Ask a Photo Editor (or Three): What Do You Want from Photographers?

stacy j. platt
Nov 14, 2017 · 10 min read

Take yourself back to your earliest memories of wanting to have a life in photography; we can refer to them as your Baby Photographer Days. Did you dream of being assigned exciting stories in far-flung places and having your photos in National Geographic? How about shooting nuanced, poignant and universally relevant personal projects, and get the validation of seeing them featured in a leading, widely distributed magazine known for its thought-provoking writing and stories? Or did you instead entertain fantasies of going viral, of being “internet famous?”

At Center’s Review Santa Fe this year, an editorial panel was held with three influential photo editors: Dustin Drankoski of Mashable, Genevieve Fussell of The New Yorker, Sarah Leen of National Geographic, and the panel was moderated by photographer Gabriella Marks. The topic at hand was “What Photographers Need to Know Now,” and the Q&A session proved so illuminating and useful that I took copious and nearly illegible notes to relay their wisdom to you.

Question #1: What’s your process like when you’re working with photographers?

Genevieve Fussell (New Yorker): Our photo department conceptualizes the story, and then riffs off suggestions for the perfect photographer to match those stories. While we do use photographers we have established relationships with, we also like to use new talent that we find at graduate MFA shows, photo reviews and Instagram.

Untitled #38, 2013, from the series Weather Man, © Evgenia Arbugaeva, courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery. Weather Man appeared as a portfolio feature in the December 14, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

Dustin Drankoski (Mashable): We don’t do traditional photo assignments where we assign a photographer to something. 95% of what we publish comes to us from the photographer directly pitching something to us.

The first photo essay we ever ran was a result of a photographer who had a commission from the Wall Street Journal to shoot a story on the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, and among the thousands of images he shot, the publication could only run twelve images. So Kiernan Kesner came to Mashable and pitched telling the story, from the photographer’s point of view, of what it was like to shoot his first (straight out of graduate school) story on such a frightening and fatal topic.

Since then, we’ve decided to take more stories being told from the photographer’s point of view — we’ve been publishing forty or so of these a year since we started with Kiernan’s work. We want photographers to tell their stories…they experience so many things on shoots, and we love telling those stories.

All images Untitled, from the series “Eyewitness to Hell”, 2014, ©Kiernan Kesner, image courtesy of photographer. The story originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 10, 2014, and then in an expanded form in Mashable in their first photo feature, “Eyewitness to Hell,” published on October 24, 2014.

Sarah Leen (National Geographic): We assign a story, then create a team for that story, and finally assign a photo editor to it and then brainstorm on possible photographers. We publish twelve issues a year, with four full features per issue, so 48 stories a year. We have a very high bar for the photographers that we work with. In terms of story teams, we build them with social media, digital story-telling, video, etc. Halfway into the deadline for a story we’ll do a review process, and do a presentation to the editor-in-chief.

Photographers are required to give us every single frame, all of their RAW files, and the photo editor for the story will look at absolutely everything. We do this because while photographers will always send us their edit, some photographers are really bad editors of their own work, and also this is how we can check the veracity of the stories and the images used to tell them.

In terms of where work can exist, we have many outlets: Our larger print stories (those that are assigned and have teams of people working on them) are eighteen to twenty-six spreads of images. “Proof” is a feature that we do in print: it includes three to four spreads. “Proof” is where we we’ll try someone out; determine whether we can work with a new photographer that we’ve discovered at a portfolio review or somewhere. I go to lots of portfolio reviews looking for people to work with: Review Santa Fe, PhotoNola, Arles, PhotoPlus, etc. Our “Dispatches” feature is digital, and consists of some gutsy photojournalism. It’s a project or an assigned story that can be completed in one week. Note to photographers asking about pitches: be able to come up with a neat elevator pitch answer for the question, “What could you do in a week? If you could do any photographic project but only get a week to do it, what would you want to do?”

Untitled, from the story Carnivore’s Dilemma, published by National Geographic, 2015, © Brian Finke, image courtesy of the photographer

Question #2: How do you want to be pitched? Is there a magic formula?

Dustin Drankoski (Mashable): Every editor has a different version of how they want something pitched to them. I accept pitches in any form. I always get back to the photographers, whether we use their work or not. We don’t have an established brand like The New Yorker or National Geographic, so we say “Hi!” to everyone, especially early career photographers.

Untitled, images from the story “Extreme Barbie Jeep Racing,” published by Mashable on May 1, 2015. © Sol Neelman, used with permission by photographer.

Sarah Leen (National Geographic): I like the whole staff to see someone’s work; so someone from travel, digital, everyone sees the PDFs of the work. I get pitched via email, and I really appreciate it when people do their homework. If they pitch something that I just ran, for example, I’m disappointed. They need to actually look at the magazine — understand what is us, what’s appropriate. I try to get back to everyone, and I’ll pass things on to digital because they can publish so much more on the website.

It’s important to remember that you sometimes only get one shot with somebody, so be ready when you pitch. Are you ready to this work, this kind of storytelling? Be ready when you pitch to me.

Genevieve Fussell (New Yorker): Know who you’re pitching. It feels like people who pitch aren’t looking at the magazine. Think about who you want to work for, and then work towards that. We get massive blanket pitches — that I know was sent to a lot of people. I appreciate the personal touch, like: “Genevieve, I really liked “X” featured last week, and by the way here’s this.”

Question #3. What are components to a successful project and/or personal project?

Genevieve Fussell (New Yorker): We are pitched a lot of personal projects, and some just seem really far afield. So again: think about to whom you are pitching. It’s really difficult to get personal pitches in the magazine. Sometimes the work is too niche or outside the realm of what we cover.

Cuba, for example. I see so much work on Cuba — question yourself on what is your personal project and research how many other people are shooting that. The work needs to stand out.

(Top Left) Untitled #33, 2013, and (Top Right) Untitled #39; (Left) Untitled #42, (Right) Untitled #44, from the series Weather Man, © Evgenia Arbugaeva, courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery. Weather Man appeared as a portfolio feature in the December 14, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

Dustin Drankoski (Mashable): The ones most difficult for us to look at are the ones that are too personal. The photographer has gone so far in, but the viewer has gotten lost. Be careful about editing. Be careful to make sure that you’re actually telling a story.

Sarah Leen (National Geographic): There’s got to be a certain level of wonderfulness. I want to be throbbing for it — I want to be at that pitch. If it’s not that, it’s like, “Who cares?” How do you make me care? The reader care? I call it “yumminess.” How do you get that in there? Be in a community of photographers that push you to reach that level of successful yumminess. Personal projects that are too personal are like “this big,” (makes a tiny gesture) and they need to magnify.

Question #4: What happens when a photographer comes back to you and the story just isn’t there — what do you do?

Sarah Leen (National Geographic): It depends. If it’s a long term story and we catch it early, I’ll assign the story to another photographer. I have to think about the end game: this story is showing up in the magazine, and I don’t have a photographer for it.

It’s really important to nurture the next generation of photographers, so we use them in the Traveler section, with Proofs, or with Dispatches, or on our digital stories. There are a lot of different entry points for a photographer before we will assign them stories.

Genevieve Fussell (New Yorker): Generally we assign work to someone you know will deliver. But I’m also big on giving new people a shot — Max Pinkers’ story on North Korea was his first story with us. We try new people out in the front of book pieces that is at the very beginning of the magazine. If we kill work we might go to our illustration team. There are really good photographers and then there are also really good photographers that are just not good on assignment.

Question #5: In the process of putting together stories and teams, you’re thinking all the while about channels, too. Do you feel optimistic about the power of the still image, with all of this other stuff running in the background?

Dustin Drankoski (Mashable): We do everything, and we find success with still images the most. There’s something ephemeral about a photo that video can’t touch. Still photographs won’t have any less power moving forward.

Sarah Leen (National Geographic): More and more people are taking photographs and publishing them online. There’s this huge love of the photographic still image. It’s not going away; it’s just being used in different ways. The photo book market, for example, is just awesome. It’s so awesome that I’m going to go broke! I don’t feel like the still image goes away; it just changes its place.

Question #6: How imperative is it to curate your Instagram feed? Is it a sin if my nephew’s birthday party is in the mix?

Sarah Leen (National Geographic): I have hired photographers directly because of their Instagram feed. I had been following this one photographer, Brian Finke, because he only had photographs of meat on his feed; endless images of meat. And one day I was doing a story on meat, and I thought: I wonder if that guy on Instagram could be the photographer for this?

Untitled, from the story Carnivore’s Dilemma, published in National Geographic magazine, 2015, © Brian Finke, image courtesy of the photographer

I appreciate those who use it like a portfolio. It’s also become important commercially — there are photographers that are getting work because they have a large audience or a following, and they can charge and earn more because of it. They are already a brand, and they can bring those people along with them to our publication. I think having a professional Instagram feed where it’s curated is smart.

All of us are looking at our phones all of the time, so Instagram makes things easy for us. I like to see who people I follow are following, because they’ll have a different Rolodex than I do. Instagram puts the photographer right where they can be easily found.

National Geographic is very big on social media. We have 82M followers on our Instagram feed. We allow photographers on assignment to curate the Instagram feed (our staff doesn’t maintain it), as long as they follow some house rules regarding posting (no more than 3 photos a day; if you are on assignment you can post photos or video at any time). We are also big about using Instagram stories. These are put together by staff or by a working photographer on assignment; 10 sec clips that are strung together — these are very popular.

Genevieve Fussell (New Yorker): I look at Instagram before even looking at their website. If I go to their page and their first page of posts is professional, then I’m going to keep looking. Photographers need to understand that Instagram really is a tool that editors are making heavy use of. Some photographers’ websites drive me nuts; whereas Instagram is right there, it’s right in my hand, and it looks the same for everybody.

Dustin Drankoski (Mashable): I like to go to their websites and see how they tell a story, and then I’ll look at their Instagram feed. Photographers use the story function where it’ll go away in a week, and that feels very authentic. A good website makes me want to see more, and for me, Instagram is that “more.”

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The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.

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