What makes a photo great?
Technical qualities—good light, composition, all that—only take a photo so far. What makes a great photo is an image that not only conveys some kind of information, but also works on an emotional level. It can be punch-you-in-the-gut direct, it can be more subtle, something that pulls you in slowly and allows you to wander around the image, keep coming back to it even if you aren’t sure why; it can be funny, witty, wry; it can be something that elicits a feeling of remembrance, something that reminds you of your own life; it can be horrifying, or gratifying. But it has to do something; it has to connect with the viewer. Of course, this is extremely subjective… and a really hard question to answer. There are plenty of good photos out there, even a lot of really good photos. But truly great photos are rare.
How did you get to your current job?
I was freelancing (and handing out camera equipment at a local art school photo supply room) when a friend who works at Mother Jones tipped me off they were looking for an art intern. I applied and got it. There was no photo editor while I was interning, so I stepped into that role, helping the then-art director (and current creative director) Tim Luddy with photo researching, looking for photo essays, eventually assigning. When the internship ended, I got offered the job of Associate Photo Editor. I’ve been here for about three years now.
What’s the best way to get your attention?
First, simply, have great, well-edited, work that is suited for the magazine. Or more, work that fits the magazine but pushes the boundaries of what people expect to see in Mother Jones; that always catches my attention.
If you work in an area outside of New York, LA or San Francisco, I am likely to spend a little more time looking at your work. We don’t have the budget to fly photographers around, so I’m always scoping out good photographers within a day’s drive of an assignment.
Coming in to show your book helps put a face to the work, and those personal interactions are good. But I don’t often have time to meet with photographers in person, and when I do have the time, I really prefer doing it in a more informal setting—over a coffee or beer, getting to know you and your work a little better than the typical in-and-out book showing.
What annoys you the most?
Oh, I guess the usual photo editor stuff annoys me. Cold calls are near the top the list. I’m not into people who email or call again and again about whether or not I’ve received their promo or pitch. If you send me a pitch and it’s something we can use, you can be assured I will get in touch with you.
Let me just say, even if it’s not something we can use, I try to reply to as many emails as I can. I’ve been on the other side as a photographer, so I know how much time goes into not just shooting the work, but in the pitch. It’s really frustrating to not hear anything back. I try to write back as often as I can, even if it’s just a sentence or two. Sometimes it takes me a long time (like months) and sometimes I just don’t have time. But I do keep pitches (and bookmark sites) I think we could possibly use down the road, or that might fit with a story, or that I just like. So, just because you might not hear from me, or if I turn down a proposal that doesn’t mean I didn’t see it or that I didn’t like it. I always tell photographers to keep in touch and I mean it.
But really, the most annoying thing is when I reject a proposal and the photographer argues with me about it. That takes even more time out of my day and it shows a real lack of professionalism. There are many reasons I might reject a photo essay, none of them should be taken personally. I get anywhere from two to ten photo essay proposals each day. We run maybe six photo essays a year. It’s just hard to get work in the magazine. And that’s really one of the worst parts of my job, seeing so much really great, truly amazing work and not being able to get it in the magazine. It can be really frustrating.
What’s the most satisfying part of your day?
It doesn’t happen every day, but I really love getting in work from a photo essay or photo shoot and going over it with the photographer, getting their feedback, then showing it to the art department and editors and seeing the layout and everything all coming together just right, with the photographer really loving it (among everyone else). That is exceptionally satisfying, especially after all the work that goes into getting a significant body of work in the magazine.