By Jim Colton
Cab driver: "So, what do you do?"
Me: "I'm the Photography Editor for Sports Illustrated."
Cab driver: "Must be fun to go out on all those Swimsuit shoots!"
Me: "Yeah, best job in the world."
Reality? In the fifteen years I worked at Sports Illustrated, I was never at a single Swimsuit shoot!
We all get asked the question: "So, what do you do?" It's a simple enough answer if you're a doctor, lawyer, or even a photographer. But if you've been a photo editor for most of your adult life, more times than not, your answer is followed by another question; "So, what does a photo editor do?"
For people who are not in our industry there is often a misconception or a lack of understanding of exactly what it is we do. And even within the industry, there are varying degrees of understanding. So let me start out by saying...we do many things...wear many hats...and have many headaches.
We don't just pick the pictures that run in our publications. I wish it were that simple. What appears in newspapers, magazines and on line is always a collaborative effort involving the hard work of many talented individuals....from the photographer to the photo editor to the art director to the line side editors. The photo editor acts as a conduit to ensure that the most compelling visuals always get published.
We see the world through the cameras of the photographers we work with, and if we're lucky, we watch them bloom before our very eyes! And sometimes we bring home the bodies of our fallen comrades. I've done both. But the sorrow is tempered with the great joy of knowing that I have, in some small way, played a nurturing part in the careers of those like James Nachtwey, Peter Turnley, Christopher Morris and countless others.
Photo editors are also coaches, teachers, negotiators and psychiatrists. We wear personnel hats, legal, budget and accounting hats....and we often wear Kevlar as we are the ones that take the hits for bad shoots...not the photographers. Our most favorite hat? Treasure hunter. Least favorite hat? Kindergarten cop!
Now more than ever, we need good photo editors; not only to weed through all the digital chaff and deafening noise from this sensory overloaded world we live in, but to bring clarity and understanding through the power of photography.
If you're a talented photo editor, the visuals in your publication get recognized at contest time. If you're an extraordinary photo editor, those awards follow you as you go from publication to publication. Enter photo editor extraordinaire; Judy Walgren.
Walgren is no stranger to accolades. And it's no accident that her work is recognized wherever she goes. From a Pulitzer at the Dallas Morning News, to multiple Colorado Press Association awards to Emmys at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she is currently Director of Photography. Two weeks ago, at the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism Awards festival in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Chronicle was present to pick up over a dozen awards, most of them for editing! Walgren credits this recognition to teamwork, stating: "Healthy competition is always a good thing – but there has to be a collective feeling that if one succeeds, the team succeeds."
As a shooter, Walgren’s images appeared in publications such as the New York Times, People Magazine and Texas Monthly to name a few. She’s photographed for the Peace Corp, co-directed a film about Kenya, collaborated on a book on child labor in Nepal and India and even has a children’s book (Natinga, Houghton-Mifflin) under her belt.
Her roots were firmly planted as a photographer, and she misses "getting out and meeting people and having a pulse on what is happening in my city firsthand." But she is one of those (like me) who found great joy and great reward at the other end of the loupe.
Walgren has surrounded herself with a talented team, but it takes someone with "vision" to lead that team. Helen Keller once said, "The only thing worse than being blind is having sight...but no vision." This week zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the insightful and dedicated Judy Walgren.
Jim Colton: Please tell us a little about your early years. How did you first get introduced to photography? Who or what were some of your earliest influences?
Judy Walgren: I originally wanted to study emergency room medicine, but organic chemistry threw a wrench in that plan. Hating that class pushed me to take a photography class to break up the monotony. I loved shooting photos so much that I decided to change my major to photojournalism. My whole goal with being a doctor was to help people and that is the kind of work I gravitated to with photography as well. After graduating from UT Austin, I spent some time in Scandinavia then returned to Texas with an internship at the Dallas Morning News, where I ultimately worked for nearly 13 years – taking a year off to write a children’s book in southern Sudan. (See link below)
I would say that David Leeson was my greatest influence on the Morning News staff during my time there and I continue to be in awe of his creativity fused with his commitment to journalism. Other people who had major influences on me were Eli Reed and Maggie Steber who I met at the Missouri Photo Workshop many years ago. I have always been blown away by the work of Sebastião Salgado and Josef Koudelka as well.
JC: You were a shooter before becoming a photo editor. What are some of the biggest differences for you being on the other side of the loupe?
JW: I have always loved helping people reach their potential and/or goals. I think it was working with Todd Heisler and Jim Sheeler on their Final Salute project at the Rocky Mountain News that pushed me into photo editing/coaching. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Director of Photography Janet Reeves, who talked me into leaving my freelance life based out of Taos, New Mexico to come and work with her at the Rocky in 2004. Seeing what a solid base of support could do to help another person find the strength and confidence to rise above was truly life changing for me.
I love photo editing but I have to say, I HATE sitting on my butt all day long! I very much miss getting out and meeting people and having a pulse on what is happening in my city firsthand. I seriously have to watch the tendency to pre-edit a story in my head, which was a major complaint I had with other photo editors when I was shooting! It is so easy to slip into that mode and it is extremely frustrating for photographers to have an editor tell them what images they want to see before the assignment even happens!
And to be honest, I love my photo editing team so much and would have killed to be able to shoot assignments like the ones we are dreaming up here at the Chronicle and then come back to get an amazing edit from Nicole Frugé, Russell Yip, Pete Kiehart or Dylan Entelis. This team is so thoughtful, supportive and truly committed to making sure that our staff has what they need to succeed.
JC: You've worked at several newspapers during your career and have been recognized with many awards...including being part of a team that won a Pulitzer at the Dallas Morning News. Is there a specific award that you are most proud of...and why?
JW: The Pulitzer for International Reporting was a huge deal for me considering the incredibly difficult personal and professional challenges I went through to work in Somalia in 1993. Shooting the genital mutilation ceremony was very intense and since the writer would not come to Somalia with me, I had to write about it as well, which caused major waves at the paper.
A year later, I heard that we had won over my shortwave radio while I was living in a camp with the Lost Boys in southern Sudan. At the time, I was dressing wounds on the kids’ legs with out-of-date Ciprofloxin pills that I would crush and pack into the lesions. They had no idea what a Pulitzer was and by the time I got back to the States a year later, the next winners had just been announced. I think that experience kept me quite grounded.
Another piece that I am still very proud of was a piece on child poverty in Colorado that I worked on with Tim Rasmussen and his amazing photo staff when I was at the Denver Post. It won a bunch of awards, but I just remember the amazing experience putting it all together with such incredible love and support from the subjects, the photographers, as well as our photo editors at the Post.
JC: Who are some of the photographers you've most enjoyed working with, either past or present?
JW: I have already mentioned David Leeson so I will move on to Todd Heisler, Preston Gannaway, Jan Sonnenmair, Ken Geiger, Craig Walker, Mike Kepka, and Lacy Atkins – GEEZ! There are so many frigging amazing people I have had the privilege of working with – so many along the way who I adore…and would absolutely love to work with again! There is no way to name them all.
JC: How have all those experiences at other newspapers helped you now that you are the Director of Photography at the San Francisco Chronicle? What lessons, either actual or philosophical, have you learned that have proven to be of value in your current position?
JW: I have learned the importance of communicating expectations clearly so that we can all succeed. Taking the guesswork out of the equation has made a world of difference for us as a team. And speaking of teams – this is one word that is incredibly important to me given my past experience with working on staffs where there was not a “team” atmosphere – much the opposite.
Healthy competition is always a good thing – but there has to be a collective feeling that if one succeeds, the team succeeds. I know very well what it is like to be a staff photographer and how frustrating it can be if you feel like your bosses are not supportive of you – I try to keep that at the forefront of my mind when I am handling difficult issues. And last but not least – I never expect more from our photo team than I would expect of myself.
JC: Can you tell us briefly what the set-up is like at the Chronicle? How many staff photographers, photo editors, tech and support constitute the visuals department? Is there a separate team that handles on-line content?
JW: In addition to the director spot, we have five photo editors. I am happy to announce that Erin Brethauer will be joining us at the end of August. They all not only edit stills, but can also shoot stills…and some can shoot and edit video as well. It is also important to me that the photographers understand that the photo editors are also accomplished photographers and when they ask a photographer to do something, it comes from experience as a photographer.
We have nine staff photographers and a roster of about ten freelancers who we use regularly. Mike Kepka is our visual columnist with his City Exposed item (see link below) and now that Scott Strazzante is here, we have another!
The photo editors handle both online and print for our sfchronicle.com site and work with the producers for the sfgate.com site. (See links below)
JC: I'm sure you've seen your share of change in the newspaper business from when you first started in the 1980's. Can you give us an example or two or how things were done then as to how they are done now?
JW: I learned how to soup film and print color using a frigging easel in a hotel bathroom with Lon Cooper in 1986 when Bill Clements won the race for Texas’ governor in Austin, Texas. Then we transmitted it on an AP drum scanner that we hooked up to old school phone lines. It took something like 6 or 7 minutes per separation for cyan, magenta, yellow and black. If there was a “hit” in the transmission, you had to start all over. It was Hell!
Then, there was the Leafax. I schlepped one of those to Somalia with a huge satellite phone and a huge generator. After many bribes getting the load masters on the C130s to put all of this equipment into the bellies of the planes, I found that the sat phone would not work with the Leafax after days of trying to transmit in very intense situations. The Leafax finally blew up when bugs attracted by the glowing screen made their new home inside the casing! That was Hell.
Now, it is smooth sailing! When you are not able to transmit, there are a million other places you can run to that will work. And ultimately, you can pop off a photo with your iPhone to satisfy the deadline Gods until you are able to get your proper images back to the desk. The options are really limitless in this day and age! I am eternally thankful that I was raised printing and can appreciate how easy the digital innovations have made life for photographers!
JC: There have been more pictures taken in the past two years than in all of history before that; an incredible statistic that they say will double again next year. How has digital photography and technology changed the way you work? Has the deluge of images helped or hurt? How do you filter through all that noise?
JW: Having more photos out there doesn't mean these are good photos. A good photographer is a good photographer – period. I guess we have more photographs available for spot news situations or unique occurrences that people with cell phones can capture and share with us, which is awesome.
The Asiana airline crash would be a great example. The passengers who walked away from the wreckage sent us images to publish online immediately and we also were able to publish a few in the paper as well. But our photographer, Carlos Gonzalez, took the main image on the front page from a helicopter of the scene. He is an amazing photojournalist and no iPhone photograph could have replaced what he was able to capture. There is most definitely a place for both kinds of photographs.
JC: Does the Chronicle accept outside work? What's the best way for a photographer to get their work in front of you?
JW: The Chronicle most definitely accepts outside work as long as it is Bay Area-centered. The best way to get me to check out what you are doing is to send me an e-mail with a link to the work to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail me a book. I love looking at photos!
JC: Video has almost become second nature and an essential tool for the still photographer as more and more multimedia pieces are being produced. Does the Chronicle have dedicated videographers or is it expected of the staff to also perform that function?
JW: I feel very strongly that during the first wave of “Video is going to save us,” newspapers trained viewers that any video they produced was going to suck – because it did. As this next wave of “Yay Video” is hitting, at the Chronicle, we are trying to be very careful to not flood our sites with crappy video again.
Mike Kepka is a still/video columnist for us and has won four Emmys in the last three years. (see links below) We have a few other staffers who are into shooting video, as well, and include high end video for all of our in depth projects. Now that Erin Brethauer is coming on board, I am looking forward to expanding our video reach and will hopefully be able to show the people who control the money that it would be worth our while to beef up that part of our staff. Our writers can also submit Videolicious videos that we also add to stories.
JC: The Chronicle has been the recipient of many awards....including two Emmys last year. Please tell us a little about those two stories.
JW: I am so proud of Lacy Atkins; our former staff photographer (who recently accepted an amazing job traveling the world for a sustainably-sourced, high-end product start up) who worked for two years documenting the toll that violence takes on the residents living in certain parts of Oakland. In her piece, Even Odds, she spent a year in an Oakland public school that was created specifically for African-American boys. The visual component was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer for Feature Photography and the accompanying film, spearheaded by Mike Kepka and with help from Luanne Dietz, won an Emmy.
Mike and Luanne also won an Emmys for their Batkid film – which profiled the effort that the people of San Francisco put into making a dream come true for a kiddo named Miles who has cancer and wanted to be Batkid for a day.
JC: Is there a current project that you are working on (that you're at liberty to talk about) that you're looking forward to seeing published? Or was there one recently that tickled your fancy?
JW: Our staff is working on a group project having to do with gentrification in our fair city. We have all of the players in place and an amazing online component, as well as a short film we are producing. I am thrilled with how well we are working together as a team and with Mike Kepka’s foray into directing.
We have partnered with Sachi Cunningham at San Francisco State and her video students for our online component as well. Sachi is amazing and so are the kids she is teaching. I hope to keep this collaboration going with San Francisco State for our future projects!
JC: You've recently hired a very talented photographer from Chicago named Scott Strazzante. How did that come about and what are you looking forward to the most about his joining your crew?
JW: Brother Heisler asked Scott to come to dinner with him, Sonya Doctorian and me during the National Geographic Seminar in January. I guess something I said during the course of the evening struck home with him and he told me to let him know whenever we had an opening…a VERY rare occurrence. (I think someone referred an opening at the San Francisco Chronicle to a White Rhino!) He was looking for a change and felt like we might have a place to offer new experiences for him and his children.
So when Lacy was offered a job that no one in his or her right mind would refuse, Scott was the first person I called. We actually had something in the neighborhood of 419 applications in all and had a ton of amazing portfolios cross our desks. But Scott Strazzante is Scott Strazzante and the rest is history. I still cannot believe he is here.
JC: What kind of images floats Judy Walgren's boat? What are the essential elements of a great photograph or story in your eyes?
JW: I feel that a good photograph is provocative AND evocative because of subject matter, lighting, composition or point of view. A great photograph incorporates all of the above in a way that takes the viewer down deeper than the surface – causes you to pause and take it in. Simplicity married to sophistication would be another way to explain the vibe that I love in an image. And sometimes that you just can’t explain why a photograph is great; images that the photographer in some way must have psychically transmitted some heavy juju into the pixels to draw you in for keeps. You know the ones!
JC: Lastly, for the next generation of photojournalists who would like to work at the Chronicle or elsewhere, either as a photographer or photo editor; what advice or encouragement can you give them?
JW: It is an exciting time to be a visual storyteller! Get out there and change the world. You can do it and don’t believe anyone who says you cannot.
Mike Kepka’s City Exposed: http://blog.sfgate.com/cityexposed/
Scott Strazzante’s The Hip: http://blog.sfgate.com/sf-the-hip/
Mike Kepka’s Emmy’s:
Even Odds: http://vimeo.com/72237075
The Greatest Bridge Ever Built: http://vimeo.com/channels/thecaenfiles/42442223
Trumpet Kid: http://vimeo.com/39780363
Judy Walgren Twitter & Instagram: @judywalgren
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU THINK IS A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR ZPHOTOJOURNAL? EMAIL YOUR SUGGESTION TO: JIM.COLTON@ZUMAPRESS.COM