Alison Zavos is an Austin-based freelance photo editor and curator of the very popular photo blog Feature Shoot.
Tell us a little about your background. Did you ever want to be a photographer? How did you come into the industry?
Halfway through a graphic design degree at Parsons, I took a photography class where one of my first assignments was shooting the Mermaid Festival in Coney Island. When I came back with the film, my teacher told me that I should change my major to photography. This was actually a relief as I was struggling as a design student.
After graduating, I started taking photographs while working as a waitress in a vegan restaurant. I was very naïve back then and thought that one day I could make a living selling my work in a gallery.
When in 2005, one of my images was selected for the prestigious American Photography Annual, I thought for sure I would be discovered as a fine art photographer. I waited for the calls/emails to come rolling in and to my surprise, nothing happened. At that point I realized my dream of “making it” as a fine art photographer was wishful thinking.
Around this time, a good friend was working at a shelter magazine called O at Home (now shuttered). She managed to get me a paid internship working in the photo department and on photo shoots. That was my first foray into publishing.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
Not really. I’ve always learned best in situations where I’m in a little bit over my head. When I’m not sure exactly what to do or how to begin.
You were a photo editor in NYC for quite a few years. What publications did you work at?
I worked as a photo editor for 6 years before moving to Austin last summer. I got my start interning at O at Home Magazine. From there I moved on to Working Mother, BizBash and Inc.
Since moving to Austin, I’ve been taking on freelance assignments (production, photo editing, curating) as well as working as a consultant for photographers.
What’s a typical day like for a photo editor at a magazine?
It really depends on the magazine. At Working Mother I did a lot of stock research (mainly lifestyle imagery) and negotiating because I was working with a very small budget. I produced all the shoots and also worked as a fashion stylist for our “real mom” cover shoots. I was the only person in the photo department for the most part, aside from interns, so I pretty much did everything and rarely picked up my phone.
At BizBash I was responsible for 9 different magazines that came out quarterly. I hired event/documentary photographers in New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, DC, Toronto, Las Vegas, Miami and Orlando to cover 4-5 events per night. The job entailed lots of scheduling, editing for print and web, and liaising with pr people and event planners. I ended up photographing a lot of the NYC events as well which were always pretty phenomenal.
At Inc. magazine I assigned a lot of corporate portraits. Most of my day was spent scheduling, handling travel, meeting with photographers and going over layouts with editors.
What are some of the unique challenges that an editorial photo editor faces?
Depending on the number of people working on a story, it can be tough trying to please everyone involved. You can have many different ideas, opinions and expectations for a shoot, and if the images do not work out, the photo editor is usually the one to blame. Being clear with the brief to the photographer is paramount.
What makes someone a good photo editor? Do you have any advice for people considering a career as a photo editor?
Good communication skills, attention to detail, resourcefulness and foreseeing problems and planning ahead are all very important traits/skills for photo editors to have. There is so much more to the job than just picking the best image out of 20. It obviously helps to have a good eye, but so many non-creative people weigh in on the final decision that you can’t really get hung up on that.
My advice for people considering a career as a photo editor is to get an internship with a magazine or work in the studio of a busy photographer. It’s all about working experience and most people want to see that you’ve had magazine experience before they will hire you. Once you’re in, make yourself indispensable and don’t burn bridges. It’s a very small industry.
Do you enjoy researching image libraries when looking to license work? What are some of your favorite collections (outside of the usual stock houses)?
I did a lot of stock research in my early days as a photo editor and I truthfully don’t miss it. Back then, I filed photos in folders with titles such as: ‘Pregnant women eating fruit’, ‘Kids doing homework with dog’, ‘Beautiful woman enjoying face mask’.
Today, I’ll pick up a lifestyle magazine in the Dr.’s office and recognize images that I used for an article 6 years ago. While photo editors and art buyers are probably the only ones that make these connections, I think it’s pretty sad that agencies are peddling the same outdated imagery and editors are going for it.
I always enjoyed getting images directly from photographers because you are less likely to see it in a competing magazine the next month or worse yet in an ad in your same magazine (yes, this has happened).
In my free time, I used to scour photographers’ sites and make screen grabs of images that I thought I might need in the future for the magazine. I also had a list of photographers that I would email when I needed something specific. I’ve always enjoyed discovering images that have not been seen elsewhere and also feel good about all the money going directly to the photographer.
About a year ago, I discovered that you could search PhotoShelter and then contact the photographer directly to license a photograph. There is not as much selection as a stock agency, but there are a lot of images you won’t find anywhere else.
I also like flickr for finding images. Most of the photographers are not professionals so it takes some patience explaining why you can’t pay someone in advance (through PayPal) for use of their image, but if you can get past that there are some gems to be found.
When did you launch Feature Shoot? And why?
I started the site 4 years ago because I wanted to keep track of all the amazing photographers that I was coming across on a day-to-day basis. I thought other photo editors and art buyers could use it as a resource to find new talent and that photographers might be also be inspired to see what other people were working on.
Has the mission of Feature Shoot changed since you started it?
The mission has not really changed, but the approach has. Initially, I wanted to highlight the photographer so I would choose unconnected images to feature and interview them mainly about their creative process in general. Now, I’m mainly interested running a specific series of their work. Talking about the work engages more people, not just the photo-centric, and also I find it more compelling to learn about why photographers choose certain topics/subjects and what it took to make those particular images.
How many photographers have you profiled so far on Feature Shoot?
Over 2,000 photographers from all over the world have run on the site in some capacity.
You obviously have a love for discovering and sharing talent. What keeps you motivated to continue to publish new content every day?
The amazing work I see everyday keeps me inspired and I’m happy to be able to share that work with a larger audience.
I also love getting emails from people saying how much they enjoy the site. I get some nasty emails too which I often find hilarious and also strangely motivating.
Any exciting projects on the horizon that you’d like to share with us?
I’m curating a show with fellow Austinite Amanda Gorence for Photoville, a photo festival happening in Brooklyn this June. We are showing work by young photographers entitled, ‘Underage’. The work we’ve chosen is pretty broad, but ongoing themes throughout the show are first love, experimentation, and the search for adventure and belonging.