By Jim Colton
Most of us can recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001.
On that day, most of the nation -- indeed the world -- sat riveted to live television coverage and endless replays of the day’s most gruesome moments. While television captured us for the day, many agree that it was the power of the printed image that burned those moments into our collective memory…still images made by courageous photographers who ran into the chaos while others desperately fled…a chaos later sorted and clarified by photo editors like MaryAnne Golon, then picture editor at TIME magazine.
Golon received a B.S. in Journalism and Communications from the University of Florida, was the Director of Photography at US News & World Report, followed by 15 years as the picture editor and then director of photography at TIME magazine where she earned wide recognition and acclaim for TIME’s 9/11 coverage. She was the on-site photography editor in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War and coordinated all of TIME's photographic coverage of several Olympic Games
In a word, Golon is tenacious. The same tenacity she employed just to get to Manhattan from New Jersey that fateful day is but one of many examples of the determination she brings to all her endeavors. Now, as the Assistant Managing Editor and the Director of Photography at the Washington Post, she supervises all aspects of photography for the newspaper and its digital forms.
Well-traveled and worldly, her wisdom, guidance and energy is a beacon that “carries that light of photojournalism,” for all to see.
Jim Colton: You have a long and rich history in our industry. Can you tell our readers a little about how you first got started in this business? Were you ever a photographer yourself? What or who were some of your earliest influences?
MaryAnne Golon: I grew up devouring LIFE magazine and I kept a picture box under my mother’s bed. My siblings (5 of them) and I clipped out images we liked and dragged out the picture box whenever we wanted to, just for fun or for school projects. My mother bought me my first camera, a Kodak 126 with a rotating flashcube on top, when I was 9 years old. She bought it with S&H green stamps! I needed it for my first merit badge in Junior Girl Scouts. That is when I started becoming really serious about photography.
JC: At Time magazine you grew under the tutelage of director of photography Michele Stephenson. And now, many years later, you are an active mentor for several organizations like The Eddie Adams, Missouri and Summit Photographic Workshops as well as having conducted the Master Class workshop for World Press. Can you tell us how working with Michele shaped who you are today and why you feel it’s important to pass on this knowledge to the next generation of photojournalists?
MG: Michele Stephenson taught me so many things that it is hard to single out a few or even ten! Honesty, caring and integrity…I will pick those three. The legacy she had will never be repeated. She was director of photography at TIME for 19 years when it was one of the most respected magazines in the world.
She is an extraordinary woman and was a fabulous mentor for me. The next generation needs to know that photography (especially professional photojournalism) is the tiniest business. If you are a fraud, you will be found out. If you are not a good person in your heart, that too will be revealed. We look out for each other in this industry and we support each other. I think in order to have the privilege of being a photojournalist; you need to first be a good human being!
As far as workshops….I get inspired by them! It’s a way to recharge my batteries. I get to see these young, energetic, bright eyed young people who want to do what we do…and that makes me happy! I’ve also met some great talent and stayed in touch and hired people. I’ve met people like Gillian Laub and Lynsey Addario just to name a few and I’ve remained very close to them over the years.
For me, workshops are all about giving back. I spend all of my vacation time doing workshops. You can’t know all the things you know and not make sure other people know it.
JC: We both worked in what could be described as the heyday of magazine photojournalism. I know there were many stories you worked on during those years, but could you give us one or two that you were especially proud of?
MG: The most important thing I ever worked on and the single issue for which I am the most proud is the black-bordered edition of TIME commemorating the attacks of 9/11 which won a single topic National Magazine Award and wound up being the best-selling cover in the history of the magazine. The team at TIME was a powerhouse back then. Magnificent journalism was an everyday thing.
Jim Nachtwey was in Perpignan where the agency VII was being announced. Chris Morris was also in Paris on his way to an assignment in the Caribbean, but missed his plane, so he asked Jim to cover the assignment for him. Nachtwey reluctantly agreed to cover for him and caught a flight back to New York on September 10th arriving that evening. Jim had all his equipment and film laid out on his bed as he was leaving for the Caribbean the next morning. But that next morning, he heard the plane hit the first tower and grabbed his equipment and film and left for the scene….and the rest is history. He got the first tower collapsing and then the second tower and almost got killed twice.
When I heard the news, I was in New Jersey and immediately tried to make my way to the office. All the major city bridges were closed, so I went all the way up to the Tappan Zee and came down through the Bronx and left my car at the Broadway Bridge. Then I walked from 175th street to 125th as there was no public transportation. Then I see this guy loading oxygen tanks into an emergency vehicle and as I walk up to him he says, “I’m not taking you,” before I even ask him for a ride downtown. I told him I was a journalist but after accepting a $90 offer (which was all the cash I had on me) he agreed to take me to midtown….but I had to ride in the back of the truck with the oxygen tanks!
He dropped me off at 12th avenue and 50th street and I hoofed it across town and when I finally got to the Time Life building, I was filthy, but the first person to greet me was Time Managing Editor Jim Kelly who gave me a hug and said, “I have never been happier to see anybody in my whole life!” Followed by, “How did you get so dirty? Were you down there?”
We had 36 hours to produce the magazine and set up a station in the lobby to take in film from anybody! That’s when I heard that Jim Nachtwey was on scene and alive and NOT in Paris! Later that evening, Jim showed, having walked all the way up from downtown, and was covered in soot and kept apologizing saying he couldn’t see! We took him down to the lab and gave him an eye-wash and he looked like a raccoon! And typical Jim, right after, wanted to return downtown.
The day was crazy…we crashed our server 4 times and after working 36 hours straight, Jim Kelly gathered everyone together and the layouts were on the wall in the conference room, but looking like it was done by committee and I wasn’t happy. So after Jim Kelly left the room, I went into the hallway and burst into tears. Design Director Arthur Hochstein saw me and said, “What’s the matter?” And I said, “We’re fucking this whole thing up! It’s gonna be ruined! We can’t have 15 people making these decisions…we’re not using our best stuff!”
Arthur said, “You! Get your shit together! Go into the bathroom, wash your face and you go march into Jim Kelly’s office and tell him what you just told me!” And that’s just what I did. I walked into Jim Kelly’s office and said, “Jim, we gotta re-do the whole thing!” Reluctantly, Jim agreed; so Arthur, Jim, Stephen Koepp and I, went in there and re-laid out the whole thing!
Next year, when Jim Kelly went on stage to accept the National Magazine Award for that issue, he thanked me first…which meant the world to me!
JC: What did you do after leaving TIME magazine in 2008?
MG: I left TIME in late 2008 and happily freelanced for four years. I curated Look 3, The Festival of the Photograph in 2009, chaired the World Press Photo Foundation contest and consulted as photography director at AARP for 2010-2012. I was ready for a new adventure.
JC: What was it like working at AARP? Did you approach working there any differently or did it change your "perspective" in any way? Any particular story there you were fond of?
MG: I was there to consult on the website and help them improve the multimedia. Working at AARP was a bit of a culture shock having worked for so long at a publishing company. The publishing arm of AARP is there to strengthen and support the focus of the non-profit organization overall. It is decidedly not the primary focus. I was thrilled with the diversity of the workforce and enjoyed collaborating with my visual colleagues there on the print and video teams. I produced several multimedia projects using Magnum photographers like Chris Anderson, Larry Towell, Alex Webb and Susan Meiselas. (See links below)
JC: Did you miss the "news" adrenaline?
MG: I did not miss the hard news adrenaline until I returned to it at the Post. It felt like finding an old favorite pair of boots in the back of the closet. I put them on and marveled at how perfect my feet fit in them! That's me and news! A perfect fit!
JC: And when you took the position at the Washington Post, how did the move to DC affect you, if at all?
MG: Moving to DC was not a big deal for me. I already lived here in 1996-1999 while I was working at US News & World Report. I still have friends here and had grown fond of the region.
JC: Now as Assistant Managing Editor and Director of Photography at the Washington Post, what are the biggest differences in how you cover the world as opposed to your magazine days? Can you give us a rough breakdown of the photo staff at the Post including photographers, editors and support staff?
MG: There is really not a very big difference in the daily journalism at the Washington Post and TIME as a weekly newsmagazine. We constantly changed the magazine all week long until we closed in on deadline and then it all had to stop. At a certain point, the magazine had to be printed. The paper is actually more organized and disciplined on daily and multiple deadlines. We print three editions every day.
We have a 24-hour news website with hourly deadlines. We are nimble and innovative. In other words, I love it! I have one deputy, one associate editor, one magazine photo editor, and 12 other digital/print photo editors for the print version and the web. We have 14 staff photographers and 2 operations people, so roughly a total of 32 devoted employees.
JC: Digital photography and web presence has changed how consumers get their information. What are your greatest challenges in satisfying that ever changing market? Is the print version of the Post still the primary focus or is the division of labor and energy being spread equally amongst your digital content?
MG: The Washington Post is a news organization where the motto has become: “The deadline is now.” We are absolutely spreading our resources across all platforms and working together on all stories in all forms. The digital front is every bit as important to innovate and showcase… which has always been the case for print.
You have to assign differently today. It’s not like they’re shooting two different assignments, they’re shooting one assignment! The main component is going to appear in print and the rest of it in a digital presentation.
For example, Michael Williamson worked on a five part series with a very talented reporter named Eli Saslow on a story about SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) which is the name of the former Food Stamps. He photographed all over the country and Michael knows what we want for print but he also shoots these amazing “sense of place” images in that very recognizable Michael Williamson style, which gives us these really rich images to create galleries online which gives the viewer a much more visual experience.
All of our photographers are also capable of shooting video…but we don’t have them doing both video and stills at the same time. We also have a team of people that are full blown V Jays that we work with very closely.
JC: The Washington Post has a new owner, Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos. I understand you met him recently after the acquisition. Can you tell us what that meeting was like and are you at liberty to share any of his thoughts and his goals for the Post?
MG: I met Jeff Bezos and I truly liked him. He is smart, well read, a lively conversationalist, and very active and present. He was quite impressive. He is working carefully and strategically with Marty Baron, our executive editor, and Katherine Weymouth, our publisher to expand and develop our digital market and national and international audiences. It is simply too soon yet to share any specifics.
JC: You’ve got an amazing group of staff photographers, including one of my favorites, Michael Williamson. What’s it like working with such a talented crew, and how do you keep them motivated?
MG: I have an amazing staff of veteran photojournalists who blow me away with their commitment, professionalism and vision. Michael Williamson is a gem of a human being and a real friend of mine as well as my colleague His images of America will define an age and his talent is simply extraordinary.
Linda Davidson, Jahi Chikwendiu, Matt McClain, Nikki Kahn, Jonathan Newton, Michel DuCille, Melina Mara, Marvin Joseph, Bill O’Leary, John McDonnell. Ricky Carioti, Toni Sandys, Sarah Voisin and Katherine Frey….they are, every single one of them, excellent photojournalists! I was truly lucky with this staff.
I motivate them by praising and publishing them and making sure they have the equipment, money, and time that they need to develop their stories. We work collaboratively with the design and digital teams to ensure that their photography is displayed well across all platforms. We all meet once a month to talk and share ideas and information. I support them every day and celebrate their frequent successes.
JC: Are there any current projects that you are working on that you are free to talk about and what are your short and long term goals for the photo department at the Washington Post?
MG: One of the projects that I’m really proud of is Linda Davidson’s Syrian Refugees. (see link below) Linda and a reporter Kevin Sullivan went to three different countries to look at this flood of refugees from Syria. We decided to take the approach of diptychs; one side is a very simple yet powerful portrait and the other side is where that person lives now.
She also shot all the video, collected audio and shot the diptychs, and Kevin also collected audio and wrote the story. I’m super proud of that one and we already have several similar projects planned for 2014.
JC: What sage wisdom can you offer to the young photographer who may want to work at the Washington Post someday? And what do you feel will be critical for any aspiring photojournalist to have in their skill set?
MG: Number one….everyone has to be capable of shooting video. And what I mean by capable is not that they have to be able to edit and produce a mini documentary but are comfortable and knowledgeable enough shooting the video. Number two, they have to know how to tell stories. It’s the same exact skill set that it has always been since you and I started in this business. You have to know how to shoot a narrative with images. And if you’re a solid photojournalist and have an excellent eye and you can compose an image and know light, then shooting video is not going to be that hard. When you look at the Syria Refugee story, you will see how these short video portraits help lift the project. Shooting mini docs and multimedia is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. But I still think we should stick to what we do, and just do it really, really well.
JC: Lastly, what kind of stamp do you want to leave in the industry? Years from now, how would you like your legacy to be remembered?
MG: I would like to be remembered as someone who was true….who was honest and loyal and true to the industry, because that’s what I aspired to be my whole life. And what I mean by that is that I believe that photojournalism is a light, and I’m a person who always wanted to carry it.
Correction: This story was corrected after original publication to clarify MaryAnne Golon's title and role at TIME magazine. We regret the error.