“A lot of organizations are looking for locally based photographers,” Sarah Leen, director of photography at National Geographic, said during a quick lunch break. “You have more diversity in voice, local knowledge and expertise. But you also do not have to fly someone halfway around the world to get a good photographer for the story.”
Tim Rasmussen, director of photography for ESPN, recalled how a few years ago at the review he met Juan Arredondo, a Colombian American photographer. Arredondo, Rasmussen recalled, was initially puzzled by the pairing, since sports was not among his strengths.
“I told him, ‘No, we do life through the lens of sports,’” Rasmussen says. “He said he was doing a thing on the former FARC rebels starting a football team. I hired him on the spot. He wound up doing the FARC piece; then we sent him to Russia for the World Cup to follow fans.”
Outside in the corridor, participants traded notes on reviews, shared projects and made plans to collaborate. This impromptu community is a rare scene in the virtual age of digital images and platforms, a throwback to the days when photographers congregated by darkrooms and newsrooms.
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, who participated in the 2018 review, returned this year as a volunteer and to scout talent for her ongoing projects, including MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora, an annual publication that promotes female photographers of African descent and advocates for improved representation.
“I create in a bubble,” said Barrayn, who is based in Brooklyn. “It was good to meet reviewers, editors and peers in person. We live in a social media world, we interact every single day, but not in real life. It’s important for us as photographers of color to build and create our own networks.”
Since its beginnings, the review has strived to broaden existing networks of photographers who are assigned by editors, published by presses or exhibited at galleries and museums. As the industry continued to struggle with a lack of diversity as well sexual harassment, the review last year inaugurated a seminar that offers them a chance to discuss strategies to improve the industry.
After taking part in two reviews, Elias Williams now returns as a volunteer to help others get what he has: a career. He was working as a stock boy at CVS and pursuing a project on the African American community of Saint Albans, Queens, when he attended his second review in 2015. He got not only encouragement, but access to talks and shows, and — above all — work.
“They wanted to know how to support me as a photographer with a project,” he said. “They invited me to talks that were not open to the public, background discussions for big events and access to assignment work that was able to help fund continuing the work and survive.”
After that review, he started getting enough regular assignments that he quit his day job. Now he supports himself with assignments for National Geographic, the Times and others.
“Coming from where I did, I was able to leave my job at CVS and take on assignment work entirely for the last three years,” he said. “People were reaching out to license images, then I got assignments and making a little bit more money than with CVS with the jobs I was taking on. I mean, for the first time, I was doing what I wanted to do: work in photography.” ■
David Gonzales is a longtime New York Times reporter and co-editor of Lens.