For over 15 years, Molly Roberts worked as a photo editor, and eventually as the chief photography editor, at Smithsonian Magazine. She helped transform the publication into a place to discover distinctive and memorable photographic visions from around the world.
Recently, she joined the editorial team at National Geographic Magazine, focusing her efforts especially on stories about history, archaeology and culture. More globally, she is interested in “human stories that give great insight into living on this planet here and now.”
We are honored that Roberts served as a member of our jury for the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2017. She draws on a wide array of experiences from her long career in photography in order to offer some valuable wisdom—
LC: The last time we interviewed you, you were working at Smithsonian Magazine. On the face of it, Smithsonian and National Geographic Magazine publish work that is more alike than different—stunning stories from locales around the world, accompanied by striking photography. How are the magazines different? Now that you’re at National Geographic, do you find yourself selecting work that differs from photography you would have chosen at Smithsonian?
MR: At Smithsonian I spent a lot of time identifying photography projects that were already well in progress by photographers around the world. I took this tack because the magazine had the space to showcase projects, but not the budget to develop ideas and unshot projects for lengthy periods of time.
At National Geographic, most of the work is done on assignment. Many of the ideas are pitched by photographers, not only writers, and thus more of the stories are photography-first stories. It is a priority at the magazine to commission exclusive photography and for the photographer and editor to work together in developing the idea. To my knowledge, NGM is one of the few magazines who set aside the budget and time to work this way and produce the best visual narratives possible.
LC: What are the subjects that you enjoy editing the most?
MR: I like the challenge of trying to animate history stories; I am also very interested in human stories that give insight into living on this planet here and now. There are so many challenges and tensions between culture, religion, climate and other belief systems clashing, it’s more important than ever to try to understand all sides.
LC: If you could offer one line of advice to photographers submitting their work to National Geographic, what would it be?
MR: My best advice is to really do your research on stories that you are very invested in or passionate about. That foundation will help make your work go beyond a superficial look at a topic or issue. Also, remember that it takes time—a serious investment in time to make a project masterful.
LC: In our last interview, you mentioned that there are a set of visual references that should be part of any young photojournalist’s visual vocabulary. Can you give a few examples of those references and why they are important in your mind?
MR: I strongly feel that you can’t create your best work without having a good foundation in the history of image-making. So if you are working with landscape, you need to look at painters like Albert Bierstadt, or photographers like Carleton Watkins. You should also look at more contemporary masters like Andreas Gursky or Edward Burtynsky.
If you plan to work making portraits, you need to know who August Sander is; if you plan to drive across America, look at Robert Frank’s work; if you are interested in humor in photography, please get to know Martin Parr’s images; if you are interpreting science or shooting architecture, do look at Bernice Abbott.
These photographers set a high bar, a standard that must be met or exceeded. And in studying their successes, you can learn a lot about what will make your work more incisive and more powerful. I am not necessarily saying to emulate these masters, but definitely add these resources to your visual vocabulary.
LC: You’ve said, “While I love art photography, I don’t want photography, in general, to lose its believability.” How do you see the contemporary photography world succeeding in this venture? How do you see it failing? Is it enough for editors and photographers to draw a line between “fine art” and “documentary?”
MR: Photography is a tool. So its uses are many. And humans are individual, so their visions of the world are subjective. I do think photojournalism has a great responsibility to serve as witness to what is happening, and to be fair to the events and people in its scope. It is important to not be manipulative, to not arrive with an agenda to impose.
But I am also not someone who thinks complete objectivity is possible. Ethical problems can have a range of expressions, so people would be well-served to look at the debates surrounding the work of Steve McCurry, Giovanni Troilo, or Poulomi Basu (and those are only a few of the most recent examples). I think the propagation of fake news during the recent US presidential election tells us that the general audience is not as sophisticated as we might hope. That means it is important for visual storytellers who are trying to make a contribution to world understanding to take great care in their image-making and contextualizing.
LC: How do you see the power of street photography, in particular? You’ve said in the past that a great single image operates a bit like a poem: it’s surprising, and it makes you think in a way you haven’t before. Where does street photography fall on this spectrum?
MR: I do think street photography falls into the category of poetry, a fleeting observation of a dynamic situation. Stopping the flow of life for a fraction of a second and observing all the nuances of it.
It’s a bit of a Zen experience: to really be in the moment and find something that elevates that moment into one worth remembering.
—Molly Roberts, interviewed by Coralie Kraft