Pairing a photographer with a famous writer can be difficult, but in the end, an extremely rewarding experience. The “famous writers” are usually handled with kid gloves by the editors–“Sebastian’s not interested in going to Iraq for us but he pitched me something even better, about his grandmothers toenail clipping collection, she ferments it into whiskey,” “Ohhhhh, can he write it for this issue?” “I think thats our cover story,” “Goddam he’s good, this could win us an ASME.”–so, you have to be very careful negotiating this potential minefield. A report from the field or even after the assignment is over about the shit-head photographer you sent along will cause you much distress and it’s virtually impossible to defend against. What are you going to say, “Sebastian’s an asshole” because that gets you nowhere or even worse a reaction like “yeah but he’s very valuable to us so we can’t afford to have your photographer screw-up our relationship with him.”

This is where getting to know photographers on a personal level, comes in handy. Knowing a few photographers who are talented and easy going is exactly what you need in a situation like this. Whoa, hold on buddy… I know everyone aims to please so nobody is going to cop to being a difficult photographer but the problem, when it comes to writers is, in many cases, they’re working against you. They always interview the subject for longer than they should, leaving little time for the portraits, or they head off on some effing “wild goose chase” sucking up valuable photography time looking for additional material that may or may not materialize. It’s not as easy as you may think to be a nice guy and demand equal time with the subject or, egads more time than the writer.

Some of the more famous writers will have certain photographers they only work with and when you’re famous you pretty much get to dictate the terms of the assignment so why not demand who the photographer will be. Side-note: Many times the not-so-famous writers email over a list of photographers that is passed along from the editor with some sort of preamble about how they know this isn’t any of their business but here’s a list of photographers I like… just in case you we’re named Director of Photography by mistake.

In the end, when you make a great pairing and the photography that comes back from the assignment is amazing and then eventually you see the two of them shooting assignments for other magazines, for a moment, it feels like something you did lasts more than a month and that, is an incredibly rewarding feeling.

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  1. Great post.
    I have worked with a couple writers who thought they had all the answers and i had nothing to add and the results of both of our performances were fine, but not over the top which is what we all should be striving for
    The times when the writer, and some of the “famous” ones are pretty cool, lets you have a say the work produced speaks for itself and I think the experience is better for the subjects as well as the photographer and the writer. Especially with heavy topics/ subjects, a good relationship between the writer and photographer comes across to the subject of th story and that can be the key to getting in that door or finding the moment that defines the story.
    We are all supposed to be able to get along with anyone, at least the photojournalist/ documentary folks here, so it would be nice if that translated to those we have to work with, from both the penned and filmed sides of the assignment equation.

  2. Back in the early nineties, Jay Stuller and I did a piece for Smithsonian on DFW airport. (At the time, the largest airport/community in the country)

    It was a first for Smithsonian to allow a photographer and writer to work together. Usually, the story was written and the photographer illustrated the piece.

    Jay and I were friends so it made it easy. But it was great to be able to shoot things happening that he saw – such as a possible heart attack and how the police are cross-trained as medics and firemen. I was shooting and he was writing as it happened. It made a difference in the story and I felt that it was a more real and honest portrayal of this mini-city.

    I enjoyed working with a writer and went on to do several other stories for them in that manner.

    The only time I cringe is when I writer introduces me as “their” photographer, as if I am working for him. It sets up a defensive dynamic and I prefer to stay away from that type of situation. Usually, I stay quiet, shoot what is needed and try to find time to shoot what the writer is missing or what I can discover to add to the piece.

  3. Working with writers can both be the most rewarding experience or the most infuriating. I have an interview in the works with writer and now friend, James Thornton. We did a piece together for Geographic adventure a few years back and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life, but there is always that moment before the assignment, when you wonder wether the guy/gal will drive you to the edge of extinction.
    Three weeks in the deepest rain forest can be taxing on some personalities, especially when there are real risks of never making it back to civilization, i.e death. But when a photographer and a writer click, it makes for the very best both talents can offer.
    On the other hand I have had to work with sociopaths, megalomaniacs and personality disorders, whose names shall remain buried, deep in the recesses of my reptilian mind.

    What “famous” writer, and writers in general, seem to forget is that a story is a collaboration and an interpretation, no matter how they want to look at it. The best photographers will, and should not, solely illustrate the story they are given. Beyond that, I often find that writer have execrable visual minds and hardly ever make intelligent suggestions about photography, sometimes so much so that it becomes a rather entertaining comedy of errors. I, personally never, ever suggest what a writer should write about, but writers seem compulsively driven to either suggest or outright demand certain pictures from a photographer. In that respect, thanks to editors, the good ones at least, tend to always disregard those suggestions.

    Writers and photographers should stick to what they do best and trust each other to do so. The editor’s job is to foster those relationships and couple the proper personalities. This is when a good editor becomes more than just an editor but a psychologist. Female editors, in my personal experience, are often very good at this…..given the chance.

  4. So, yes, writers of less renown need to accept that they don’t dictate photographer choices, and that the DoP is the DoP for a reason. However, if such a writer respectfully suggested a name, would that get you to check the photographer out? I.e., “If it doesn’t happen, so be it, but I saw some great work on this subject by A. Photographer… signed, the-writer-you-just-hired”. Do you consider that reasonable? The writer risks you hating the work and wondering about his/her taste, but maybe it is good.

  5. Cameron Davidson wrote:
    “it was great to be able to shoot things happening that [the writer] saw… I was shooting and he was writing as it happened. It made a difference in the story and I felt that it was a more real and honest portrayal…”

    This begs the question about self-produced editorial packages. I’ve had several editors – APE included – say how unlikely this combo is. Either you write or you shoot well. Nobody does it all well.

    I’d agree this is true for time-sensitive stories and moving targets, but I’ve read some terrific think-pieces out there that come from the keyboard and lens of the same author.

    Of course, there is the chance that this same scenario could play like rocker Ian Hunter’s 1979 album: “You’re never alone with a schizophrenic”, but I digress… no I don’t … oh, shut up!

  6. In my experience there are 3 kinds of writers when it comes to the writer/photographer interface.

    1 – “You are my photographer and are here to provide a visual affadavit to my own musings. Take a picture of that toilet!”

    2 – “I am going to sit on the sidelines with a notebook and watch you dive in there while I work out how to play this damn thing because I’m intimidated by the confidence that your equipment confers upon you.”

    3 – “This is a collaboration and if we go about it together but independently by checking back in with each other on a periodic basis then hopefully we can produce a stereo picture that is more enlightening than 2 detached and unconnected mono performances.”

    No. 3 is the one that always produces the best results.

  7. @4. Marshall: I don’t mind when writers recommend photographers but I know lots of people who do. Probably because 90% of the time they’re pushing someone I’m interested in working with and It’s not always delivered very tactfully.

  8. Spot on Chris Floyd

    allthough I havent experienced writer #2 , what I have experienced of the ” you are my photographer ” type usually becomes unstuck because of
    – being unable to drive.
    – being unable to work his mobile phone.
    – locking himself in his hotel room by accident.
    – being in the bar when the days happenings are happening.
    – not being able to accurately describe events as the photographs show because he was at said bar.
    – putting unleaded petrol in a car that runs on diesel.
    – being forced call you a month later for the phone number of the subject of the fantastic, cover worthy photo you took but he did’nt bother to talk to.
    I could go on but I might add that Chris’s # 3 works only when there is mutual respect for each others roles and a genuine desire to produce something worthwhile free of ego and excuses.

  9. One of the more successful collaborations of all time:

    “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”

    Walker Evans and James Agee. No idea how it really was, though, on a day to day basis. Lots of things get forgotten in that many years.

  10. Just to go back to my earlier post (No. 7). The greatest collaborations I’ve ever had with a writer are the ones I’ve had with Nik Cohn, who also happens to be the greatest writer I’ve ever worked with. As well as writing Saturday Night Fever he was also the inspiration for Pinball Wizard by The Who. Although Nik is not deaf, dumb or blind he is an insomniac pinball freak with the inability to suffer fools. We’ve worked together 3 times now and although there is always some friction between us it is only because we have been cooped up together in a car or in a hotel or in a situation where he hasn’t had enough sleep and we both have “qualities” that can irritate the other if we spend too long together.

    However, when it comes to the work, there is the deepest professional respect I have ever known from a writer to a photographer. He intrinsically understands that someone with a camera can say and tell things that someone with a pen never could. And I intrinsically understand that someone with a pen can draw out nuances and enlightenment in a way that can render somebody with a camera nothing but a blunt instrument carrying a mugger magnet that makes too much noise.

    What Nik’s attitude tells me is that I have been working with someone who has the grace and humility to acknowledge the limits of his art/craft but also the nous to realise that with the right photographer there is someone with whom he can work in harmony, which ultimately suggests that his confidence in what he is capable of producing is not in doubt. Those who are most comfortable with themselves are nearly always the most welcoming and the most collaborative. He knows his reputation is secure so he has no problem in sharing the work or the glory.

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