As picture editor at the Independent on Sunday, Sophie Batterbury sees thousands of images every day. Following her talk at Magnum Professional Practice in London, she tells us how she chooses photographers for commissions and why she is wary of citizen journalism…
How did you get into photo editing?
I wanted to be a photographer. I got a job in the Independent darkroom. I gradually realised that everybody else was a much better photographer than I was and that standing around in the rain was not as glamorous as you might have thought. So I stuck with the darkroom and then was night picture editor and it developed from there. I didn’t study photography at university – I’d done an A level but that was it. I don’t look at whether a photographer’s got a degree or not – I don’t care. I either like the work or I don’t. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been doing it for forty years or six months.
What do you look for when deciding whether to commission a photographer?
I look for a strong, concise book to start with, but also for someone who comes across as fairly together because they are my eyes. I can’t hold their hand; I can’t expect the reporter to hold their hand. It’s more a type of personality. [You need to be able to] get on well with people but not be afraid of them, to be easy going but confident, ready to adapt to the situation. You need to be able to charm people as well and to seem like you know what you’re doing. Finally, someone who’s organised: it doesn’t matter how fantastic the pictures are if I don’t get them in time because the computer’s run out of battery or something.
What’s your advice for wannabe photojournalists?
I often see people at portfolio reviews who say, “Well I’m doing this and I’m making money from it but I’d much rather be doing stories”. So many people make money from photography that is corporate, or that they don’t really love, but that pays the bills and gives them time and money to go and do the things they want to do. Don’t knock where [the money’s] coming from – just find other outlets.
You don’t have to go abroad on a long trip to do a story. Find stories close to home so you can spend a long time getting to know people and also be working. Don’t think you have to go away for a month and not earn anything and be out the loop of all your regular clients.
Also, don’t knock upbeat things. I stand a much better chance of getting something upbeat in because the paper is full of bad news. You need a balance. It doesn’t have to be saccharine; it doesn’t have to be surfing dogs but [could be] volcanoes or beautiful aerial pictures of forests in the autumn - something that’s a bit different.
Many people see citizen journalism as a threat to editorial photography – what’s your view on this?
It’s all about trust and truth. I have to be certain that what’s going in the paper is what it says it is. I instinctively don’t trust [citizen journalism]. I’ve heard horror stories. There was a sports picture editor at a national paper who came in and there were pictures on the back page of a football manager in Manchester supposedly that day in the sunshine. He’s got a mate in Manchester who told him, “It’s been torrential rain here all day”. These things do matter. If it’s presented as a piece of art that’s fine but if it’s presented as truth I need to be sure that we are as truthful as we can be. I don’t mind where people have come from as photographers but it’s knowing there’s an ethics behind what they’re doing.
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