Assigning a new photographer is the most interesting and terrifying part of my job as a photo editor. I’ve been doing this a … um … long time, yet I still get nervous about picking the right person. It’s closer to gambling than I want to admit. You hire someone you’ve never met to work with people you don’t know in a place you haven’t seen. In a very limited time—occasionally just minutes—a set of high-quality photographs must be created that will attract, engage, and inform a demanding group of editors and, more importantly, Science’s well-educated and discerning audience.
Assignments are expensive. I’m hiring skilled professionals. Costs rise if an assistant, special equipment, or travel is needed. Tight deadlines mean that failures can rarely be remedied. Unlike editing words, where an experienced editor might rescue a disappointing draft, editing pictures can only curate the best of what the photographer captured. The pictures themselves can’t be made better. This means that it’s essential the photographer has the information they need to work effectively.
Three things are needed to successfully create the journalistic pictures Science publishes. The first is an understanding of the story. What is the core concept? Is that something that can be communicated with photography? Or is the concept better presented with a graphic or illustration?
The second is an understanding of the situation. What kind of picture will best tell the story? A portrait in a lab? A carefully lit still life of equipment? Documenting a person as she/he works?
Finally, the photographer needs to be a good match for the story. Knowing both the story and anticipated visual situations allows me to start looking for the right professional, be it a meticulous lighting expert or a thoughtful observer of people. Above all else, I’m looking for a distinctive point of view, a way of seeing the world that makes the commonplace seem new.
You hire someone you’ve never met to work with people you don’t know in a place you haven’t seen.
The yaws story published in the 20 July issue had a much longer lead time than a typical Science feature. Six weeks before his trip, Martin Enserink, Science’s international news editor, made me aware of his plan to visit Papua New Guinea to write about a Spanish doctor treating a little-known skin disease called yaws. That gave me time to read background material, correspond with Martin about his coverage plans, look at pictures of Papua New Guinea, and think about the kind of photographer I needed.
Martin would visit several locations during his coverage. The villages and clinics would likely be crowded. Photography would often take place outdoors in blazing equatorial light. The story would require someone experienced at making outstanding pictures in such situations. Using search engines and professional referral services, I began looking at photographers based in Port Moresby and in Australia’s nearby city of Cairns.
I reviewed about a dozen portfolios before encountering the work of Brian Cassey. His pictures featured consistently strong compositions, often in chaotic circumstances. He was comfortable photographing a diverse range of people. He worked with all kinds of light, from soft dawn to harsh midday. His website displayed extensive experience and published clips from assignments for major newspapers and magazines in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It looked perfect for what I anticipated.
Above all else, I’m looking for a distinctive point of view, a way of seeing the world that makes the commonplace seem new.
I emailed Brian, describing the assignment and dates. He responded quickly, noting that he often worked in Papua New Guinea and was familiar with logistics and travel in that country. I offered him the assignment, and we negotiated a fee. To acquaint Brian with Science’s visual style I sent him a selection of our covers and feature spreads. We hoped for a cover, so I reviewed situations that might work well for that purpose. Then I connected Brian with Martin, so the two could discuss the story in more depth, review schedules, and coordinate travel plans.
Science’s video editor, Sarah Crespi, learned of the project and inquired if Brian could shoot some limited video as well. I’m careful about asking photographers to provide video in addition to still photographs as requirements for the two are quite different. Phone commercials may make it all look effortless, but the reality is that creating professional work in either medium takes time and careful planning. However, Brian felt comfortable handling the amount of video that would be needed.
The assignment went smoothly. After going over his shoot, Brian sent me an edit of nearly 150 photographs, each with detailed caption information, including identifications and locations. All were executed with the same skill I’d seen in his portfolio.
Successful photographs in Science need to convey key story elements, but must also imaginatively employ composition, light, and timing in ways that engage the reader. For the yaws story, Brian and Martin often focused on the same situations, producing an unusually high overlap between the best photographs and the strongest story points. Three in particular stand out.
Cover: The portrait of Stanis Malom is deceptively simple. In fact, Brian made a number of decisions that demonstrated his experienced point of view. He placed Stanis in the open shade of the porch, shielding him from harsh daylight. He positioned him against the neutral background of the house wall, framing him between the door and window, asymmetric elements that directed attention to the center. He designed the picture with extra room at the top of the frame, knowing that would be needed for the magazine’s logo. By photographing Stanis from a distance, Brian also showed the disfiguring yaws infection on his leg—a central story element—in a way that informs without disengaging the viewer. This combination of quickly made and skillfully executed choices resulted in a powerful cover image.
Examination: The story centers around Dr. Oriol Mitjà’s efforts to combat and call attention to this little-known disease. To open the layout, it was critical that Brian capture a photograph that dramatically displayed both Mitjà’s concern and his work. Brian photographed Mitjà as he performed a number of examinations. Several elements combine to make the picture we chose appropriate. Although it is a crowded situation, Mitjà’s posture, stretched diagonally across the frame as he examines the boy’s foot, gives the composition a center, the angle of his body guiding the viewer’s eye to the diseased area. To the left and right, people in green shirts frame the doctor, formally balancing the composition. Finally, because Brian spent time working the situation, by the time he took this picture most of the crowd was ignoring him, so the primary attention centers on Mitjà’s intense expression.
Children: Brian made a number of decisions that elevate this simple portrait to a higher level. By placing himself at or below the eye level of the children, he made them seem important, almost monumental. Submerging them in calm water eliminated all but the heads of the two closest children, drawing attention to their faces. Positioning the children against a natural but neutral background allowed him to eliminate potential distractions. The result, which closes the story, is a portrait foreshadowing an uncertain future: These are children coming of age who must cope with a treatable yet dangerous disease.
Bill Douthitt is the Photography Managing Editor at Science.