How Great Photos Help You Sell Your Stories To Editors

What I learned from working with world-class art directors and editors at top magazines and newspapers

Janice Harayda
The Pub
Published in
7 min readMay 21
Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” Wikimedia Commons

On a beautiful Sunday in April, when people were sunning themselves on a beach across the street, I was holed up in my home office, looking for Bruce Springsteen’s First Communion photo. I was writing about the rock star and determined to find that picture.

My reasons involved a quip I’d heard from an editor at a newspaper I worked for, which recently had run a series on organized crime.

“Have you noticed that whenever we do a story on a mobster, we run his First Communion picture next to the mug shot?” he asked.

First Communion in “The Godfather, Part II” / Paramount

My paper didn’t always run that photo — or place it next to the mug shot — but it did use it in a lot of profiles, obituaries, or other big-picture stories about a subject’s life. It wasn’t alone.

Newspapers, magazines, true-crime shows — all love First Communion photos. It’s a cliché, really, in journalism.

So why do the media keep using it?

The reason has nothing to do with religion. By journalistic tradition, an overview of someone’s life has pictures of its subject at varied ages. And the First Communion photo tends to be the best available childhood photo of someone raised Catholic: a good, clear, professional image.

In stories about people of other faiths, you’ll often see a secular counterpart: a photo of the subject in a Little League or Brownie or Cub Scout uniform (or in the case of Jim Morrison of the Doors, just the uniform, on display at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame).

Jim Morrison ‘s Cub Scout uniform
Jim Morrison’s Cub Scout uniform / Pack 192 on Facebook

All of us might like to think that our sterling words alone will cause editors to accept and readers to finish our stories, but it’s less and less true.



Janice Harayda
The Pub

Critic, novelist, award-winning journalist. Former book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Words in NYT, WSJ, and other major media.