Photo Journal: The New York Times - Lens

  • NEW YORK TIMES

 By Jim Colton

“I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.”-- Steve Jobs.

Jim Estrin by Fred R. Conrad / NYTDavid Gonzalez by Earl Wilson / NYT

Two simple words…”What’s next?” Well, if you’re David Gonzalez and Jim Estrin, it was their search for the next good idea on their journey along an ever changing road map that led them to their destination. David and Jim were two accomplished photojournalists busily navigating the technological landscape looking for new ways to tell their stories.

In 2008 when many organizations were morphing to accommodate the convergence of print and web, Estrin approached his boss at the New York Times with the idea of starting a photography blog.  The idea was warmly received but fraught with the knowledge that there was a lot of work ahead of them to pull it off. And after a year of research, development and meetings with editors and designers…Lens Blog was born.

And in five short years, it has become the “go to” site for photojournalists as well as anyone interested in photography. And putting credence on the phrase that “Two heads are better than one,” Gonzalez and Estrin co-captain this ship on its daily journey. And their words are equally as powerful as the images they publish. Both bring unique perspectives to the world of photography and their passions are deeply rooted.

Gonzalez seeks to bring to light work by photographers from varied cultural backgrounds, bringing an ethnic component into the mix and Estrin features work from both historic and contemporary platforms. Although not restricted to just these genres, the variety is both refreshing and informative. 

Jim Colton:First, please tell us a little about yourselves including your early years and how photography came into your lives.

David Gonzalez: I was born in the South Bronx to working-class Puerto Rican parents. I grew up in an era of arson and abandonment that scarred the borough in the 1960s and 1970s.  I attended Catholic schools which exposed me to not just a wider world, but my place in it. I got into Yale, where I thought I was going to be pre-med. Instead, disillusioned and a bit at sea, I decided to major in something other than science. I settled on psychology, not because of any longing to become a shrink or a researcher, but because I was intrigued with how the mind works…especially in relation to cognition and language.

Photography came into my life accidentally. I had dropped Organic Chemistry in October of 1976. Weeks later, I was with my friend Stanley Browne, who used to use the darkroom at Morse (one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges). I went with him one day, saw the images emerge from the trays and was hooked. It was just another form of chemistry, something I could relate to and was another way to express myself. I became obsessed with taking pictures and spent long hours in the darkroom: (See link 1)

Upon graduation, I returned to the South Bronx and taught photography at CS61 on Charlotte Street while working at the arts non-profit, En Foco. The school…made famous during Jimmy Carter's 1977 visit where he said urban policy had failed…was the only occupied building on Charlotte Street. While I had been away at Yale, the borough of my birth had been destroyed. Photography became my way of making sense of it all: (See link 2)

The rest gets complicated. But the publication of that story in 2009 revived my photographic aspirations/career, resulting in some shows as well in the paper creating my Side Street column where I get to shoot and write: (See link3)

James Estrin: I grew up mostly in New Rochelle, N.Y. in a very diverse neighborhood and started photographing when I was 16.  Almost immediately I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be Eugene Smith. The next year I was taking workshops at the International Center of Photography and hearing him speak about his new book about Minimata.  

I went to Hampshire College, studying anthropology and labor history, and was influenced by Jerome Liebling in his photo and film classes. In 1979 I was back at ICP in their advanced studies program.  I started at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi in 1981 and then freelanced in New York in 1983 for nine very long years (the last four at the New York Times). I was hired as a staff photographer at the New York Times in 1992.  I have also written for the paper, and produced audio and video for nytimes.com.

JC: How did Lens Blog come to fruition? Whose original idea was it?  And what was the process like to get it up and running?

JE:  In 2008, things were changing at a dizzying pace in the photography and media industries. At the time it wasn’t clear exactly what the results of these changes would be but I thought it was important to do something to try to respond to the situation and to promote photography and photographers.

In May of 2008 I had several conversations with my boss (Assistant Managing Editor Michele McNally) about starting a photo blog at the Times. She thought it was a terrific idea but that it would take much more time and effort than I thought (she was right). But she let me go ahead and try to develop it anyway. I turned to Josh Haner who, besides being an excellent photographer and editor, is a technical genius.  With his help we started on the road to launching Lens, which took a year, including many, many meetings with word editors, web people, designers and coders. 

Michele had the brilliant idea of enlisting David Dunlap, a gifted reporter who is quite knowledgeable about photography to be co-editor of Lens.  He was integral to setting the tone and editorial standards for Lens. After 2 years he went back to writing full time for the metro section and in a remarkable piece of good fortune David Gonzalez became co-editor of Lens and set us off in new directions.

JC: How often do new items appear? Is it a daily change or a rolling addition? How many people are involved in its production?

JE: Monday through Friday we have fully reported and produced posts every morning and Pictures of the Day around 5 PM.  On occasion we publish additional posts on weekdays and also on Saturday and Sunday. We are a small hard working team - just David, myself, and our producer Whitney Richardson.  David also writes and photographs for a weekly column for metro and I photograph two days a week, so we rely on Whitney to keep things running smoothly. We are also blessed with an extraordinary intern, Jake Naughton.

JC: What criteria do you use to determine what's in and what's out? Where does one look for these stories? Are independent and freelance photographers allowed to submit or suggest stories? If so, what's the procedure?

DG: I like to think that all the members of the Lens team bring complementary perspectives to the table. In my case, I have an abiding interest in Latin American and Latino photographers, as well as a larger interest in questions of representation. This comes from my own background, as well as from an appreciation of how digital technologies and the Web make it easier for the subjects of photographs to see how they have been portrayed.

I also like to shine the light on photographers whom you should know, but don’t: Jack Delano, the FSA great and Daniel Hernandez Salazar, a Guatemalan shooter who has documented the aftermath of the genocide in his country, are but two examples of that concern. Similarly, we love to encourage younger shooters, something that is an even greater concern, as people work more and more on their own, cut off from their peers and their elders. In the old days, the darkroom was a great place to learn from others; a place to learn tribal rites about the profession, in all its aspects, from technical to ethical. With folks being able to shoot and file on location, you have to be able to create a forum where thoughts and images can be exchanged.

At the same time, I like to make sure we have a mix that reflects the range of human experience and emotion: from serious to silly. We need to give the viewer a full range, lest we risk losing their interest because of an unceasing diet of “serious” subjects.

JE: We look at everything that is sent to us. We never know when, or where, we will find the project that excites us. We particularly like publishing lesser known photographers and people working in their own cities and countries. We publish what we respond to most. You can email us at lens@nytimes.com.

JC: Is there a fee structure or payment for photographs used?

JE: We pay a flat fee of $350 dollars for photos for a Lens post, unless it directly promotes a book or exhibit. If the photos are picked up by the newspaper or the International New York Times (with the photographers approval) there is a larger payment.

JC: Is there crossover between the print version of the New York Times and what appears in Lens Blog or are they separate entities? 

JE: They are separate entities. However there are times when we publish New York Times material as slideshows on Lens, such as Pulitzer Prize winning photos by Tyler Hicks from the Nairobi Mall attack: (See link 4)

Sometimes the International New York Times, or the American edition, are interested in running the work of a photographer that we publish on Lens - but that is a separate negotiation and payment. There is no obligation on the photographer’s part. 

JC:Could each of you list one or two of your favorite Lens Blog items and tell us why they struck a chord with you? 

DG: 1) My post on Frank Espada, a Puerto Rican photographer who studied with Gene Smith in the 1950s but who had to set aside his career to raise a family in the projects of East New York. Frank had a dedication to portraying his community with truth, and his work in East Harlem – done at the same time as Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street epic – is, to me, the more truthful document of that community. Frank – who died earlier this year – was very clear about what he thought of the many shooters – good intentions aside – who went to poor communities looking to reinforce their perceptions. His point of view, to me, is a potent reply to those who discount the narrative when told from an insider’s point of view but celebrate the skewed vision of outsiders; Original Post: (See Link 5) After his death: (See Link 6) 

2) Kerri MacDonald’s post about Tony Cenicola’s “Pinup Chicken.” Serendipitous, silly and a peek into how Tony can make something memorable from what could have been a dull assignment: (See Link 7)

JE: That’s really difficult! I was pleased with the 2 part interview I did with Josef Koudelka.  He rarely sits for interviews. I vividly recall seeing his Gypsies book for the first time over 35 years ago. I learned a great deal about him, and about photography, from our conversation; Part 1: (See Link 8) Part 2: (See Link 9)

I admire the Race stories that Maurice Berger writes for us. I was very proud to publish his post on the rediscovered Gordon Parks photographs of an African-American extended family living in the segregated  south in 1956.  I think Parks is underappreciated. This is a magnificent photo essay and Maurice, as usual is spot on- smart, accessible and soulful: (See Link 10)

JC: Do you feel that the online universe is taking over print media or augmenting it? 

DG: Face it, online is how most people experience images these days. I like how it allows for access – sometimes immediate access – to events.  And it allows photographers to put out bodies of work that would otherwise have gone unseen in the analog days. 

But the flood of pictures made it even more necessary for more carefully-edited preventions, which has been the strength of print. In the digital era, there will be a need for sites that can sort through the visual noise and bring a more thoughtful eye (and mind) to what is out there.

To me, the question is not print vs. online – that argument is pretty much moot when it comes to general audiences - but edited versus unedited; context versus chaos.

JC: Are video, audio and multimedia productions going to be essential tools for the next generation of photojournalists?

JE: I think video and audio can be very empowering for photographers. Multimedia allows us to be the storyteller as opposed to just illustrating someone else’s words. There is an important place for pure photojournalism, but these extra skills can help us be better storytellers and certainly help in getting both freelance work and staff jobs. In addition I think all photojournalists should learn to write well. 

JC: We've seen much change since the transition from analog to digital. With all the volume now available, do you think this has helped or hurt a more visually informed public?

DG: I think to some extent it has numbed people to the meaning and impact of photography. On the one hand it’s great that more people have access to the tools to make and distribute images. But what are they shooting? Who is educating them? What is the purpose of images on social media? Especially on social media!

Where photography was once a medium that told stories or illustrated the news (or marked significant life moments) it has turned into something where the image itself is secondary. The image - especially in social media – becomes a stand-in for part of a conversation, a joke or comment, rather than an insight. To this current generation, the image has a different meaning and currency. And while people appreciate a good image, they can just as easily be confused by what is considered “good” given the routine amount of digital manipulation that is accepted by the public.

JC: What is your take on what has happened to many newspaper photography staffs like the Chicago Sun-Times? Do you see this happening to more of our newspapers? Is there anything that can be done to prevent this?

DG: I look at it this way, rather than laying off photographers and giving writers iPhones, why not lay off reporters and give photographers notebooks? Both moves make about as much sense. The idea you can lay off a photo staff to save money while giving reporters (who may or may not know anything about a decent picture) reveals a fundamental devaluation of the profession. It also reveals, to me, a tremendous lack of understanding of the role of photography beyond a literal capturing of an event. Such moves are a cheap and fast way to journalistic irrelevance.

JC: Lastly, what do each of you hope to see in the coming years specifically regarding the future of photojournalism? Do you have any last words of advice or wisdom that you can impart to the young photojournalist contemplating a career in this business?

DG: There will always be a need for good - and great - photojournalism. There are simply stories that can be told visually in a way that print cannot capture; in a way that captures the mind – and heart – of the viewer.

At the same time, I would urge anyone who is going into the field to have more than the usual visual skills and be conversant with other technologies relating to multimedia. I would also urge them to work on their writing and be able to tell a story in both words and pictures. The more tools you have, the more work you can do.

JE: I am proud to be a photojournalist. I think what we do is critically important to attaining a free and just society. This is probably not the best path to material riches but I cannot imagine a more satisfying and enjoyable way to spend one’s life. My advice is to go out and tell the stories that matter most to you…that you care passionately about. Believe in yourself and work as hard as you possibly can. Then work even more!

LINKS: 

David Gonzalez

  • Twitter: @dgbxny
  • FB: dgbxny
  • Instagram: 104bx 

Jim Estrin

  • Twitter and Instagram: @JamesEstrin

 Editor’s note: This is my last Photo Journal for NPPA. I’d like to take this time to thank two of the finest editors in the business; Donald Winslow and Chuck Gathard. It has been a terrific collaboration. Please stay tuned for an announcement about Photo Journal’s new home.