Jim Estrin – Conversation

Jim Estrin

A Conversation with Jim Estrin, New York Times Lens Blog

 

David Alan Harvey: You will be the third photographer in a row that I have interviewed, who I know as photographers and who have evolved and are now editors/decision makers. Anyway, I knew your credit line so I think of you as a photographer, a staff photographer at the New York Times where they have got a pretty large staff.

Jim Estrin: Thank God.

DAH: But now you are making decisions for Lens Blog at a time where time is tough for young photographers. You and I were lucky because there was more of a career track for us. So tell me about that, tell me about where you see young photographers and where you see yourself fitting into the decision making process?

JE: Well, why don’t we start with young photographers? I think that there is obviously a shapelessness to what’s going to happen in the future, what we can perceive as to what’s going to happen in the future as far as photography and as far as the industry go. But, I don’t see it as negatively as a lot of people do. I don’t want to belittle in any way the need to make a living, I think it’s critical, and I think that there are certain jobs that existed when we were young that don’t exist now. But not as many as some people think. There were a few hundred people, from this country who were working internationally for magazines and making good living.

DAH: Yes, a profession of a hundred people. However, it has NEVER been a real “profession”. Never lots of people in it. Law and medicine are “professions”.

JE: A hundred or two hundred who would have been making money I mean. There were more newspapers that were palatable to work at, and there are few now, so there were those jobs, but most of them didn’t pay much.

DAH: No, but it was a great job though Jim. I mean it was a great job. As jobs go. You could go home and cook in your back yard, and then go out and shoot some good assignments and your buddies are there… no, I always lived very well as a newspaper photographer. Yet I knew there had to be more..

JE: Yes, well I worked at the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

DAH: Yeah, I know you did…and I was with Clarkson in Topeka..

JE: And I love that kind of photography, and working for a newspaper. I happen to really like working for a newspaper, but what I am saying is that it has never been an easy profession; it’s a myth that it was easy twenty-five years ago.

DAH: Yeah, that’s bullshit.

JE: I don’t know about forty-five years ago, but I know about thirty years ago and it was not easy!

DAH: No, it was not easy and it seems easy to the young because they see us a certain way and they forget that it wasn’t like that really. Every generation has to build their own thing.

JE: And so for all the challenges which young photographers face, and they do face serious challenges, I am not making them smaller than they are, there are also tremendous opportunities that didn’t exist then that do now.

DAH: That’s what I keep telling people.

JE: First thing is the opportunity to have your work seen.

DAH: That’s like a miracle!

JE: That is a miracle.

DAH: You had to work for the New York Times in order to be seen, and I had to work at National Geographic to be seen at all! Otherwise we wouldn’t have been seen. It was hit the top, or nothing!

JE: I spent my twenties not being seen.

DAH: I as well spent my entire twenties not being seen. That’s what I keep telling young photographers. I couldn’t even show my photographs except to get published in NatGeo. I had to really bust it to get to NG. Then I left! (laughing). For Magnum. Well, you gotta keep moving to a new place….

JE: Yeah, I would drop off a book, and if a secretary looked at it I was really lucky, you know? But there is now the opportunity to show your work, there is the opportunity to self publish, there are these entrepreneurial opportunities to do business. If you get past the jobs that I was talking about, and you talk about the great documentary photographers, they didn’t make a living.

DAH: No.

JE: Gene Richards wasn’t making a living… you know the decision to do documentary work as opposed to photo journalism, to do art work as opposed to photo journalism, there wasn’t money there. If you taught you were lucky…

DAH: Well, the only place there has ever been money is advertising photography.

JE: That’s true. And there used to be corporate work.

DAH: Yeah, but there was certainly nobody selling prints when I first got in the business, nobody sold prints.

JE: No, not unless you were Ansel Adams.

DAH: Well, maybe Ansel Adams, but people weren’t talking about selling prints; photography had not risen to that stature.

JE: There are multimedia platforms for story telling that weren’t available. I love working at the New York Times but for the first half, actually the first fifteen years of my career at the Times, I wasn’t the story teller, even if it was a story I came up with. I was an illustrator, someone else told the story. Now, I can tell the story. I can tell the story with audio, with video, with writing on the web, in a blog…

DAH: Jim, you have really hit the nail on the head better than anybody, and that is the truth. That is the truth of the new media because you and I, when we first started in the business, even though we had salaries, I was also at least three people removed from my audience. You are nobody removed from your audience. You might have an audience of fifteen, but you’ve got fifteen people who know YOU. And actually who you are as a photographer, see, because I had a couple of editors interpreting theoretically to readers whoever DAH was. I had to convince Jack Hunter, one crusty embittered guy on the city desk of my newspaper, that this was in fact a good picture to get published. I mean I had to get to one guy who hated photography to “get” my picture…

JE: (laughing) Yeah. You know, I’m very sympathetic with young photographers, and I don’t mean to say…

DAH: No, you can’t make a living of it. Yet I started Burn to at least give some sort of outlet for the next generation. Lens Blog is for sure a premiere force.

JE: But one has to make a living. I’m merely saying that one, it wasn’t always simple, and two, that for every disadvantage now there is certainly at least one advantage.

DAH: Yeah, every generation’s got to carve the damn thing out of raw soapstone because, for example, National Geographic was not a place to work when I got out of college… we made it a place to work. It was red fucking t-shirts, it was embarrassing, National Geographic. I wanted to work at Life Magazine, Look Magazine, New York Times… but Look folded, Life folded and National Geographic was there, we rushed it… a whole bunch of young people rushed it at the same time.

We reinvented it. With basically only one editor who aided us. And so every generation has got to reinvent the damn thing. You know, I lamented the fact that Life wasn’t there for me, but you turn something else into it. Yeah, something is happening. Now there are new collectives coming with Prime and with Luceo. Well, the agencies have all got good photographers in them, but…

JE: Yeah and you know there’s digital distribution so on one hand you have five hundred people in Times Square with iPhones, which I am not saying is a good thing necessarily or a bad thing, but the ability to distribute your photos at least is there. One can send photos digitally..

The problem is finding people who will pay for them. You know, it’s difficult, it’s confusing, but I think it’s also exciting… It’s essentially a golden era.

DAH: Totally a golden era. But I think there is only one problem. Only one, instead of a multitude of problems which I felt like I was up against. There is only one problem now, and that is the pay wall.

JE: Money.

DAH: Just the money, but if you’re only talking about money, that’s only one thing to kind of think about, you know you can kind of focus on that one. Yet there are ways. Again, this has never been a place where all who thought they were photographers got paid.

JE: Look at Danfung Dennis, with “Condition ONE”, and his film. You know, he’s a photographer, he’s inventing technology, he’s promoting technology, he’s into business, he’s making a film… you know, there are a lot of options. But again, we have to figure out the money. It’s no question.

DAH: Well, you know, when I met Candy she was my computer tech person and two days before I went down there we set up a pay wall, a rough one, for TheRioBook. So I was charging $1.99 to go on this adventure. I sold it as a workshop. That was the most likely thing for me to do, and I figured the Burn readers would get that. You know, hey… let me charge this buck 99 thing, come on with me to Rio…

JE: How many did you sell?

DAH: Oh just a very few thousand.

JE: That’s a lot! A thousand is a lot.

DAH: Is it?

JE: You did it in no time.

DAH: No, in fact, we are taking on subscriptions on now just as much as back when we were live. It’s continuing because it’s become kind of a classic out there. Anyway, the point is that I did charge for content on the web. The thing that everybody said you cannot do. I didn’t have an app. I just had a good ole fashioned Pay Pal account. So I did do it. Might try it again. Might not.

JE: The second part of your question about decision-making is I think connected to the first. You know, I want to help photographers figure this out. I want to help promote photography and promote photographers. Now there are a lot of people doing it. But my thesis on Lens is that photographs do not happen by themselves. They happen because of photographers. That is why we write about the photographers, you know? And as far as decision making, we are very, very fortunate. Right now it’s David Gonzales, Josh Haner, and Matt McCann who work with me on Lens, We can do almost anything we want to do, that we think is good.. Fortunately they like what we do. We are very, very fortunate.

DAH: You are the most popular, biggest photo blog out there. You’ve got the circulation and the incredible content, so everybody wants to get published on Lens Blog. So I would image they would let you do whatever you do, and I’m sure they would also like to figure out how they could monetize Lens Blog too. I’m sure everybody would. Double your salary, or however you want to look at it.

JE: Well, I think it has to do with paying people, not doubling my salary. And we are just now starting to do that. Now we are able to pay photographers.

Essentially what it is, is that we have to like it and think it’s good.

Often it has to make me feel something personally, or think something, and you know that’s it. And of course my colleagues as well, but you know it’s real simple.

DAH: You have to like it and think it’s good. Very big news that Lens Blog will now pay photographers.

JE: Yeah, really, and hope that it is of some interest to our readers.

DAH: No, but seriously that’s such an honest answer, and it is actually everybody’s answer, but nobody wants to quite put it that bluntly. But that is the truth.

JE: Well, I am very lucky. If you are a magazine editor you’re answerable to many, many people, including the advertising people.

And David Gonzalez and I blessed to have Michele McNally. I mean if she didn’t like what we were doing, she would be involved in every decision, every single day, intimately. But she likes what we’re doing and she gives us room.

Of course she comes up with some story ideas. It’s another lucky thing when your boss has good ideas. She’s a truly brilliant photo editor.

DAH: Yeah, she was so cool. She was here in this loft, doing her job, while she was in our class. Yeah, she went online and did her job in front of us.

JE: Nice.

DAH: Looked at pictures, picked pictures… she said, well it’s an online thing, people are coming in like this, this is what’s happening. So that class is like wowww! Michele McNally is doing her job in front of us!

JE: If I had her for a boss 15 years earlier, I would be a much better photographer.

DAH: Wow, that’s a great line. I hope this machine is still working.

JE: If not, you can just make it up.

DAH: (laughing) You’ve delivered some classic lines. No, we’re rolling.

JE: So, the question was, how do you choose what’s in there, and I think the answer is what do you react to? We see a lot of photographs and even if they are good… say, if you see your 50th piece from Libya, unless it’s as good as Yuri Kozyrev, it can be good and still not end up moving you.

DAH: Well, that’s why I always have to tell my students to please look at what’s going on around them. Study the history, study your contemporaries at least, because if you take your Libya stuff in there, Estrin at Lens has seen Yuri Kozyrev and a few other top people.

JE: Right.

DAH: So how are you going to blow your socks off unless you’re as good or better than Yuri Kozyrev.

JE: Or, do something different.

DAH: That guy really is good.

JE: He’s excellent.

DAH: Geez, he’s good. Yeah, Yuri Kozyrev. Love his work.

JE: I think Tyler Hicks is very good too.

DAH: Oh yes. Tyler is very good.

JE: I think it is a fair statement to say that.

DAH: I would just give the edge to Kozyrev just on the sheer visualness of his imagery. Not on the journalism. Tyler is as good a journalist as you can get , and he’s THERE. No doubt about it.

JE: Well, on that level it is hard to pick. I don’t mean to be defensive for Tyler. Yuri is a great photographer and does amazing work.

DAH: Right, well there is either going to be some kind of a really strong story line or a really strong visual line in there or the visual literacy itself is going to carry it through. So you like it based on probably a lot of instinct and probably some knowledge in there too.

JE: I want to feel something. You know, make me laugh, make me cry, make me think about something in a different way, and I don’t care if it’s a perfect photo because how many perfect photos have you seen that don’t tell you anything?

DAH: Yeah, well I guess a lot. But you know that’s an interesting thing, and this is where some photographers and I part, and for me a photograph can be just an object in and of itself. It doesn’t have to mean something else to be. A picture can just be a picture. It can also be an architectural shot just showing me a building that I might want to buy some day, showing exactly how it is constructed… or it can be something that conveys a story and it’s covering the news. So it means lots of different things. But a picture can for me be all by itself and not have to mean anything. It just grabs me in the gut or it feels to me an aesthetic pleasure. Great to be informed of what you don’t know, but esthetic “pleasure” works too, for me anyway.

JE: But not solely abstract. Often it’s joy they make you feel.

DAH: Oh yeah.

JE: I care about the situation of human begins in the world and so I’m sometimes attracted to stories that I think are important socially that are particularly under covered. I think photography can inform people. I’m not saying it can change the world, but I think it can inform people and so that’s also something I will take into account.

DAH: You’re talking about things that matter, subjects that matter, topics that at least, if they don’t matter they should matter. Human condition… environment… both. They are the same thing.

JE: I believe that, on a personal level – not a professional level as a journalist of the New York Times, but on a personal level – I believe that it is my responsibility living in this world to help repair the world. That is one of the reasons I exist as a human being and that probably plays into some of the decision making, obviously within journalistically appropriate ways. And let’s face it, for most documentary or photojournalists… it’s a large reason why people do it. There is this beautiful, maybe naïve, but beautiful belief that it is important what we do. I believe also, separate from photography, that any action, any single action can theoretically change the world. You don’t know which action it is. It may not be the big action, but I think it is possible to do that.

DAH: That’s probably why documentary photographers, unlike other groups of various kinds who might be allied with each other to make money… that’s certainly not us… we don’t make money off of each other, or very little anyway if nothing at all, but I think it’s because of what you just said; there is this commonality of thinking that what you do is righteous.

JE: Exactly, that’s it.

DAH: You think you’re doing something righteous and you feel good. You’re doing stories about things where wrongs need to be righted, you’re doing stories about things that are right and set the example for somebody else. And you feel like you’re doing something, that the information is a worth while profession. It’s cleaner and there is a lot of righteousness attached to it. Like whether or not people take heed, we can’t think about it too much because we know people probably don’t take heed but we don’t worry about that… we don’t dwell on that part of it. You don’t go out there and count to see how many people you actually saved, but you assume you saved somebody. And you probably did. There is no doubt that stories, pictures that we have done have actually changed lives for the good. I am sure of it – we both know it because we both have received letters at various times where we really did make a difference in somebody’s life.

JE: We can certainly point out, maybe not often, but we can point of specific examples when photography has helped. You know, Lewis Hine, Donna Ferrato, Minamata… and we can come up with specific things that they did.

DAH: Yeah, you name some high points there but cumulatively I think that yes, we have done a pretty decent job of doing the best that we could to inform people. And I say we as in there is the American photojournalism, but there is the whole European photojournalism that has also had a huge influence. I don’t know as much about certain eras in the far North and the Soviet Union, I don’t know what was going on in some parts of that, but anyway wherever there has been a free press, and a free government, there has been a proliferation of photographers who have done a really terrific job of documenting the culture.

JE: Yeah, you know I was thinking that also another thing I really want to do with Lens is to show work that isn’t seen, particularly both young photographers, but also photographers who are not North American or European. You know, there is a lot of extraordinary work in China, Asia in general, and South America. The photographic canon is pretty much defined in a singular way, and I would like to try to expand the canon and to expose photographers who are working only in their own countries.

DAH: Thanks Jim, you are righteous indeed.

 

79 Responses to “Jim Estrin – Conversation”


  • Speaking of $1.99, did my $1.99 ever arrive? I think I sent it to the right place in Brooklyn. 475 Kent Avenue, apt something or other. If not, let me know and I will send it again forthwith.

  • My apologies for going off on a tangent there, but your bringing it up jogged my memory and I was just wondering.

  • dq
    thanks DAH and JE

    JE — you’re a MENSCH!

  • An enjoyable interview David some nice interaction there,Lens Blog has sure evolved into an important voice. I am no different to most involved with photography and would like a piece on Lens Blog even if it is just for the sake of exposure. But I also know that it is not going to happen as my photographic choice is to use the photographic image in a manner that does not fit their present criteria………. all this sits comfortably with me, we cannot be everything.

    For the young photographer ……..It is about choices and these days there are more photographic opportunities within new activities where photography is “an element” of practice.

  • Thanks for this. Like many people, I love Lens Blog. Every day there is a new source of inspiration.

    Jim, I hate to go off on a tangent here, but some time ago, I did submit some of my fight images. The response was that you would love feature my images on the blog, you needed to find someone to write the feature, and you would write me back in a few days. I never did hear back, even though I followed up via email.

    Again, sorry to bring this up here. I was extremely excited when that response was given to me, and getting seen is a miracle.

  • Brian,
    I am so sorry for losing track of your piece, and your emails. Let’s talk tomorrow.

  • Great stuff Jim and thanks for the participation, too many who are profiled or have essays on “burn” don’t seem to have the time to respond…………… Unfortunately I have no questions to ask of you

  • Thanks dah and ej!!!
    i love the portrait..
    and the woman in the background…..
    and thank you jim,
    for your vision
    and
    dedication…..
    BuRN baby BuRN…..
    :)
    ***

  • Henry VIII in a moire shirt watches over the dissolution of the Manhattan Monasteries.

    Nice Interview.

  • Brian, it took well over a year from the day Jim first informed me he wanted to publish my piece and there were some times of no communication, but there were wars and all kinds of international distractions going on. Still, he never forgot and he got it done. Many people took note.

    Thank you Jim. I continue to enjoy Lens and it is helping me get through this lost summer of my seemingly interminable convalescence.

  • a civilian-mass audience

    Welcome home MR.JIM…!!!

    I am looking for some ouzo…I will be back …

  • I seconded what Imants said…wish I had a question but nothing comes up and it’s great to see you here.

    Thanks DAH for another excellent conversation! I really really really (did I say REALLY already?) enjoy these!

  • Yes, nice interview. Glad to see that Lens is now paying.

    @Brian Frank–same thing happened to me here at Burn. It’s not unusual….

  • Just talked to Jim. Wise sage and a classy fellow. Nice combo.

  • As always David, an insightful and inspiring interview.

    A question for Jim: how can a photographer make contact with you? The NYT Lens page doesn’t seem to have a contact link. I enjoy and respect what you do there Jim.

    You and DAH nail it here when you say it has never been easy in this game. But then none of the creative fields are easy to sustain for a life time. Those who somehow keep doing it are the ones that are meant to.

    Cheers,

    Justin P

  • DAH, JAMES
    thank you for the interview…. questions shall arrive but digestion first..
    thanks again for food for thought:)

  • Just went back and really read this with a fairly clear mind, not so drugged up as I was last night when I left my earlier comment. Great read! I greatly enjoyed the interaction between two skilled, world-class, hard-core pros who made their careers under the “old rules” but who both reject the mantra that photography is dead as a career and who see great opportunity in the new age for young photographers but also, as they themselves prove through their own accomplishments, for old timers as well. Very encouraging – even in this, my lost summer.

    I was also amazed to learn that David sold “a very few thousand” subscriptions to his Rio Book workshop. I had thought it was probably less than 1000. This means it would have theoretically brought in enough income to almost justify the time and it gives you a model to build on. I think very few, if any, others could have pulled this off, but David has proven it can be done. And then a book was completed – and sold out, I believe.

    Very encouraging!

    Thanks David and Jim, for what to me personally was the most interesting, informative and inspiring Burn discussion yet.

  • BRIAN…..KENNETH

    as a full time working photographer dealing with the editors at top magazines and as a part-time editor here at Burn, i can tell you this experience is totally normal….editors just do not always get back to you…they are beyond busy….it is incumbent on the photographer to keep in contact, to keep even a spark of a relationship alive…

    if an editor really really likes your story, guess what? they will run it….100% for sure…if an editor is mildly interested, they may or may not get back to you…photographers are notorious for mis-reading what editors really really think about their work…most editors will be polite, and sometimes politeness is misinterpreted as “i love this story as no other”….”you have some nice pictures here” could mean, might mean, probably means that the essay you are presenting does not quite stack up…no editor is going to say “this is shit”….so any working photographer shooting for magazines really needs to read the signs…

    Kenneth i do recall i believe a phone chat with you quite awhile back…i know you live in Mexico and i really did find many of your pictures interesting…but i just cannot recall anything after that…nor do i recall a done deal essay…my apologies if you have repeatedly tried to hunt me down and i did not respond…that sounds unlikely because as busy as i can be i do try to remain reasonably accessible….

    if you have an essay , get it into submissions….three different people will look at your work and if any one of the editors likes it, we will take another look….if all three like it, we will most likely publish it, but not even then is there a 100% guarantee…why? because new stories come in that kill ones we are on the fence about…and no editor makes contact with a photographer whose story is NOT going to run…if you don’t hear anything, it usually means pasa nada….

    no editor can track your career….you have to track your career…i track careers of my students because that is my job as a mentor…to guide students towards their goals with editors or galleries…with my editor’s cap on your work comes to me “cold turkey” so to speak and so my mentoring mode is off most likely and i am just looking cold at the work…i cannot mentor at the same time that i am in editor role unless i have taken on a photographer, she/he knows it, and i have followed the story for awhile…

    all of this is pretty much common sense….to go get pictures in the first place you must be patient and yet aggressive in a good way at the same time…same for approaching editors with those pictures…again, if you have shot a great essay, every editor will know it…and you will know it if they know it…it will be very clear….

    you both are very fine image makers and storytellers…i expect both of you will be published on Burn in the future….just make it too hot to not….

    cheers, david

  • JIM ESTRIN..

    let’s see if you are still following this thread..ha ha….we did not get into this in the interview, but you do have to acknowledge that Burn paid photographers FIRST…before the NYT…yes? and i know you always wanted to, and we talked about it at length, and i know full well that Lens Blog is a far more important venue than is Burn…hey, this is my hobby…but we did at Burn do as i just wrote…

    love you dude…you are one of the good guys in this crazy biz….

    cheers, abrazos, david

  • FROSTFROG

    yes, the buck99 “come with me to Rio” bit was a good working model..i think for a buck99 people got their money’s worth, got a discount on the book that they watched being made…a workshop of sorts…and anybody can do this…yes, you have to have your act together and you have to be the type who can produce on demand, but that is the newspaper training that Jim and i talk about in this conversation…anyone who is going to make a living in photography has to be able to produce on demand…be able to take good pictures every day, and a top level one more often than most…that is the game….for both the journalists and the artists as well…you must be growing all the time..naturally of course…if you are not enjoying it, you cannot do it….

    i will announce soonest my upcoming paywall idea…not 100% sure if i can make it work yet, but i think i will most likely do it….

    stay tuned…

    cheers, david

  • Justin,
    My email is estrin@nytimes.com . I look at everything that’s sent me. And I try my best to respond.

  • David,
    You certainly were paying before Lens. You’re the first I know of among photo blogs. And Light Box also has been paying since their launch about a year ago. I’m glad that we can as well.

  • Regarding paying for content, I’ve never quite gotten how those who sell the content to advertisers are paid so much more than those who create the content. It’s not like anyone buys a newspaper or magazine or goes to a web site for the great salespeople. But that’s how it is, and in our corporate-profit-ubber alles culture it’s the best salespeople who typically climb the corporate ladder and end up making content-affecting decisions. Thus it’s really no wonder we get more and more publications that only a salesperson could love.

    Anyway, it’s great that a few oasis like Burn and Lens Blog exist. Thanks to all involved.

  • I look at everything that’s sent me. And I try my best to respond.

    Now that is one of my peeves. How hard is it to set up an automated email system to send out polite rejection notes? Not hard at all. Get your tech guy to show you how to set up a rule in Outlook. You know magazines have always sent polite rejection notes to writers. And for years they had to actually stuff an envelope and physically take it to the mail box. All one has to do nowadays is drag an email to a folder and the computer takes it from there. One can shift click and reject hundreds with almost no effort at all.

  • MW

    if it is that easy, then you are correct…i am not sure it really is that easy…for sure you know way more on this tech stuff than do i, but i seem to remember our tech guys telling me that was either not possible or not practical….there is one thing you are forgetting…it is not immediately black or white…stories can stay in the “maybe” pile for a long time…and then finally published or finally rejected..during that limbo time, there is not much to say..the photographer is left hanging …for sure anyone with a heart would agree with you that a polite rejection would be the very best….i think all in the biz really do all they can to stay in touch with those who want to contribute…yet it is nigh impossible to totally keep in touch with whom in theory you should stay in touch…the smartest photogs i know have a great way to keep themselves in front of editors without being annoying….this is an art form..all should study…after all it is YOUR career..and you are responsible..no other scapegoat and no excuses…there is all kinds of “unfairness” in life…the wise ones focus on the possibilities, not what might theoretically be in their way…

    cheers, david

  • One thing about Lensblog: audience. And a responsive one at that. I sold over 50 ‘Quest for Land’ apps the day after publication on Lensblog ( http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/20/a-battle-primarily-over-land-in-cambodia/ ).

    Jim: is the number confidential or can you tell us how many unique visitors you’re getting? Just curious…

    And thanks again Jim…

  • David, I was thinking of the NYT and all those IT resources, but giving it a little more thought I can see how you could rig it. Have someone contact me if you like and I’ll explain.

  • MW:

    Are you suggesting that editors just automatically send out rejection emails? Of course they are mega busy and often hounded by a million photographers, but you have to respect the ones who make the effort to reply to submissions. But I think it comes down to the seriousness of the submission. Obviously these days the line is blurred. It is so often discussed now how anybody can buy a nice big DSLR and make a few good photographs at the weekends and think they should be submitting their work to this and that publication. Perhaps these photographers should receive the auto rejections.

    JIM ESTRIN:

    Thanks for the reply and info. At some point in the future I may well send you something.

    DAH:

    Your reply to Brian, Kenneth and MW really points out the complexity of the editorial business. And it is probably more complex than ever now from the editor’s point of view: flooded with submissions by email, budgets being cut and not being able to publish what they really want to etc.

    I agree it is a golden age in terms of the opportunities to get work seen, but do you think that perhaps the quality of work being published in some publications has declined? Or to rephrase that, is the general audience (magazine buyers) out there less willing to engage with complex indepth photography these days?

    This interview with Jim and the related comments is getting into the issues of a certain kind of editorial photography – such as your own work – and the current news related stuff that features on Lens. I guess what I’m wondering really is this: one of the reoccurring themes in your interviews is the long-term dedication to photography by yourself and the interviewees and the equally long relationships between each other – ie. being part of a “community”. The two seem to go hand in hand.

    But outside of this “editorial” business there seems to be a whole other thing going on for photographers such as Robert Adams, Lee Freidlander, or Eggleston for example who have been working for a long time but in what appears to be a far more independent way. It would be interesting to see an interview here with a photographer who works more like this. How about William Christenberry. Do you know him from your DC days?

  • It is one thing to be an editor swamped with thousands of unsolicited submissions everyday and truly be unable to respond to them all. It’s another thing to actually speak on the phone to a photo editor, have quality references, a good discussion, have that editor ask you to send him/her images and links to your work, then follow up a week or so later and hear nothing. Do another follow up, still nothing. And yet another follow up. Nothing.

    A simple email, “Hey, thanks for sending your work. I got it. Unfortunately it’s not something we’re interested in right now. Thanks.” would be nice. Hell, even a, “Dude, you suck!” would be better than nothing at all. ;^}

  • Justin, et. al., sorry if I’ve hijacked the thread with this, and I want to emphasize that I have no personal ax to grind on this subject with either David or James Estrin. I know from personal experience that David treats photographers exceptionally well and I’ve heard nothing but good things about Mr. Estrin. But yes, generally speaking, I am suggesting that editors automatically send out rejection emails. Technologically speaking, it’s just a drag and drop from one mailbox to another. The rest is automated. Meanwhile, the photographer may be waiting to hear back from one publication before submitting to another. And yes, in the olden days, for writers at least, magazine editors sent polite rejection slips for everything submitted, at least everything with a self-addressed stamped envelope. I don’t know how photo submissions were handled, but I suspect it was similar.

    Perhaps everything has changed with the ubiquity of email? You can’t really include a self-addressed stamped envelope with your email submission with a link to your website. I’m guessing a submission these days is more like a query letter of old. Editors would typically respond to a well-written query that adhered to the best practices of the genre, but it wasn’t a sure thing and, a half-assed query would likely be ignored. So perhaps, as Justin suggests, all those submissions of squirrels, flowers, beautiful sunsets, and such don’t deserve a reply on their merit, but it’s such an incredibly easy thing to automate that I think they deserve a reply on general principles of human interaction, plus the aforementioned folk who are more serious and for whom being left hanging could have minor career consequences should merit some professional courtesy type consideration as well.

    Anyway, trying to bring this back to something relevant, all that falls under the subject of how best to go about getting published so I’ll pose a few questions for Mr. Estrin along those lines. Generally speaking, what is the best strategy for approaching an editor? Email? Phone call? Reference to mutual acquaintances? Should the photography be finished or can one start with spec work? What should one do if one doesn’t hear back? What are the common ways people make a good impression? What are the common ways they make a bad impression?

    Thanks

  • Jim, David :))

    great interview :)) (sorry for silence of late, just focused on new project, and still haven’t gotten internet at new apt (5 months now without internet at night/weekends–gorgeous feeling)…

    I really enjoyed the interview, though I’m partial having chatted with Jim over the phone a couple of times in Burn infancy. I love that Jim and David have hooked up with one other (its been a while now) and so happy to see Jim interviewed here finally. No need to toot Lens’ horn and yea, happy they are now paying too. Most importantly, what I’ve always loved about Lens is its catholic approach to showcasing work: journalism, art, old, young, light trippers, unknown, old folks and the newbies…and always accompanied by wonderful writing….too bad Jim didn’t confess here that he LIVES at the Lens desk and as a cot bellow the desk ;)))) (I think i once chatted with him at 11PM and i said, ‘why aren’t you out having a beer?’)….

    So, now i must make Jim blush (possible?)…the first time he and i spoke on the phone, he was not only intelligent and patient, but was incredibly self-effacing and genuinely attentive. He said ‘bob, let’s talk to me about your work, what are you doing?” I kind of dodged that question by talking about Burn instead because generally I’d rather talking about other people’s stuff. so, we chatted about Burn and Justin Partyka (after the Poet Laureate of UK had written a piece about his farm project) and others work and then beer and nyc etc….again, what struck me about that 1st conversation was Jim’s attentiveness…in truth, that’s a rare quality in this world and especially in the photoworld….and yea, the beer will eventually come, hopefully when i get down to see david in the fall….anyway…above all what matters is that Lens and Burn actively showcase work and really help to enliven the discussion and the promotion of work, photograpehrs, all kinds….

    I never new Lens even takes submissions…hmmm ;))…but that’s great…i was so so happy to hear that John sold 50 copies of Land Quest…and I know how much Lens and Burn has meant to some of the younger photographers i’ve been mentoring here in toronto from Boreal (Ian, Brett, Aaron, and the whole Boreal crew, who’ve been featured in both Burn and Lens)…and it is THAT kind of commitment to the craft and more importantly to the lives of folk that means most to me…:))

    as for Editors. My experience and my own approach is simple one :))…it’s my burden (not theirs) to get my work seen…same approach i’ve always had with galleries who’d represented me, get them to remember me, as i never expect the opposite will occur…and, if possible, establish real, genuine relationship, not just ‘what can you do for me/my work’ (which frustrates me about photographers often)….

    just do the work, and focus on the work and work hard to get to know/meet folk….90% of the time means rejection…but that 10% can spark a life for yourself :))…

    anyway, must run..

    thanks david, thanks jim for sharing your chat….:)))….

    see u after summer

    cheers
    bob

  • Jim, DAH, All

    very insightfull and inspiring interview plus discussion.
    Getting the work seen.

    I’m listening.

    Thank you.

  • Pardon me for going off-topic for a moment, but as I sit here looking out on the great American public that I am committed to serve, it occurs to me that some people, such as the guy sitting at one of our jobs computers pretending to look for work while he actually scans porn sites for blondes with enough silicone on their chests to start their own beaches, should not wear shirts with horizontal stripes. This is a fashion offense of the greatest magnitude, especially when the person wearing said shirt is of such a magnitude himself that the offending stripes can serve as degrees of latitude for some microbial Marco Polo setting out upon a great trek to find his way to the great riches of the ever-mysterious Orient.

  • Jim, David, great interview; Righteous indeed.

  • @ ALL

    Nice interview and comments going on in there.
    Do not have much time in the past weeks to stay in touch with Burn, nor now, but I manage to write something:

    Photographers HAVE TO accept that mostly times there is no answers about an email, a PDF or a link sent to to editors or gallerists by Internet. Simply like that.

    I’m pretty sure that every work is seen… but seen in which way?

    One thing is when editors look at a story in front of a big colorful 26″ monitor seating in a confortable desk, with a cup of coffee or cold beer; OR looking at some big nice prints in a big table with the editor/gallerist not in a hurry with time to listen to you with an appointement taken weeks in advance.

    Another thing is when the same editor sees emails, PDFs or link in his BlackBerry or SmartPhone waiting in the queue for the bus/metro or waiting for a salad to have a quick lunch in a restaurant and there is the instinct of checking permanently e-mails and see them in a rush…

    I’m pretty sure that the essay/story will also “like” depends on the mood of the editor that day, and unfortunately for photographers can’t control the variables mentioned above.

    So, agree with Bob Black, as he said: 90% is rejection or no response, so let’s live for the small 10%…

    Have a nice summer everybody.
    Keep shooting for yourself

    P.
    PS: DAH, love the portrait of James Estrin with that sunset in front of him!

  • Wow reading this interview couldn’t have come at a better time for me…

    I am as usual broke beyond poor haven’t had a single job since my show in the Headon Festival and I woke this morning trying to figure out what the hell I am going to do…Like Bob I have been off line for eight months and I guess that trying to make decent photographs has been the least of my priorities…

    Then I thought OK whats the first thing I should read now I have an internet connection finally…and here I am…

    Both David and Jim, I would like to say thankyou…

    Sometimes the one thing that distinguishes one photojournalist from another is simply the ability to keep going, keep believing that what they do makes a difference and touches people…

    You guys just gave me back the faith to keep going and keep shooting, try and reinvent myself and keep putting it out there…

    You just never know whats around the corner…

    Cheers

  • Very interesting and insightful interview. Your best yet, David! Some good stuff in the comments, too.

    I especially found the first part about exposure and distribution thought provoking. That’s something I honestly didn’t consider. It’s good to get some historical perspective. A point well taken!

  • Lisa, When I began to read your comment I felt a little dismayed and worried, but by the end I was smiling and congratulating you – even taking inspiration and courage from you. I’m thrilled you don’t give up, delighted to see your hope and desire prevail. I’ll bet in the long run your photographs will prevail, too!

  • RX100 will make you a better photographer

  • ALL

    trust me, we are not going to miss a great story idea…if you have great work it will be seen…and if you are talented enough and wise enough to shoot a truly great essay, you are surely wise enough to make sure it is seen…this is a crazy concept that some brilliant story will somehow be overlooked…those of us who see lots and lots of work can tell you without a doubt that this idea there are so so many great essays out there is just plain WRONG…

    there is for sure a lot of work…a whole lot of work on exactly the same level…a pretty good level, but very few essays jump above the mean level….if it were there, we would publish it…we are looking for it…

    we clearly state on our submissions page that we just cannot respond to every submission…it is a full time job just looking at them all in the first place and we do get behind..we get behind because we have this unsolicited submission page which should be viewed as a privilege and not a right…

    hey amigos, we are working here for free, remember?? plus we pay for original work….we publish a print magazine of the best of it…we have a grant opportunity as no other ..we have had international exhibitions of the work of readers here and more to come…so, no rejection letters?? please please….

    what we may do is do what most magazines do and just not have unsolicited submissions at all…we are “out there” in photoland all the time..at photo fests etc and there are five of us snooping around all the time…plus workshops etc…so WE here at Burn do not even need a submissions page at all….it is for YOU….please view this in proper perspective please…

    we want your great work believe me….we will do all we can do to facilitate…just be reasonable please…i have personally mentored many here, ready for more, and have been disappointed in so many i have started to mentor who just disappear…

    yet for sure i am personally committed to making sure that if YOU do brilliant work, i am here to make sure it ends up on Burn….

    thank you

    cheers, david

  • JUSTIN..

    my series of interviews of late has been with Decision Makers, not working photographers….i totally respect only the independent photographers (who do take commissions and assignments too however)…Robert Adams or Christenberry would be a good interviews for sure….or maybe i go down and see Eggleston…yea, i will do that….

    cheers, david

  • David…

    Absolutely brilliant interview and as usual many of the comments are just as awe inspiring as the actual interview.
    Talking about interviews I think a major hit would be to get Sally Mann round here, the server will probably crash from a major overload of visitors.

  • Paul

    I second that. Soon after I left my last comment I thought of Sally too.

    Would be great for sure. She’s just totally always done her own thing and photographed her backyard.

    Justin

  • PAUL

    yes, Sally would be great too…you must remember i did do a short interview with her once before…4 yrs ago?? i was doing interviews with all photographers, and then we had requests for curators, so now the requests are back to photographers…ha ha…:)

    in any case, interviews are always good…i have one more curator on deck, and then back to photographers…might do some other artists as well….

    cheers, david

  • Hello Jim!

    Readers may like to hear from you about that small, provocative community newspaper you worked for way back in high school, remember? Hi Ho!

  • we clearly state on our submissions page that we just cannot respond to every submission…

    Okay, but my offer to help remains open. I did a little proof of concept workflow with my domain and it took me all of five minutes to set up an automated reply system. Of course in the real world, five minutes technical setup is built on the back of several hours workflow analysis, but still, it’s only several hours.

    But Burn’s fly into a hurricane by the seat of the pants aesthetic is one thing: For a large corporation like the New York Times, I think it approaches unconscionable not to send out polite rejection letters given how quick and easy it is to set up an automated reply system. The people there are not working for free and the poor photographers whose pictures populate Lens Blog are contributing to the bottom line. Most likely all it would take to get an automated reply system is an email to IT requesting a little help in the matter. And if IT is that difficult to work with, feel free to contact me about a little consulting. Shouldn’t take more than five hours, max. My rates are reasonable.

    And I think Patricio’s reply that photographers should just suck it up and accept being treated like dirt is a big part of our problem. Sure, we’re the lowliest of the low when it comes to getting paid for content creation, but the first step of being treated with respect is expecting it.

  • MW,

    I doubt it would stop after an automated answer were sent to a photographer.
    One, an automated answer not really treats somebody better. Two, many people would then starting to argue, why they think the decision was wrong. THAT, finally will cause lots of effort.

    my POV, it is not an IT issue. – and yes, it hurts me too, if I am not getting an answer. However, I’m giving myself a timeout, and try to look again at my pictures and try harder.

    JIM and DAH – I would be interested how many submissions do you get in a month’s time, and how many of them actually are selected for publication?

  • Thomas, the history of publishing is not on your side. Historically, sending a polite rejection letter is the norm. And this is when it took an actual physical effort to do it.

    And I suspect fewer would argue a polite rejection letter than would follow up after not hearing anything at all. Again, it’s nothing personal with me. David has treated me incredibly well and I have heard nothing but good things about James Estrin.

    As someone who’s spent most of my life in publishing, and personally stuffed a lot of envelopes with rejection letters, I’m just talking general principles.

    But Thomas, whether you agree with the wisdom of it or not, speaking strictly as a technical person, would you agree that it’s a simple matter to set up such a system?

  • Of course (arguing with myself), in the old days publications didn’t want contributors doing simultaneous submissions. They wanted exclusive content. These days, however, few give a shit about exclusive content. Something can be published by Burn, Lens Blog, Harpers, and throughout the general internet and that’s considered all well and good. So being left hanging doesn’t stop anyone from pursuing multiple other opportunities.

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