As Head of Photography at the Guardian, Fiona Shields has been involved in covering several of the most historic news stories of our time: 9/11, Princess Diana’s death, the Arab Spring, the terror attacks in London, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more. With more than two decades of picture editing experience across a range of newspaper titles, she is an authority in the field; as such, she has judged the Sony World Photography Awards, the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, and was a nominator for the Prix Pictet. We are thrilled that she has agreed to be a member of the jury for our Exposure Awards 2018.

In this generous interview, Shields offers her thoughts on the changing digital climate of news publications, the responsibility of news organizations in our contemporary culture, and her advice to aspiring photo editors.

Editors’ note: The images dispersed throughout this interview are pulled from a recent cover article in the Guardian Weekend Magazine called Life in the Shadow of Grenfell: The Tower Next Door. Shields generously offered them to LensCulture for reproduction in this interview.

© Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

LensCulture: Fiona, what first drew you to photography? Was there a lightbulb moment when you knew you wanted to work with this medium?

Fiona Shields: I originally trained as a print journalist, and in those early days I imagined my future would be as a writer. My interest in photography, I thought at the time, was purely recreational—I took my own pictures, had a little darkroom in my flat and worked part-time in a camera shop. But looking back, it was actually so much more.

One of my first chosen interview subjects as a student was Tim Page, the Vietnam War photographer, who gave me a fascinating insight into his craft and the essential nature of photojournalism. In my first job at a current affairs magazine, I quickly realized that I had more of a talent for visual storytelling, layout and picture editing than for turning out an elegant feature or punchy news story. So I focused my efforts in that direction and it has proved to be a good fit.

LC: As the head of photography at a major news outlet, do you feel you have a particular responsibility in today’s changing media environment?

FS: Absolutely. I feel a deep sense of responsibility for the way we present our stories at the Guardian. It’s important to consider how the images we publish impact the people in them, how they may shape the political landscape and affect change.

© Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

Once the Guardian was predominantly a UK news organization, but now our website is viewed by millions around the world. I think this certainly informs our editorial choices, which is an ongoing process of evaluation. Our readers and viewers are encouraged to take part, lend their voices and opinions, which is a valued contribution towards diversity in our journalism.

LC: You’ve been involved in the coverage for some truly historic stories. With your two decades of perspective, have you noticed whether the way we approach these stories has changed? I know the methodology has changed—social media, digital media, etc.—but I’m curious whether that shift in dissemination goes hand-in-hand with a shift in mentality.

FS: Technology has made the pace of news fast: images arrive almost immediately from a news event. That means a picture editor’s sense of what is appropriate to publish has become vital. It wouldn’t be right to censor the news, but equally, the publication of overtly graphic (for example) images can exploit or compromise the dignity of those involved and actually turn the reader or viewer away from the story rather than engaging them.

Also, in any breaking news situation, pictures are passed swiftly on social media. We’re looking to publish up-to-the-minute reports online, but there is a danger in hasty publication; pictures initially thought to be evidential can later turn out to be a hoax or a misrepresentation. It pays to pause for a moment and seek verification.

LC: Do you have a sense of how your job has changed? From my vantage point, it looks like there has been a significant alteration in the relationship between major news organizations and photographers—many photographers used to be on staff, but now many are freelance. Are there drawbacks to this arrangement? Advantages?

FS: We only have two staff photographers on the Guardian now. The majority of our commissions are with photographers who are contracted to work a certain number of days a week or freelancers who are known and trusted. Trust is a significant factor in the relationship. Any photographer we commission is effectively representing the Guardian, so it’s key that they understand and apply the values of the organization.

© Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

This understanding is extended to any agency we have an arrangement with. We also need to be able to trust that any images submitted have journalistic integrity—that they haven’t been manipulated or fabricated. In all honesty, it’s almost impossible to spot a carefully “photoshopped” image, so this code of conduct is vital and made clear in a list of terms and conditions sent to all our contributors.

LC: I’d love to look at a specific example of work published by the Guardian. Can you walk us through one of your favorite recent commissions? How did the story come about? How did you find the photographer, how much contact did you have with him/her during the process, and why did you select these images in particular?

FS: When it comes to covering longer form projects, we have a variety of different presentation options at our disposal. Most recently, one of our regular freelance photographers, Christian Sinibaldi, worked on a complex piece with journalist Simon Hattenstone and videographer Alex Healey to get to know and have an understanding of the community living in a London tower block close to the horrific fire at Grenfell.

© Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

The story required a considerate approach if the people involved were to open their doors and lives to a media team. Thus, the photographer was cast with this in mind, as well as his talent for portraiture and reportage. The photographs ultimately had to work in print in our Weekend Magazine, including a standout image for the front cover, as well as a series that would compliment the video footage we planned online. Christian was in constant touch with myself, Simon, the multimedia team and the magazine team as the story, and therefore the brief, evolved.

The resulting piece was a triumph of collaboration, elegantly shot and presented, telling the important stories of the people living in the shadow of Grenfell and who share many similar circumstances to those who suffered such a tragedy. This is a link to the piece online.

LC: How do you stay on top of the goings-on around the photography world? Newsletters? Instagram? Magazines?

FS: I subscribe to photographic publications, visit exhibitions, take part in judging competitions and follow photographers, news organizations and our competitors on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Lately, I’ve found Instagram particularly helpful for identifying particular projects I admire and may venture to publish. It’s also a great way for photographers to show different aesthetic styles that they wouldn’t always reveal on a briefed commission—so it can be really refreshing!

LC: Speaking of Instagram, I would never have guessed that it would play such a part in disseminating news around the world. Where do we go from here? Any insights on the future of news/photography? Drones? Virtual reality?

FS: I’m fortunate to work for a digitally progressive organization and we’re always looking for new ways to present our journalism. Drones and virtual reality projects are already part of our toolbox. Many of our photographers are also skilled videographers.

© Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

But even if there are moments when still photography isn’t integral to a presentation, it still continues to serve as one of the most powerful, accessible mediums for visual storytelling. The way our habits have changed—digesting the news in bite-sized form through our phones for example—has played to the strength of the well-crafted photograph.

LC: What piece of advice would you offer to a young photo-lover who wants to follow in your footsteps? Do you think photo editors/photography directors need any particular personality traits or skills to be successful?

FS: I have had the most rewarding career contributing to the reporting of historic events for the last two decades. I really have been fortunate to find work that I find challenging, interesting, and surprising every day. I have the privilege of working with some of the best photographers in the world. I still love looking at pictures and I’m constantly delighted by an original approach or thrilled by a genius moment of news photography. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend picture editing as a career choice.

© Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

That being said, I would advise some journalistic training, as there are important disciplines to be aware of: legal issues and ethical reporting, for example, apply as much to photojournalism as to the written word. I’m not sure an instinct for aesthetics can be entirely learnt, but it can be refined. My tip to any junior photo editors would be to try to be alert to a picture that affects you, as it is likely to connect to your readers too. Making that connection and enticing engagement in the story is the skill of a good picture editor. Look for originality, quality, verification and, above all, be truthful.

LC: As a juror for our Exposure Awards, you’ll likely encounter a lot of work you’ve never come across before. What are you hoping to see in the entries? A new story, a familiar story told in a new way?

FS: I’m always looking for a fresh way into a story or a different view on the world. Photography awards are a great way of spotting emerging talent and unearthing originality. I’m looking forward to the judging process and hoping for a few surprises!

—Fiona Shields, interviewed by Coralie Kraft

The LensCulture Exposure Awards 2018 are open for entries! Submit your work now to have it seen by our distinguished jury panel, including Shields, editors from The New York Times Magazine, Foam, and many more.