By Jim Colton
Our industry is witnessing a sea change….and traditional media outlets are swimming against the tide to keep pace as they reinvent themselves with the hopes of maintaining relevancy with their audience. There’s not a day that goes by without hearing of yet another publication folding up their tent, drastically reducing their staff or transiting from a print version to online only. Case in point: Newsweek magazine’s last issue will roll off the presses at the end of the year and will metamorphose into the online butterfly: Newsweek Global.
As traditional analog markets shrink for still photographers…we search for new ways to feature our craft. Now, more than ever, we have to be the Starship Enterprise. The Internet: The final frontier…to explore strange new worlds…to boldly go where no man has gone before. And when I look to the Heavens for answers, amongst all the blackness, there is a shining star. In Nebula Photojournalism…we find: In Focus (www.theatlantic.com/infocus)
The birth of a star: In September of 2010 I had the great pleasure of meeting Alan Taylor at the Focus Awards presented by the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Ma. Alan was the recipient of the New England Beacon Award for his creation: The Big Picture for the BostonGlobe.com…created in 2008 and what I describe as his “first born.”
In 2011, a sibling was born in his new house; The Atlantic…this one named In Focus. In Alan’s words the goal of In Focus is to, “Use photography to do the kind of high-impact journalism readers have come to expect on this site. I'll cover a range of subjects, from breaking news and historical topics to culture high and low. Sometimes, I'll just showcase amazing photography.”
If there is any doubt in your mind as to whether he lives up to that last statement, I invite you to look at his recent gallery postings, a 3 part series on the Year in Pictures. (See list of links at the end of the story.)
It is the opinion of this photo editor that he has one of the keenest eyes in the business and is as gifted as any journalist I have ever met. To delve a bit deeper into his thought process we had a candid interview where it became obvious to me that somewhere along the line, he has harnessed the energy of the sun!
Jim Colton: Tell us briefly how you came up with the idea/concept for In Focus....which if I am correct is a spinoff of an earlier creation of yours, The Big Picture at Boston.com.
Alan Taylor: I originally came up with the idea while working as a web developer for the Boston Globe (boston.com) in 2008. Years before I started, I had been collecting random groups of images from the web and making photo stories out of them for friends, which they really enjoyed, when I had the idea to try and do the same with news photos on a public blog for the Globe. After spending some time looking at the wire photos available, I knew it was a good idea, but would take work.
At the time, I was just a web developer for the Boston Globe, I wasn't involved in editorial at all - I was only working on some internal tools and the help-wanted classified ads pages on their website. So I had to ask my boss who I should speak to in editorial to get approval to try the blog. I worked up a good mockup of how it would look/work, and presented it to quite a few people. My recollection is that nobody was floored, but most gave me a nod and said 'worth a try'. When the last possible blocking vote gave me the go-ahead, I didn't ask for anything more - I went right to work and did all the template-building, coding, structure, schedule, storytelling and editing myself, because I knew exactly how I wanted it to look and perform. My idea was to try and build something with few ads, high-level content, and make good use of bandwidth and screen size - if I stepped out of bounds, I was hoping it was better to ask forgiveness than to wait around and ask permission.
After a couple of years, things got tough for me at the Globe, I was always really crunched for time, and The Atlantic came along and presented me with a great offer to start something new for them in early 2011, and I took it. It's been one of the best decisions I've ever made. The basic premise is 'news stories in photographs': large-sized, all-on-one-page (not slideshow, no flash), with an emphasis on narrative, or at least strong theme.
JC: I think it would be fair to say that you look at thousands of images every day when curating your site. How do you find the time to look at them all....and what kind of pictures jump off the screen for you?
AT: I seriously do look at thousands of images every single day, but there's really no other way to find narratives unless you know what's available. It's my fulltime job, so I spend about 65% of my time looking through and finding images, and about 35% of my time editing, composing, writing, coding, social-media-ing, etc. It's hard to force yourself to really see each image in a sea of thumbnails. Sometimes I have to look 3 or 4 times before I see something interesting in a thumbnail. Normally the ones that jump off the page are images I haven't seen before, or ones that instantly connect: well-composed action, gripping portraits, dynamic colors, or a strong subject. I'm also a sucker for some clichés like a great silhouette, an impressive explosion, or a gorgeous image from outer space.
JC: You state on your site that you invite photographers to submit images for consideration. Roughly how many of those do you receive daily...and what percentage of them actually get published?
AT: I probably get about 3-5 emails a day from photographers, both pro and amateur. When I can respond, I'm always up front about the fact that I am not budgeted beyond our news wire contracts, regrettably, but offer them exposure and links if they're willing. It's a difficult thing to say, but I have to be honest. I probably respond to about half of the emails, and a few of them I end up publishing, either as single images in a larger story, or the story entirely.
JC: I have asked you to submit a gallery that you were particularly fond of. Can you tell us why these particular images resonated with you?
They were done in moments where I felt frustrated with the general news coverage that I could find about the crisis in Syria, and the distressing lack of urgency among powers that could make a difference. Fortunately I am able to choose some of the most powerful images from some of the best photographers on the ground in Syria to tell an impactful story that might help light a few fires. Photojournalists Manu Brabo and Narciso Contreras of the Associated Press were real standouts for me. I am simply in awe of the abilities of conflict photographers - how they can skillfully capture a moment well both technically and artistically, while in a seriously dangerous environment.
JC: In an age where print journalism is going through some major changes, where do you see the path of web based photojournalism going?
AT: I'm always hard-pressed to predict the future. I feel like I found a sweet spot of large-sized imagery that fits well on today's PCs and tablets, but I don't know how well it translates to small-screen mobile devices. I always like to say that humans are both natural storytellers and lovers of stories, and publishers are always going to be around in one form or another. The medium and format may vary over time, but the stories will always thrive. How we all make that work financially is still another question, which I do not claim to have any answer to.
JC: Lastly, what advice can you give still photographers who are looking for other avenues for their work to be published?
AT: If you are looking to get paid to have your work published, I'm afraid it's as difficult now as it has been for the past decade or more. In my experience, budgets are always low, and getting work into traditional publishers is difficult at best. I have seen a number of successes on Kickstarter recently - case in point: Andrew Filer, who took his personal passion for photography of small-town and ghost town North Dakota and will now turn that into two books. His modest Kickstater campaign was fully funded, and he can now finish the books and continue onto other projects he's planned. He's not getting rich, but he is connecting well with fans of his work, and funding what he loves to do.