My observations about selecting photographers for assignments goes back to my time as director of photography at National Geographic. Fundamentally, I saw it as my role to identify photographers who could contribute to the magazine on the basis of their talent, creative vision, and passion for particular genres that would be useful to us.
I looked for evidences of those qualities in their portfolio. Specifically, I was looking for consistent, high quality execution of a particular kind of aesthetic vision put in the service of telling stories that might matter to our audience and be in our “sweet spot” as a publication.
In addition, I wanted to establish a relationship that might bear fruit over many years and multiple assignments. I wanted to know them as people and understand how they viewed their careers and what ambitions they had for exercising their creative talents as visual journalists. I still employ those fundamental criteria today in discussions with my students or in working with professionals.
I believe trust is the essential ingredient to the relationship. As a photo editor looking for long-term relationships with talented photographers, I want to understand how I can work with a potential contributor to fully harness and utilize their current abilities, while also helping them to further grow their creative skills. This requires full disclosure on both sides. I have to explain what I’m looking for in their work, and why I am reacting to their current work as I am. I have to explain how I would work with them in the future, and what the payoff might be for continued collaboration. At the same time they have to be willing to fully express to me what their aims are for the future, particularly if they were to work with me regularly.
I have to be able to glean from them whether or not they are problem-solvers, capable and willing of putting forward maximum effort every day to solve the creative problems that my assignments might pose. I have to know if they are willing to take intelligent risks to do the kind of intimate, in-depth storytelling I seek, and whether or not they’d be good representatives of my organization as they carry out assignments.
These questions can only come from honest, open conversation. While a portfolio may tell me some basic facts about aesthetic and story-telling capability, the deeper conversations, focused on developing mutual interest and mutual trust, are the critical ones for a successful creative relationship. I don’t want to invest time in photographers who aren’t willing and able to see the relationship in that light.