A few years ago, The New York Times interviewed some of today’s leading photographers about the people who’d helped shape and influence their careers: photo editors. Throughout the generations, photo editors have stood behind the world’s greatest photographers, serving as their mentors, their teachers, and their biggest champions.
In our digital age, the relationship between photo editor and photographer is more dynamic than ever. While once the channels of communication were open only to an exclusive group of industry “insiders,” photographers around the world now have the means to connect with editors with the click of a button. It’s a time of limitless opportunity… and competition.
So how do working photographers establish relationships with editors in the first place? We interviewed a select group of professional photographers and editors to get their advice on how to successfully pitch a project. Keep in mind that individual publications come with unique sets of submission guidelines, but regardless of your genre or area of expertise, these 12 tips are handy places to start.
1. Send a curated series of images
To catch an editor’s attention, opt to send a fully-formed and cohesive series of images. You want to give them a feel for your project as a whole. No need to send every single image—go with the strongest ones. “I’ve found that collections do best,” the Long Island-based photographer Aakaash Bali says. “Most editors, curators, or gallery representatives like to see a collective of images that follow a distinct visual and contextual theme. Working on a project within a theme makes your collection seem more ‘complete’ and is otherwise a better pitch option for publications.”
Ideally, your images will come together to tell a story with a powerful hook. If you can’t yet say what that hook is, that’s okay. It just means you need to spend some more time fleshing out your concept before passing it along.
2. Even better, pitch a finished project
Jennifer Kerrigan, a photo editor based in New York, works with photojournalists to bring important stories to light. “When I offer advice to photographers about pitching, I tell them that outlets are 99% more likely to commission a finished story, rather than fund a photographer’s project,” she tells us. “This is especially true if you’re cold pitching and don’t already have a relationship with the editor you’re reaching out to.”
She doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’ve done everything, as sometimes it can pay off to get in touch in advance. “If the project isn’t completed, it’s still okay to reach out to an editor for feedback or to see if they have an interest in the story and would like to see it again once it’s finished,” she adds.
3. Familiarise yourself with the publication
Before reaching out to an editor, get to know their style and the kinds of work they publish. While it might be tempting to send out the same pitch to every editor, take the time to tailor your approach to each publication based on what they like.
Yodith Dammlash, a photographer and photo editor based in Washington DC, puts it best: “Know your audience and know their audience.”
4. Pitch work you care about
Over the course of working with preeminent publications in DC and beyond, Yodith has one invaluable piece of advice. In addition to telling the editor about the project itself, it helps to tell them a bit about why it matters to you personally. Include an artist statement that touches on your experience and dedication to your subject, genre, or overall message.
“What makes a photographer stand out to me is their connection to the project they’re sharing,” Yodith tells us. “How they came to it, what they’ve learned, how the process made them feel. Every body of work may not be a passion project, but learning the creator’s vision makes the work more memorable. Share the process and connection.”
5. Go against the grain
Sascha van der Werf is a photographer based in Vienna who has amassed tens of thousands of followers on Instagram. His work regularly appears on sought-after accounts. “Curators and editors are fed up with familiar, mainstream ideas they’ve already seen before,” he admits. “Lots of stories have already been produced and shot. But a lot of stories have not. There is always room for new creative approaches. Be different.”
6. Be thorough
Steven Leone is a photographer, director, and cinematographer who takes time to work on personal projects as well as commissions for leading brands and publications. He stresses the importance of covering all your bases from the get-go. “If you want to pitch an idea, you should already have an enticing theme, links or pictures of any models you’ll be shooting, as well as a designer and styling team, where appropriate,” he explains.
Regardless of the genre you choose, from editorial to documentary and everything in between, pay attention to the details. Consider telling the editor how much guidance, direction, or funding you’ll need to complete the project. Make their jobs easier by spelling out exactly what they’d need to do to publish your work.
7. But keep it short
Editors go through tons of pitches, and there are only so many hours in a day. Be as concise as possible. Use as many words as you need to express your idea and your plans, but keep it simple and direct. Touch on your most important points, but leave your readers wanting more. If they need additional information, they’ll get in touch.
8. Build a social media presence
If they find your ideas intriguing, most editors are likely to look you up online to get a better feel for your work.
In addition to her work as a photographer, Iris Maria Tusa serves as the editor of the street photography website streethunters.net. “Online popularity nowadays is crucial: Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, etc.” she says. “I also believe in being part of photography communities. It is easier to grow in a group than all by yourself. Once you have a little visibility and an interesting project idea, more doors will open.”
Curate your feeds carefully, and showcase only your best work. Be sure to connect with other photographers as well as editors!
9. Attend portfolio reviews
“Portfolio reviews are a good way to show your work,” the New York-based street photographer Poupay Jutharat says. At a portfolio review, you’ll meet face-to-face with editors, curators, and other industry leaders, who will give you constructive comments about how you can finesse your ideas.
An in-person encounter always leaves a stronger impression than a quick email, and beyond that, portfolio reviews can be just the start of a long-term relationship. If an editor likes your work, remember to stay in touch!
10. Ask for feedback
You can always ask editors for their thoughts, even if they don’t accept your pitch. “It’s important to get feedback to help you improve your work and aesthetic,” the Milan-based photographer Riccardo Dubitante stresses. “Be respectful and humble.”
Some editors won’t have time to respond to your email, but others might. Establishing a line of communication never hurts—especially when it comes to future work. And editors might well have some helpful tips for how you can refine your pitches next time.
11. Be selective
Our first tip was about understanding the publication you’re pitching, but it’s equally important that they’re able to understand your vision as well. Reach out to editors whose philosophies and values mirror your own.
“My best advice would be to share as much of your work as possible and to be picky at the same time,” the photographer Jeremy Perez-Cruz explains. “Only accept jobs that align to your point of view and preferred work. It’s easy to say ‘yes’ to money—and if you need the cash, take it—but definitely consider your complete body of work and the opportunities that arise out of past commissions.”
12. Keep at it
Not hearing back from an editor is discouraging, but it’s also part of the business. You’ll win some, and you’ll lose some, and that’s okay.
“Be persistent,” the award-winning Australian photographer Mark Forbes says. “Remember that editors and creative people are constantly seeing pitches and proposals. Just because it isn’t picked up by one person or agency doesn’t mean that your idea isn’t worth pursuing. If you can’t get anyone to take you up on your project, often the best way to get it out there is to go out and shoot it.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.