How to Land Work with Refinery29

June 22, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Toby Kaufman.

Founded in 2005 as a New York-based fashion guide, Refinery29 has expanded its editorial focus and its readership, now claiming about 27 million unique visitors per month. PDN talked to photography director Toby Kaufmann to learn how her department finds and hires photographers, and keeps up with the site’s fast-paced publication schedule. Before joining Refinery29 two years ago, Kaufmann had worked as photo director of Maxim, Men’s Fitness and Fitness. She talks about how her current work differs from working at magazines, and how Refinery29’s editorial mission provides opportunities for photographers who shoot in a diverse range of styles.

Toby Kaufmann
Photography Director
Refinery 29
225 Broadway, Floor 23
New York, NY 10007

PDN: What’s the mission of Refinery29, and who are its readers?
TK: Our readers are mostly women who are looking to discover their individuality, sense of style and purpose. Our editorial focus is on being a motivation for them to claim their power by delivering optimistic, diverse, creative storytelling and points of view.

Photographically, we focus on fashion, beauty, celebrity, workouts, food, local and international news. It’s everything under the sun. I lead a department of 12 photo editors. In the two years I’ve been with Refinery29, there aren’t a lot of genres besides landscapes that we haven’t commissioned.

When I talk to photographers about what Refinery is, I say it’s the new editorial. When we do a story, we want to hear what the photographer has to say, and [we want them to] bring ideas. That sounds basic, but at this point that’s not happening much at magazines. I hear from fellow photo editors that they’re given sketches to shoot to, and everything’s micromanaged. Here at Refinery, we’re able to play and experiment, which has drawn creatives to want to work here.

There are editorial “tent poles” we contribute to. This is our third year of “Take Back the Beach,” which encourages positive body image and confidence. Those [stories] require portraiture, documentary, celebrity and beauty photography, and fashion as well.

We had a story this week on Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, photographed by Pari Dukovic. We’re interested in growing our political coverage.

© Sam Cannon

Sam Cannon was commissioned to visualize anxiety. “That’s difficult,” says photo director Toby Kaufmann, but Cannon used bright primary colors “to move the story along in a visual way.” © Sam Cannon

PDN: How does the creative freedom you describe influence assignments?
TK: It’s a conversation and a collaboration from beginning to end. We commissioned a story from photographer Sam Cannon. I had an idea to visualize what anxiety feels like. That’s difficult. Sam had this idea to make her color palette very red, very blue, very primary. She helped move the story along in a visual way. For me, it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to encourage that.

There are also opportunities to fail. Sometimes you want to try something. Accidents happen. Some turn out to be incredibly interesting from a photographic point of view, and some don’t work out. It’s OK due to the sheer quantity of work we’re producing. You learn and move on, and there’s incredible freedom in that.

PDN: What quantity of work are you producing?
TK: It depends. Last year we shot maybe 35 stories a month. Those shoots ranged in size, obviously. This year we’re trying to cut back to maybe 25 stories a month. But in addition to those, we’re working on 350 to 400 stories a week that require photo research. That’s a week, not a month. We’re a very busy department. We have four full-time photo researchers, and then we have a freelance overnight photo editor who works mostly with the Los Angeles writers.

PDN: When do you decide to do photo research, and when is assigning appropriate?
TK: In some ways, it’s a completely different process from a magazine. We also create our own stock libraries.

If it’s a trend story, you can’t necessarily do pick-up and it’s not going to come from the archive of stock we shoot, so we’ll assign that. We’re only able to shoot six or seven beauty stories a month, so there are [other] times when we’ll shoot product on a background we illustrate. For fashion, we might be working on a fully styled trend story, an accessories story, a how-to and some “trademarks” stories—about someone’s personal style. Those are all commissioned.

But we go into our stock archive constantly because we’re posting 80 stories a day, and there’s no way we can assign all of that. So we’re shooting maybe five stock shoots a month.

PDN: How do you produce images for your stock archive?
TK: We have a partnership with Getty to expand their library of images of women, shot through our lens. We shoot for that, and those images end up in our archive. We also shoot stock specifically for us. Our photo research editor is the brains behind that operation. She and I will coordinate on esthetics and priorities, but she knows what we need. For example, we know that bathing suit season or Mother’s Day is coming up. She may know we need photos of pregnant women or nursing women at work, and that we’re lacking those. So maybe a month ahead, the department will produce those [shoots].

PDN: Is the stock shot by freelancers or staff?
TK: Both.

© Kate Owen

An image from Kate Owen for a recent story on stylish New York City teenagers. © Kate Owen

PDN: For freelancers, are you mostly relying on a stable of contributors, or looking for new talent?
TK: I crave to be always working with new people. I think it’s interesting and it keeps everyone’s mind fresh, but there are people I feel close to and continue to mentor.

We had a shoot last year with Michelle Groskopf, who is known more for documentary photography. I told her we have a fashion story. She said, “I’m not a fashion photographer.” I said, “I know, but I really believe this is the project for you.” I was so proud of it.

The concept was fantasy handbags. We shot it in Miami with women in their 70s, 80s and I think one woman was in her 90s. It was perfect for Michelle, because it’s a generation she loves and is passionate about.

PDN: How do you decide which photographer to pair with which assignment?
TK: I think for me it’s more of a gut reaction. We shot a model in London, and Bella Howard is there. I’ve always loved her work, so I said: Let’s get her and see how it goes. I think her photos captured the model’s vibrancy. That happened without me art directing, just asking [Howard] to do what she does.

I hire mostly female photographers. It’s something I message to my team, that it’s our job to mentor female photographers. There are so many cool women photographers out there who I think are under-utilized.

PDN: Who are some other women you’ve worked with?
TK: Kate Owen. I love her work and her personality. Sam Cannon is equally brilliant. She’s an artist as well as a photographer, and I think that’s great to help conceptualize more difficult shoots. Last year I found Mindy Byrd, a collage fashion photographer. She has an interesting spirit and always brings a unique point of view.

PDN: How do you look for new photographers?
TK: Instagram. It’s a feast. I am working on a longer-term project and there was a very specific type of photographer I was looking for. I did it through hashtags, then reached out via direct message to say, “I love your work and would like to meet you.”

I do a lot of portfolio reviews. I try to stay engaged with my old school, Parsons the New School of Design. I found people there I’m keeping in mind. And through word of mouth. I get sent a lot of photographers by other photo editors. We also have internal talent—photo editors who shoot for us. That was once a taboo, but I think it keeps the creative mind fresh.

PDN: I feel Refinery29 does a lot of stories that reflect the diversity of our society. Is that reflected in the photographers you work with or the subjects you shoot?
TK: Diversity is important to me, because I can’t pretend to know everything and hiring people from different backgrounds brings different voices and perspectives, and it should be celebrated. I would encourage and challenge everybody to do that. I’m happy to talk to fellow creatives and photo editors about how we do it. It’s a creative muscle you need to start working on.

PDN: How has Refinery29 evolved since you’ve been there?
TK: We’re continuing to evolve impactful, mission-driven projects. Are you familiar with the “67 Percent project”? Sixty-seven percent of women in America identify as plus-sized, but they are represented in only 2 percent of media. We’re aiming to correct that. We want to see our readers reflected in our work, in our fashion, food, workout and stock photography.

PDN: What do you wish photographers understood better about Refinery29?
TK: We pick up a great amount of photo essays. I did portfolio reviews at the Eddie Adams Workshop this year, and met a lot of young photographers we’d already published. We use a lot of photojournalism, and our readers really engage with it.

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