In the third of our interviews with the Selectors for Graduate Photography Online 2017, we talk to Ivy Lahon, Picture Editor at Save the Children.
Tell us about your job and the work of Save the Children? What does your core role at the organisation involve?
I run the Photography department where we commission a variety of photography globally for campaigns, media and emergency appeals, across print, digital and social media. We commission on average 10 shoots per month ranging from gala events, fashion and lifestyle with hair, make-up and stylists to gritty photojournalism documenting our global health, education, livelihood and child protection programmes to rapid onset natural disasters or political conflict. It's amazing to be able to work with such a wide variety of photographers and sometimes artists and no two shoots are the same. Our ambition is to tell humanitarian stories in inspiring and innovative ways, ensuring childrens voices and their real-life experiences are at the heart of everything we do, making sure our audiences and supporters are engaged and informed. Everything we produce is used across various platforms, so we work very closely with the film team to produce multimedia content and create projects incorporating moving image, graphics, text, audio and illustration. We have three staff photographers that are based globally and a roster of about 50 regular international shooters. I'm always on the look out for new talent both in the UK and abroad and am passionate about creating captivating ways to document the human experience through artistic visual mediums that encourage thought and empathy.
How did you make your way into the career you're now in? Did you always want to work in a field that involved photography?
I always wanted to work in photography or film in some capacity. Sixteen years ago after studying Philosophy at Uni, I interned for a photographer organizing his archive. His pictures were in high demand from UK magazines and newspapers and after a few months I ended up as full-time Library Manager, editing, captioning and archiving his work and liaising with Editorial Picture Editors about fees, licenses and copyright. I realise now what a great foundation it was to really understand the industry. Back then images were not digital and picture editing involved going through hundreds of colour slides with a loupe on a lightbox. After that I worked as a picture researcher for Time Out for a couple of years and then freelanced at the The Independent for a while before becoming Associate Picture Editor commissioning breaking news, features and lifestyle. I was there for ten years overall. I've also freelanced for The Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times mag, The FT mag, Amnesty International and various other publications. A few years ago I wanted to make a change from print editorial during what was a turbulent time for the industry. I accepted the role at Save The Children and love the focus on longer term humanitarian story telling and multimedia.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
There are so many reasons why a particular photo or project grabs attention but for me what's important is what the photographer or artist is trying to say, what their objective is. For me a photograph can't be judged soley on the aesthetic (or very rarely so) but it's the context within which the project or photograph sits and what it's trying to tell an audience. Aesthetics have a lot to do with the success of a photo, light, composition, colour, tone etc, but for me the intention and context is what's most fascinating. The idea or motivation behind the project. Sometimes the intention of a photographer/artist is not to steer the viewer any way in particular, in other instances it's to inform or show reality in a beautiful or striking way. In both cases, for me success is marrying technical skill with a powerful concept.
As regards the photographer's statement, what are the most important things for you to know about the work? When it comes to showing their work outside of University, have you any tips on how graduates should prepare their work and the supporting material that accompanies it?
It's important to be as prepared as possible. Be very happy with your edit, don't show too much (three or four projects max) and make sure there's a clear visual thread to your images. Picture Editors don't want any surprises when commissioning, they want to see a clear style, look and feel and know that when they commission you, they're getting the style you showed them. I'd say it's really important to feel you've established your visual language before you see anyone. As far as supporting text, it shouldn't be too long, if you're showing your work face to face you'll have the chance to explain it in person anyway. It can be quite off-putting when there's lots of text to plough through. I feel you should be able to synopsize a project in 300 words max (excluding captions), even better if less. For me a photographers' statement is a great opportunity to show who you really are as a photographer. You don't have to be explicit but this is where we find out what's important to you and why you got into photography, what it means to you and what makes you pick up a camera and tell a story, what your specific take on the world is. The statement can be informative or conceptual, depending on whether you're a Photojournalist or Artist, but must capture the heart of what your project is about in essence.
In your view, what are the kind of qualities that completing a degree course in photography should endow an individual with? Aside from specifically technical skills, what is the difference that having a demographic of emerging photography graduates makes in the world?
I think it's a fantastic thing to have so many photography graduates out there. Yes it's competitive and hard to make a living out of photography but I think the variety and competition means photographers have to be even more motivated and think outside the box, which creatively is a good thing. With Documentary or Photojournalism I think it's great to have so many potential truth tellers in society, showing humanity in all its forms, connecting people. As well as honing your style and voice, I think a degree should give you some business skills and insight into the reality of the industry. Knowing how to follow a brief and think from the perspective of the person commissioning you is vital.
What are the challenges you see facing graduates from photography degree courses as they make their way into the world at this point in time?
I think the competition due to of the sheer number of graduates, as well as finding new and original subjects and ways of communicating. It's not enough to be able to take a good image technically, you also have to have something to say and a very clear visual identity. What I think is encouraging is that industry professionals are always looking out for new talent at degree shows and watching the progression of photographers' careers. You might not know it but people will be taking notice so don't despair, carry on making the work you love, try get as much industry experience as possible (assisting is a good way in) and show your work to as many people as you can and it will get picked up.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your area of photography?
Don't give up! Be persistent and try to get as much practical experience in any way you can. Ask if you can take someone whose work you admire for coffee and a have chat with them about how they got into the industry, or maybe ask someone you respect to be your mentor for 3 or 6 months. Everyone has to start somewhere so you'd be surprised how many people are willing to help. Build your contacts book and get as many meetings with people as you can to show them your work. If you're specifically interested in NGO work, volunteer for a small local charity, show initiative and prove that you can work with sensitive subjects and potentially vulnerable people, better still that you can show commonly documented stories in a new light. In your quiet times, do personal projects you care about and perhaps collaborate with other like-minded photographers. If you're not getting commissioned (yet) you could start a photography collective, website or magazine where you self publish. Keep doing what you love and keep honing your style and voice.
Ivy Lahon will be selecting her favourite sets of work from the BA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2017.
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