What Editors Want: Inside The Atlantic’s Photo Department

Invention and experimentation are top priority in these changing times

by Sahiba Chawdhary, Blink Social Media News Editor.


The Atlantic’s photo department is only two people and yet they consistently deliver hard-hitting visuals. They’re open to suggestions, their priority is the reader, and collaboration is their style. All the while, they work quietly and diligently in photographers’ interests.

Blink’s Sahiba Chawdhary spoke to one half of the team, Atlantic Media’s Visual Editor Emily Epstein about her recent transition from a photojournalist to an editor, what she looks for in images, and tips for photographer who want to work with The Atlantic.

Christian Berthelot. Courtesy of The Atlantic.

Sahiba: Tell us about yourself, your company and the kind of work you’re doing.

Emily: I’m the visual editor for TheAtlantic.com, which means I’m the go-to person for all things visual. I coordinate with the art department for original illustrations, work with wire services and photographers — professional and amateur — and guide our approach to charts and infographics. We recently underwent a responsive redesign in April, which put a huge emphasis on photography, so I was charged with setting and reinforcing visual journalism standards on the site.

Sahiba: What kind of stories and projects do you commission? What photos are you looking to license for publication? Is there a style for TheAtlantic.com?

Emily: Our team includes Alan Taylor, who runs our Photo channel, and me. We’re a small team! In a way, we have the same standards for photography that we do for writing. I’m looking for photo stories that are not only interesting in their lighting and composition, but also distinct in their subject matter. There are three things that I tell our reporters and editors to look for when it comes to photography: Authenticity, Accuracy, and Awesomeness.

Michelle Siu. Courtesy of The Atlantic.

Sahiba: Do you purchase stories that have already been produced? What is the best way to pitch TheAtlantic.com?

Emily: We do run stories that have already been produced, that is, if they are truly exceptional. The best way to pitch The Atlantic is to email me at visual@theatlantic.com. I go through all the emails and try to respond to every person. On occasion, I’ll even forward great work that’s not right for us onto other editors I know.

I was a photographer once upon a time, so I know how hard it is. Sometimes I’ll be looking for a project that matches a certain theme, like our American Dreams collaboration with Echo/Sight, but anything tied to the news cycle will automatically make it to the top of the pile.

I like to announce any themes on Twitter, so follow along!

A typical Atlantic online landing page for a story. Photo by Sandy Huffaker, for the story ‘A High School for the Homeless’. Courtesy of The Atlantic.

Sahiba: What are the best practices freelancers should follow while they are working for The Atlantic?

Emily: I would say be patient, prompt and follow directions. We require higher-resolution images than some other publications because our site is responsive, as well as really good captions. Having names and places, maybe a quote, can really draw viewers in.

I’ll forward great work that’s not right for us onto other editors I know. I was a photographer once upon a time, so I know how hard it is.

Sahiba: Have you ever used Blink to hire photographers/videographers for assignments? How do you think a tool like Blink is useful for editors?

Emily: Yes. Blink is very useful for finding talent in far-flung places; people that already have a relationship with a particular community. Better access often leads to better photos.

Jacob Ehrbahn / PowerHouse Book. Courtesy of The Atlantic.

Sahiba: Hypothetically speaking, how would you describe a “job well done”?

Emily: A job well done is a project that surprises me. We all look at so many photos every day. Switching up traditional lighting, grabbing amazing quotes, shooting video, researching interesting data points: those things really impress me.

“There are three things that I tell our reporters and editors to look for when it comes to photography: Authenticity, Accuracy, and Awesomeness.”

Photographers, especially, have to ask themselves whether they are telling the story in the best possible way. Why is this a photo essay? Is it because that’s what I do, or is it because this is a story that can be told well in a sequence of photographs?

Rishabh Kaul, for the story ‘A Wet Paradise’ about public pools. Courtesy of The Atlantic.

Sahiba: What are your future plans for Atlantic’s photography department?

Emily: I’d love to experiment with more original photography on the site. I’d also like to foster more collaboration between writers, photographers, and developers. There are so many new tools on the Internet that we can use to tell stories.

“The Atlantic’s readers are incredibly sharp. Instead of assigning photographers […] I thought it would be interesting to see what the average reader sees.”

Sahiba: You were a photographer once. What motivated your transition to editing?

Emily: I started out as a photojournalist, running around shooting six stories a day, eating at red lights — it’s an incredibly difficult job and I loved it. After a few years though, I wanted to start telling my own stories and my captions got longer and longer, so the progression from photographer to photographer/reporter was pretty natural. Once I made it into the proper newsroom, there were even more opportunities to learn from my peers. I was lucky that the art directors, executive editors and photo editors I’ve worked with were all great collaborators and I was able to learn a lot from them.

Danny Ghitis. Courtesy of The Atlantic.

I’m flexible; I’ve done stints as Managing Editor and News Editor, so when this opportunity at The Atlantic came up, I thought, why not mash up all those skills I’ve gained over the last decade and put them to good use?

Sahiba: What role does multimedia play for The Atlantic? Do you often hire videographers for assignments? If yes, what is that you are looking for?

Emily: We have an impressive video department run by Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg. Her team showcases outside contributors daily with their “Editor’s Picks” and they also produce original videos for the site, like the “If Our Bodies Could Talk” and the “Ask a Tween” series.

Sahiba: What sprouted the American Dreams collaboration? What were you exactly looking for while picking your final edits for publishing? How was the response?

Emily: I’ve admired EchoSight’s work from the get-go, so when my editor came to me with the American dream theme, I knew immediately I wanted to collaborate with them. There are so many varied interpretations for the dream, mashups seemed like a natural fit. The Atlantic’s readers are also incredibly sharp, so instead of assigning photographers to interpret the dream, I thought it would be interesting to see what the average Atlantic reader sees.

Calia Kessler + Brian Reynard, for Echosight, Featured in the story ‘Photographing the American Dreamers’. Courtesy of The Atlantic.

In selecting the final images for publication, Daniella Zalcman and I looked to mashups that connected disparate themes: A same-sex wedding and the American wilderness; a cowboy and a skyscraper. The response was amazing. Christa Olson at Reading The Pictures did a close read of the project.

“These juxtapositions are especially interesting in a thematic sense,” wrote Olson, “because the details of each photograph also undermine the national myths they perpetuate.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Sahiba: Do you have any advice/tips for those who’d like to break into direction of photography?

Emily: I think the best advice one of my college professors gave me still stands true today: Photographers have to bring something new.

“Oh, [photography] is a business. Treat it like one!”

Don’t worry about having the right camera or a press pass or anything material like that. Who are the most fascinating characters in your life? What do you know more about than anyone else? Photographers give the world access to the people, places, and cultures they have the honor of knowing. Oh, and it’s a business. Treat it like one!


Emily Anne Epstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees visuals. She has worked as a photojournalist, a reporter, and the managing editor of the New York Observer. Her portfolio can be found here. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.