Thomas Patterson: The Editor’s Take on Working With Photographers

Thomas Patterson: The Editor’s Take on Working With Photographers


Photography can be a lonely business.  

When I was a full-time photographer, I often felt like a lone wolf, moving from assignment to assignment, shoot to shoot, without much of a connection to the audience for my work and without the feedback from clients I needed to improve. Too often I heard “We love it; just give us more,” which feels nice, but impedes growth. Without detailed knowledge of the creative strategy that led up to the assignment or the foresight of the different ways my work would be used, I was at a disadvantage as I went out into the field.


When I was the photo editor for the international humanitarian agency Mercy Corps, each day some of the most talented photographers from around the world reached out to be hired. I tried my best to respond to everyone, but I found myself giving more detailed feedback — and assignments — to photographers who had researched my organization, its visual style, its programming and the locations where we worked around the world, and tailored their pitches accordingly. Remember empathy. Just as the best storytelling honors or otherwise takes into account the perspective of the subject, make sure you understand where the editor is coming from regarding specific deliverable needs and timelines.


"Egos can be a whopper of a barrier to do what is best for the story that needs to be told," the editor Sue Morrow told me. She is currently teaching at Ohio University while on a sabbatical from the Sacramento Bee newspaper. "Stories, in my opinion, are not about personal vision. Stories are about an issue, a conflict (and hopefully resolution) and the people in the story. The story is not about the photographer, and so the position of the editor is to keep a focused direction on assigning, preparation, guidance from afar and into the editing process. The best case scenarios and outcomes result when this relationship between editor and photographer is understood and respected. It's a reciprocal relationship that brings much satisfaction and great results. And probably, consistent work. Win, win."


In a world where seemingly everyone is a photographer, and where nonprofit and corporate budgets are squeezed, how can you rise above the competition? By deeply understanding your clients’ needs, and by showing you can be a good partner. Too often, a photographer would show me a portfolio that featured beautiful images that we would never be able to use. I couldn’t hire a photographer unless I could see evidence that he or she could deliver what I needed, not just pretty pictures. Sometimes someone would pitch me a photo project from a part of the world Mercy Corps didn’t operate. Even if I really liked the story, I couldn't offer a platform if the story was completely disconnected from the work we did. And being a good partner is impossible without being a good communicator; for example, I always note who returns emails in a timely, thorough manner and who needs to be reminded.


Not long ago, while speaking with a photographer who spent more than 300 days per year away from his family in some of the world's most remote places, I asked "Why do you do this work?" He had to pause for a long time, as if he'd not considered the question before. Then we were able to talk about what challenges fundamentally mattered to him, and how his chosen path affected that. So often we humans get caught up in our daily routines and expectations, we lose track of why we do what we do each day. Once you understand your own motivation, you can learn how to pair that with an organization's vision, and your work can transform into something more meaningful for everyone.


That partnered vision takes into account an organization’s individual context. I serve on the board of directors of Blue Earth Alliance, a non-profit that helps photographers tell social and environmental stories. A recent Blue Earth survey notes that art buyers often play many other roles in their business: editor, fundraiser, art director, marketing manager, communications director, writer, graphic designer, sometimes even CEO. Budgets are tight, and there are only so many hours in the day. The best organizations don’t need to be convinced how important storytelling is, and that visuals are the backbone of their business’ story. But busy people often need to be reminded that the imagery they use is how the world sees their work. With more than 100 billion photos taken every month, how do they stand out from the visual avalanche? By having a clear, consistent, bold visual language that matches their organization’s mission. And by working with visual storytellers that can consistently bring that vision to their project stakeholders.


Another crucial part of the organization’s context is how they specifically use their visual stories. For example, the Blue Earth survey identified social media such as Facebook and Instagram as vitally important channels for most nonprofits. If the organization’s visual brand involves tight portraits in bright colors cropped strictly square for Instagram, they will be sorely disappointed if you come back from the shoot with only monochrome panoramic landscapes. Or vice-versa, if an NGO’s homepage or newsletter has a strict template that features a letterbox banner image, you had better deliver high-quality horizontal options for them. If you research the organization beforehand and bring knowledge of these visual needs, you will make your editor very happy.


So, you’ve pitched yourself to an organization’s art buyer and had a productive conversation about collaboration. Maybe you’ve even discussed specific projects and your role(s) — specifically how you plan on adding value. Eventually you’re going to have to sign their contract, which means you’ll have to proactively assign value to yourself. Totally unoriginal but important negotiating tactic #1: first ask what their budget is. Always try to have the other party name a number first, then you can work toward an agreement with that information. For what it's worth, at Mercy Corps we had no leeway for negotiation and paid standardized day rates for shooting, and lesser day rates for travel and editing days. But always try to not leave money on the table; employees at most non-profits don’t work for free, so why should you?


The photographer Sara Hylton reached out to me recently to discuss a negotiation she was in with a large INGO, which had asked her to submit a budget. It would be her first content gathering trip to a conflict zone, and we discussed her underlying motivation — what would this shoot mean to her and her business in the short term and the long term? Which brings us to totally unoriginal but important negotiating tactic #2: It's totally valid to bend on budget if you think the resulting stories would really bolster your portfolio or send it in an exciting new direction that could open up satisfying and/or lucrative doors. But never bend on budget just to get in with a client; they'll always think of you as "the cheap photographer,” and if they have a bigger job to fill they will hire someone else: Someone who charged them a fair rate, and who earned their respect with professionalism, empathy, creativity and hard work.


" [Our role] is to be the advocate for the photographer,” Sue Morrow the editor told me. "We lay down on the tracks for a story we believe in, and often for the person making the pictures. It's in our DNA. It is indeed a symbiotic relationship, or it is in the best-case scenarios. I believe it's critical for both parties to understand why they have chosen these roles and what it takes to uphold, what is much of the time, a nonverbal agreement: to support the story and make the story the best it can be for the audience."


Respect is the foundation of every good partnership. By doing the groundwork before the shoot, and by communicating openly and thoroughly, you can build that partnership into a force that helps make the world a little bit better.

Image ©Thomas Patterson.


Thomas Patterson is a photographer, photo editor and content consultant based in Portland, Oregon. He specializes in projects for editorial, corporate and nonprofit clients around the world; and in helping visual storytellers work together better with the businesses that hire them. He leads the Projects Committee on Blue Earth Alliance’s board of directors. / @pattersonphoto


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