In Conversation with Sammy Jo Hester
Sammy Jo Hester knew she wanted to be a photographer in third grade, but when she ended up studying photojournalism at Western Kentucky University, she says she was one of the worst in her class.
“I was always afraid to get too close,” she says. “It wasn’t until I left for my first news internship in Flint, Michigan, when that miraculous ‘thing’ finally clicked for me.”
Once someone asked Sammy Jo to visualize entering a home and passing through the kitchen; the refrigerator is decorated in newspaper clippings, old and new. The scene helped Sammy Jo to realize that what are just daily assignments to many photographers are often people’s legacy and livelihoods. And, as a photographer, she was helping to document and preserve that.
“I think every photographer goes through these periods of definition where you grow, change and alter your style. For a lot of us, those moments happen when we first discover photography, when we finally have those people who stop telling us our pictures are pretty and push us to be better, and again when we start to realize we have become comfortable with the way we are shooting. That last one is the most dangerous because comfort is beautiful and stable but there is no growth there. I found myself being comfortable not too long ago, so I’m in this weird period of trying to push myself to continue to see the world from a different perspective,” she said.
In the basement of a newspaper in Midland, Michigan, Sammy Jo became addicted to editing. She was interning at a nearby paper and often bumped shoulders with some of the best and most-awarded small newspaper photo editors in the United States.
“After that, I knew editing was my path, but I wasn’t entirely ready to give up shooting so I work with the Herald where I have the opportunity to work on photo projects and be an editor,” Sammy Jo says.
For the past year Sammy Jo has worked as a photo editor and photographer at the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah.
When asked what it takes to be a great photo editor, Sammy Jo says they ask questions: What does this photo say? Is that the same message the photographer is trying to convey? How does it make me feel? Does it make me feel? Does it make me question something?
“Editing a group of photographs together is almost like composing a song,” Sammy Jo says. “You want it to tell a story from start to finish. You want to leave the viewer with some sort of guttural feeling whether it’s to be overcome with joyfulness or to fill you with morose or some other emotion entirely.”
Sammy Jo says that great photos don’t always give you all the answers, but they make you ask questions.
“And if you can make the viewer ask something real, whether about themselves or the photo they’re looking at, then that photograph succeeded in its goal.”
While Sammy Jo says photographers are “the eyes and the hands of the operation,” she works with them both before and after their shoots to learn from their successes and failures.
“Being an editor is about recognizing those great images but also helping your photographers grow by keeping them inquisitive,” she says. “If they know what questions to ask in their brain before their shoots, they find the moments that answer them, and it shows up in their photos.”
Sammy Jo’s week of curating @EverydayEverywhere was a major news week that included Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the inauguration of President Donald Trump and the Women’s March on Washington. She says on those particular days she wanted to represent moments and not simply pick the best images.
On Inauguration Day, Sammy Jo selected an image from outside the U.S. of a demonstrator in front of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, dressed as a KKK member.
“We live in our bubbles and forget that the rest of the world is watching us because we are the country that was built on hopes and dreams,” Sammy Jo says. “I chose this photo because I wanted to show the widespread effect of this election outside of our tiny bubble.”
But the most-liked photo of Sammy Jo’s curation had nothing to do with politics. As she was scrolling through hundreds of photos, an image of fishermen in Burma made her stop.
“This photo contains so much; there’s layers and framing and even a subtle moment of the fisherman leaning on the oars and moving with the basket, which I love,” Sammy Jo says.
“As a photographer and as an editor, I always find myself drawn to images like this. They’re like a great whiskey that tastes great going down but the taste lingers for a while after you’ve finished. Loud moments are beautiful and there will always be a place for them in photojournalism, but it’s the subtle ones that haunt you.”