Phil Coomes, Picture Editor & Photographer
Introducing the Selectors for the BA Phase of Graduate Photography Online 2018: we talk to Phil Coomes, Curator of Photographs at Museum of London.
Tell us about your job? What does your core role at the BBC involve?
I'm the Picture Editor at the 'BBC News' website and work to ensure we use the best pictures available to us on news stories and features. I also commission new work and work as a photographer for the site, mainly shooting features for 'BBC Stories' which is part of 'BBC Current Affairs', sometimes on my own and at other times working closely with one of the text journalists. So it's a mix of monitoring the photo wire services, picture research, story production, creation and shooting. Inevitably there is also a mountain of paperwork to go with it!
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?
It's hard to think back that far, as I've worked for the BBC forever, literally forever (I was 19 when I started). To give you some idea, within a few months of my joining the Beeb Ronald Reagan, the then US President, launched a bombing raid on Libya, Mrs Thatcher was in Downing Street, mobile phones were the size of house bricks and Europe was still divided by the Iron Curtain. Since then I've worked with stills at the BBC in a variety of roles and yes, I had always wanted to work with photographs. Photographs were and still are, at least in my mind, the only media that can push the viewer to question what they are seeing. They can be both beautiful and informative, but also open to multiple interpretations. Even now pictures amaze me every day, sure there are those that strike you, but the slow burners and those with thought behind them are often the ones that you remember. Sorry, I've gone off the question, but yes I studied photography at school and then at degree level.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
There tend to be two approaches, the first is usually fairly straightforward and revolves around the story. This is when the picture is bouncing off the text, so it might simply be a picture of a politician or some news event. The picture content is set by that, it's then a case of selecting something that works across the site, on desktop and mobile. It also has to fit the space in the template on the page. For features, then we have a little more space to manoeuvre, trying to lead the reader through a story, that might be text-led, or perhaps the pictures take the lead. The pictures have to work, but it always comes back to the story - are the central characters interesting? Is there a hook, something that will jolt the reader, or at least interest them? Of course it needs to be visually arresting, something that might make people take note of it amongst the river of images.
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?
I work on editorial content, so for me, it is vital that all photographers are able to provide accurate and clear information on the pictures and their work. This is obviously especially important if they are submitting a feature. Who, what, why, where, when and how are the basics, but background details and perhaps quotes from people pictured will all make it easier to assess whether the photographer is someone who we could work with. On a practical level it needs to be easy to view. There are many ways to do this, but ideally a brief email with an overview of the project, a link to the images, or perhaps a pdf.
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 good understanding of the market and how it works. Photographers need to know how to pitch their work to the right clients, whatever area of photography they are in. Your pitch needs to be clear, offer a good top line that the editor can latch onto before going into the details. Make it clear why your story is important, why we should care and want to know more about the pictures. Study the various outlets closely, see what they are using - define what is from agency, what is stock - how much is actually commissioned and not a handout image from an exhibition or book. Where could you fit into that? Make sure you understand rights, not just copyright, but image rights, privacy issues and so on.
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?
It's a crowded market and one that can be hard to stand out in, but then again there are more outlets than ever for editorial work and it has never been easier to get in touch with picture editors across the globe. Many who want to work in this area look far afield for their stores but why not look closer to home. Approach your own region or local area as though it were something new to you, as though you had just stepped off the plane. What makes it different? Where are the stories that would be of interest to others?
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your area of photography?
Create a focused portfolio that shows off your style, but is relevant to the potential client, and if you are unsure, ask. You can either visit the various picture desks or at least contact the editors directly, or via social media. Ask for advice, discuss your pictures with your friends and share in any way you can from websites to Instagram. Find something you are passionate about and shoot it. In fact take pictures all the time, explore the things you are interested in. We run picture stories in a variety of formats, but they all come back to the same thing, a good story well told. Edit your pictures tightly if you can, don't bombard people with hundreds of pictures or reams of text and as mentioned above, provide a good top line that grabs the editor.