that make all those people want to go. We try to understand the whole story: we don’t want the news, we want to explain the phenomena.” In addition to the street exhibitions, this specific project resulted in stories published in Central American and US media, speeches delivered in migration think tanks in Washington, and a documentary film, which “we tried to show in the States because we think it’s important for the people there to understand what’s going on with the people coming”.
More recent projects have focused on the journeys of refugees from Jordan to Greece and from Western Africa across the Mediterranean. Again, with this work the street exhibitions are being supplemented by additional activity:
“We have infographics, we have maps, and when we go somewhere and put an exhibition in the middle of the main square of the town, we also offer workshops to the schools or to the different associations there, because we want to fight the hate speech that is becoming common in some media in Europe.”
3: Work in prisons
Another member of RUIDO, Pau Coll, specialises in “fotografía participativa, participatory photography” specifically in prisons, giving cameras to prisoners and inviting them to “make a story with guidance”. Coll has been pursuing this path in three prisons in Catalonia for over seven years, and Ponces describes that project as progressing from making “portraits because the prison authority didn’t give authorisation to take photos of anything in the prison, to making the first documentary film made inside prison, filmed by the inmates”. That documentary went on to win an award at the 2017 DocumentaMadrid international festival.
All of this work faces the challenge of political resistance. Coll’s prison activities have been curtailed, says Ponces, “because the prison authority is not very happy with our work. When the inmates talk to the camera in the documentary they say there’s a lot of drugs here, we had a problem here last week because I was beaten by another inmate – and the prison authority were uncomfortable with that.” While stories exposing, for instance, violence in Central America are “not easy to publish, not easy to show to the people, because the stories are not easy. But we prefer to do that and fight that resistance: it’s important.”
Ponces feels optimistic because the collective now has a workable professional and paid organisational structure. “People come here to the office and say: how is it possible that you earn money doing that? The old market for photo agencies is disappearing and their future as a business is black because the big newspapers don’t have money any more. And for us, the future looks well because we are not only doing the kind of photography or the kind of journalism we want to make, we also have a viable business model.”
Even so, he describes money as a “problem”, because RUIDO’s team still needs to expand. It now includes a fundraiser, but “we don’t earn enough to have other roles here in the organisation. I take photos, I design the projects, I write the projects, I go to the meetings with the donors, I also give the speeches – there is a limit to that. So we need other kinds of professional, because with a bigger team you can think bigger.”
The intention is not for RUIDO to work differently, instead to “do the same but better. We have to get a better relationship with the main media – because it’s not doing one thing or the other, I think we can do both. Also we have more work to do taking our campaigns to other countries, especially in the US and in Europe beyond Spain.” Although Ponces confesses to feeling frustration on seeing photographers with more conventional, solo careers progress faster than the RUIDO collective, he and his colleagues remain committed to the belief that:
“When you walk alone you go fast but when you walk within a group you go far. And we want to go far.”