ARTICLE

The dos and don'ts of pitching to photo editors

Photos are laid out on a table to be reviewed.
Photography students on the Canon Student Development Programme at Visa pour l'Image learnt about pitching to photo editors and had their portfolios reviewed by experienced professionals.

Photo editors receive dozens, if not hundreds, of emails a day with prospective photo stories. If you've got an idea – or maybe already started a project, or even completed it – do you know how to take it through to publication?

Pitching to photo editors at a website, newspaper, magazine or agency can seem a daunting process. Here we speak to three photo editors – Thomas Borberg, Francis Kohn and Fiona Shields – who have decades of experience of receiving photographers' pitches, commissioning, and reviewing portfolios. We ask their advice on what you can do to improve your chances of success.

Thomas Borberg. Photograph by Paul Hackett.

Thomas Borberg

Thomas has been a photojournalism teacher, examiner and visiting lecturer, a photo editor on book projects and a jury member for leading photo contests. He is currently Photo Editor-in-Chief at Politiken newspaper in Denmark.

Do… pitch your idea to the right publication

"Photographers should always take the time to get to know the publication they are addressing with a pitch," says Thomas. "Sometimes I get a group email with an idea that could go out to anyone – a magazine, a newspaper or even a book editor. I feel like saying, 'Hey, if you want to use my time, let it be something you really want me to print or publish, not just anyone."

Don't... waste picture editors' time

"I'm not being arrogant, but my time is precious. I probably receive between five and 10 stories per day. So if a photographer submits a story which is not even halfway done, consisting of, say, 40 images I have to skip through, and I can see there's a lack of editing, I just throw it out. I'm not there to edit their story. They should do that by themselves," says Thomas.

"But I like it when people take a constructive approach if I say no, and respond, 'What should I have done to make this a story for you?' Maybe it's the editing, maybe it's the timing or something else. I like to give them something that they can develop from in the future, because it's helpful to both of us."

Francis Kohn. Photograph by Paul Hackett.

Francis Kohn

Francis joined Agence France-Presse (AFP) in 1979, covering conflicts in Central America and Mexico. He later became an editor-in-chief, then was AFP's Photo Director from 2012 until 2017. He chaired the World Press Photo Awards jury in 2016.

Do… be clear about what you want to do

"I worked as an AFP Photo Director so I mostly worked with staff photographers I already knew, and I would sit down and discuss ideas with them. However, we also have photographers from outside the agency pitching stories, and I always looked for someone who could present an idea in a very clear and professional way," says Francis. "It has to be concise, and if I don't know the photographer they should include some photos, not necessarily of the project but of what they do generally [to give me an idea of their typical style and approach]. As a photo editor, you can sense whether a story will work or not very quickly."

Don't… suggest impractical ideas

"It's good if a photographer pitches a creative idea to me that I've not heard before – a different approach to a topic that will get my attention," says Francis. "But the story also has to be doable. Sometimes you get a photographer asking you to do a story that can be a bit crazy and not well thought through in practical terms. The budget is also an issue, but if it's a good story that can be discussed."

Fiona Shields. Photograph by Paul Hackett.

Fiona Shields

Fiona is Picture Editor and Head of Photography at the Guardian newspaper in the UK. Prior to this she had over two decades of picture editing experience, covering news stories such as the Arab Spring, the 9/11 terror attacks and the growing refugee crisis.

Don't… send download links

"Include something that's easy and accessible to view the images, like a PDF. If I have to go through the palaver of downloading files from WeTransfer or Dropbox, which then drop in without any captions... That is just hugely elaborate. A PDF is straightforward," says Fiona. "It's important to give caption information, so that we know who, what, when, where, then I can swiftly make a decision about the quality of the work and the relevance of the story, and we can move forward."

Do… use the pyramid approach

"I receive about 250 emails a day. I'm totally overwhelmed, so when the pitches come in, they have to be really precise," says Fiona. "I was taught something on a management training course about getting the attention of a very busy person: start with something that is like a headline, then expand a little bit (just a couple of lines), and then you can go into more detail a little bit further on in the pitch. It's hard to catch any of us on the phone, but if you don't hear from me it's usually not because I'm being rude or want to dismiss your project, it's that I haven't gotten to your email. I would suggest gently nudging."

Napisal David Clark and Emma-Lily Pendleton


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