Photo Researcher

Amy, tell me a bit about how you came to a career in advertising and photography. Did you go to college for either of these fields?
I studied fashion design at Louisiana State University, which included studies in marketing and merchandising but I fell in love with photography towards the end of my studies there. After I earned my B.S. I applied to Parsons in New York City. I joined the AAS program and studied photography and graphic design until my internship with Elle Décor led to a full time job working as an assistant photo editor under Quintana Roo Dunne. Two years later I was hired as the photo editor at and started shooting professionally on the side. During that time I also took some continuing education courses in film and NYU and photo editing at ICP.

I left MTV after 7 years to become a fulltime freelance photographer. A few years later I decided I was ready to head back south and moved to Austin, TX. After 6 months of looking for work I realized that in Austin, advertising agencies are where creatives earn the better salaries. I took a job I had never heard of before but seemed to fit my experience; digital asset manager.

Did you have any mentors along the way?
I had the most incredible teachers at Parsons, specifically Charles Harbutt who was at one time the president of Magnum. My fashion design instructors at LSU, Yvonne Marquette-Leak and Pamela Rabalais, were very supportive of my fashion photography interests and allowed me to earn credit for independent studies in fashion photography as a part of my curriculum.

As far as career mentors, Quintana taught me everything I know about being a photo editor (and when not to answer the phone!) Working with some established reps and photographers early on in my photo-editing career, like Michael Muller and the late great Fernando Bengoechea, who kindly let me under their wings, was incredible as well.

a lot of what I know I had to learn the hard way

But honestly, a lot of what I know I had to learn the hard way. When I started at MTV, I was given no direction and had to make up all the rules on my own, which was terrifying and awesome.
I’ve also learned a lot about rights management and art buying from some very kind and patient account reps at Getty and other agencies.

Tell us a bit about what it means to be an art buyer and digital asset manager. I think photographers look at the lists of people working at agencies and they are overwhelmed, they don’t know which person is actually the one to hire people. How does it work at T3, are you suggesting people to the creative director? Are you hiring people? Are you licensing work?
I think the role of art buyer and digital asset manager varies from agency to agency. I have a ton of production experience so sometimes the creative directors ask me for suggestions on who to hire, others choose photographers on their own and just ask me to help with contracts. I have sourced the majority of the photographers since I’ve been working at T3 but the final decision is always with the creative director.

Most of our stock licensing is directly through the stock agencies but every now and then we will find something on Flickr or elsewhere on the web and contact the photographer directly to license an image.
We have worked with some very talented Texas photographers since I’ve been at T3, Cody Hamilton, Dave Mead, Andrew Yates and Lee Kirgan to name a few. I’m dying to shoot with LeAnn Mueller. I would love to see more women photographers in our roster.

“Digital Asset Manager” is a relatively new role in advertising and few agencies have them, they may be a part of the creative team or they may be in more of an IT role. So if you are a photographer trying to get someone’s attention and you have a limited number of stamps, stick with the creative directors and then the art buyers. Or just call the main number for the agency you are interested in and ask.

I often hear from art buyers that they prefer to only work with photographers who have reps. Do you feel that way?
Not necessarily, but unless I have worked with a photographer in the past, I prefer to go with someone who has representation although I don’t really meet many photographers in Austin with reps. It’s such a small ad world in Texas, it is usually pretty easy to find someone within the agency who can vouch for a local photographer. Word of mouth is really important, probably more so than having a rep. Usually a photographer’s website and client list will say a lot about them as well.

Word of mouth is really important, probably more so than having a rep

What percentage of shoots for T3 happen in Texas? How often are you hiring Texas photographers?
The majority of shoots that we produce are done in Austin, Texas. T3 hires about 3-4 Texas photographers a year depending on what is going on. Some years are more creative-heavy and others are more digital-production-heavy for our agency.

You are an accomplished photographer yourself, and because of your role at T3, I think you have a unique perspective on the industry and what it takes to make it as a commercial photographer. What advice do you have for people who want to be shooting ad campaigns?
Thank you. Knowing all sides of the fence is definitely a plus, having hired and been hired for all kinds of editorial and advertising work gives me an advantage in understanding projects and being able to fairly negotiate contracts for the clients as well as the photographers.

My advice to those who want to work in this industry is to have a strong, clean and simple website with your best work, and work that represents what you want to be shooting. If you want to shoot a big campaign for clients like Gap or Apple, show bright, bold, sharp images in your portfolio. Lose the 25 dark blurry pictures of your college roommate. Only show your best work, edit, edit, edit. Take advantage of social media and network every chance you get but be humble as well, don’t over do it.

Only show your best work, edit, edit, edit

What annoys you when it comes to photographers marketing themselves to you? What works for you?
What annoys me is when I get promos from photographers that are poorly printed or have pictures of subjects that have absolutely nothing to do with any of the clients that my company works for. Know your audience. Don’t just throw all your fish food into the ocean. Photographers should figure out what agency they want to catch and what the right bait is. I think the more opportunities you have to personalize your marketing, the more impact it will make although that is not always affordable- it’s true what they say, most of those materials end up in the trash.

Cold calls are also bad, mail or email first. Dropping by an agency without an appointment is usually seen as too aggressive.

What inspires you in your own photography?
I’ve been pretty lucky to have a lot of really beautiful, strong, talented and inspiring girlfriends in my life. Fashion inspires me. Light, film, décor, dogs, art, social injustice. Other photographers inspire me, Sally Mann, Ellen von Unwerth, Danny Clinch. Art books, fashion blogs and magazines are a huge source of inspiration as well.

What’s your favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
I love shooting in Texas because everyone is laid back, usually in a good mood, and the weather is often agreeable (in Austin anyway.) There are also many different landscapes, climates and types of architecture in Texas. I know that has been said before but it’s so true. Shooting here is just easier. All the logistics and permits you need to shoot in a big city like New York or Los Angeles can really dampen the creative process sometimes.

Shooting here is just easier

You’re a vegetarian right? Where do you take out-of-towners to eat when you want to give them a nice dose of Austin without the requisite BBQ?
I was heading in that direction before I met my boyfriend, The BBQ Sauce King (he owns Stellar Gourmet Foods), now it’s pretty much BBQ party time in our back yard year round. I would say our guests get some requisite homemade brisket and elote but if we aren’t cooking we like to take out-of-towners to East Side Café, Chuy’s, Torchy’s and of course, Uchiko.

Favorite weekend getaway?
Fishing on the Gulf or a shopping + art weekend in Dallas/Fort Worth. I like to crash at my Uncle D’s place in Duncanville, we stay up late and listen to his stories about growing up in Hitchcock, Texas with my dad and his other siblings.

Speaking of uncles, an interesting side story- I got my first camera from my dad, it was an Olympus OM1 but it had originally belonged to my Uncle Mike. He was a photographer for the Texas State Senate before becoming Governor Preston Smith’s photographer in the late 1960s (although he was shooting with a Mamiya 23 at the time.) I would tell you to interview him but all of his photos went with Governor Smith’s papers, now in a collection at Texas Tech. “An abundance of grip and grins.”

Favorite libation?
My boyfriend’s mint-infused simple syrup mojitos or anything at Péché in Austin.

Favorite breakfast taco?
We make our own breakfast tacos every morning! The key ingredient is Central Market’s fresh whole-wheat tortillas. You really can’t get a bad breakfast taco in Austin but Torchy’s or Whole Foods is where I usually go if I’m on the run or catering a photo shoot.

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.