Each year as part of Graduate Photography Online we ask a number of professionals from the world of photography to review all the work submitted and choose their favourites. We chat to Brenda Fitzsimons, Picture Editor at The Irish Times and Selector for the BA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2020.
Tell us about your job? What does your core role at The Irish Times involve?
As Picture Editor at The Irish Times, my job – and no two days are the same – involves determining the picture needs of the newspaper, across print and all digital platforms, and making sure it happens. I allocate assignments to staff and freelance photographers, in Ireland and abroad, giving clear briefs and usually very tight deadlines. I select and edit the photos that appear online and in print – that's a big part of my day – as well as liaising throughout the day with editors and the video team. I negotiate fees, rights agreements and any other legal permissions needed.
How did you make your way into the career you are now in? Did you always want to work in the field of photography?
I always had a passion for photography, particularly press photography, so I always wanted to work in newspapers. I approached the editor of my local newspaper in Galway and worked there for at least five years, whilst there I got to cover, and learn from, a myriad of job areas, namely: the arts, politics, sport and fashion. I freelanced for the national newspapers before moving to Dublin where I got staffed with The Irish press. That built my experience and allowed me to learn from established news photographers. Taking photographs is no longer a part of my job since I moved to the position of Picture Editor – but as a staff photographer at The Irish Times it was for more than 20 years, every day out on the road, feeding back images to the paper.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
As Picture Editor I commission across all genres – from fashion shoots to portraits, lifestyle and feature content, from press conferences to breaking news events. The core question at editing or selection stage is - "does this picture tell the story?". John Berger's nuanced definition of a photograph as being "a record of things seen" still holds true.
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?
For me, a really interesting and exciting part of my job is seeing the work of new, emerging photographers. I want to see the images, to be able to immediately understand the narrative - what the photographer is seeing and saying in each picture. Strong technical skills are a given. Lengthy written statements should never be part of the presentation – obviously factual caption details are needed – but beyond that, let the images speak. Never bombard anyone with hundreds of photos in big files – if I am looking at a graduate's work I tend to want to see 20 well presented images that will show me their experience and skills.
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?
A photography degree should equip students with strong analytical skills and the self-awareness and confidence to be their own first critic. Being able to edit your own work is a vital skill – and one that gets stronger and develops over time and with experience. The years of study should, through projects and course work, help refine the student's interest and ability, to build on creative talent and to let them focus (sorry! inevitable) on the area of the profession they want to specialise in.
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?
Every generation thinks it's harder for them to break in, but building a career in photography has never been the easy option – no matter what area of photography you want to specialise in. Young photographers are often told that "everyone can take photos now, everyone's a photographer" – ignore that, because when it comes to quality professional images it's simply not true. Have confidence in your developing professional skills and your creative ability to see things in a way that others don't.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your area of photography?
Be tenacious and professional in your approach, keep building your portfolio and be alert to newsworthy photo opportunities. Be prepared to keep learning. Professional photographers across all genres tend to be generous in sharing their expertise and advice – and that includes news photographers - so don't be afraid to ask for advice. Keep honing your technical skills, this is an area of photography where the ability to adapt to new technology is an everyday feature of the working day.