Editorial Photography

How RollingStone.com Finds and Hires Photographers

October 17, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Ahmed Fakhr, director of photography at RollingStone.com, joined the publication two years ago. He had previously worked at Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek/Daily Beast. At PhotoPlus Expo, he’ll be speaking with fellow photo editors from The New Yorker, Refinery29, Bloomberg Businessweek, Marie Claire and The California Sunday Magazine on a panel titled “What Photo Editors Want Now.” We asked Fakhr how his photographic and video needs are changing, and how he now evaluates the skills of potential contributors.

© Ryan Struck

Ahmed Fakhr, director of photography at RollingStone.com. © Ryan Struck

PDN: What are your responsibilities at RollingStone.com?
Ahmed Fakhr: My basic job responsibilities are serving all the photo needs of RollingStone.com. That encompasses anything we’re publishing on the digital side. I produce shoots for the website including our features and photo essays. In addition to working on the editorial side, I collaborate with marketing and sales when we have sponsored content. That can involve hiring photographers for shoots, and collaborating with the video team for our daily news stories. I also handle the Instagram feed for Rolling Stone as well as the budget for the digital side. Right now my department is two people, including me. The print side is also two people, including creative director Jodi Peckman.

PDN: What’s the relationship between the print and digital photo departments? Is the readership or point of view different?
A.F.: We’ve begun to collaborate when there are stories from print we can blow out online with more photos. We constantly have meetings to discuss stories they have coming up or we have coming up.

Whether in print or digital, we want to have a unified voice. We are trying to cultivate a younger audience for online, so we cover a lot of younger artists—more of the social stars, Instagram photographers and YouTube stars. We’ve done a lot of profiles of them on RS.com. While our coverage may change, our voice is still the same.

PDN: Is your background in print or online?
A.F.: In my last position at EW, I bounced around from working on print to the website to the EW tablet edition. That was great, because it gave me a lot of experience in how print translates to online, and things we can do to make the experience of online feel more immersive, like a print feature. Also getting the technical training in how to use a CMS and a digital asset management system was helpful. After freelancing for EW.com for a while, I took a break to work at Newsweek/Daily Beast, and there I moved from pure entertainment journalism to working on news stories with photojournalists, and that was an amazing experience.

PDN: What’s the volume of work you produce?
A.F.: My colleague, Rochelle Morton, and I say we put out a magazine every day. We consider all our aggregated news stories the front-of-the-book section. Then we have a substantial number of features on music, politics, movies, profiles and cultural pieces. We do a lot of coverage on culture, which could mean sex, drugs or crime.

© Ryan Struck

Fakhr works on camera for a sponsored video series from Rolling Stone and Harley Davidson. © Ryan Struck

PDN: You’ve worked on a lot of videos. How are those made?
A.F.: We have our own video department that includes producers, editors [and directors]. We embed videos within our political stories or aggregated news stories each day. I’ll collaborate with the video department to get the photo assets that they may need, and they’ll run a type treatment over them. They’re explainer videos. Those appear on RollingStone.com, and in Rolling Stone’s Facebook and Twitter feeds.

We are doing a partnership with Harley, where we go to ten different cities, and jump into a niche culture in each city. I was the correspondent on three of those. We have a producer and a director of video who puts together the logistics side of it. We also hire a photographer who will follow us throughout the day and they’ll tell the same story as the video but through a photo essay.

PDN: Are you looking for photographers who can do video, or do you prefer to have stills and video handled by different people?
A.F.: I think it’s a great asset for any photographer to know how to do video, especially to know how to do video well. We’re always looking for photographers who can do both. For our festival coverage, we are usually only able to get one photographer approved by the festival, so to have someone who can do video at the same time is great. Then we know we’re covered in terms of live performance images on the still side, and they can also capture short videos. At these festivals we’re focused on trying to do a few more Instagram Stories to bring our viewers into the festival and give them the Rolling Stone point of view.

We collaborated with [the band] Cage the Elephant, who allowed us to do a day-in-the-life experience at Lollapalooza. We used still photos and video clips as well in our Instagram Stories. It was a way to bring our followers into the middle of things, letting them see Cage the Elephant getting ready to go on stage.

PDN: You’re on a PhotoPlus Expo panel called “What Photo Editors Want Now.” What do you want from photographers “now”?
A.F.: Besides great work, I think we want people who can think in a social sense. That’s big now: Someone who thinks about how their work can translate to something different on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook. There’s a big push for video on Facebook, and that’s something we’re all trying to do.

What’s really great is photographers who think of ideas for how to promote a story in a new way or how to do something different that would extend the story on social media. Whether that’s a short video clip or an animation, that could be very useful.

We hire photographers for their creativity so we want their opinion.

Photo by Brain Guido. Courtesy of RollingStone.com. © Rolling Stone LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission

For 25 Under 25, a feature on rising stars, Brian Guido photographed actor Ashton Sanders. Photo by Brain Guido. Courtesy of RollingStone.com. © Rolling Stone LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission

PDN: Are there any recent projects you’re particularly proud of?
A.F.: We recently launched a digital-only package of our 25 under 25 list, which focuses on emerging musicians, actors and activists under the age of 25. That was almost all commissioned photography. We were able to do 23 photo shoots in the span of three months all over the country. We worked with Brian Guido, Koury Angelo, Amy Lombard, Greg Kahn, Benjamin Rasmussen and Sam Trotter. They’re all incredibly talented. I’m really proud of the work my colleague Rochelle Morton did to schedule things.

PDN: Are you looking for new talent, or do you rely on a stable of contributors?
A.F.: I’m always looking for new photographers and new work. I always try to put aside one hour per day to see who’s doing what, to look for new photographers, any new styles, because I think that’s the only way you can continue to grow creatively.

PDN: Where do you look?
A.F.:Feature Shoot, PDN, The New York Times, TIME. There are a few blogs, too. Of course Instagram is really big. That’s a great way to see photographers and their work. I use it as a tool to find out where photographers are by looking at their last post they geotagged. That sounds a little creepy.

PDN: You’ve worked a lot in celebrity journalism. Do you have any thoughts on what makes a good celebrity photographer?
A.F.: Being personable with the talent. A publicist may not be into an idea before the shoot, but if the photographer connects with the celebrity and brings up an idea naturally and the celebrity says, “Great idea,” that’s a way to get in an extra setup.

Looking calm even if you’re going crazy is key. On some celebrity shoots, you can have 30 or 40 people in the room including their people and movie studio reps watching you work. It’s good to show you’re in control. It’ll put the talent and everyone else at ease. You’ll get better work out of it.

PDN: What do you wish photographers or photographer/directors understood better about your needs?
A.F.: I think my biggest complaint is when it comes to pitching. Understand the brand you’re pitching to. I get a pitch sometimes that’s blatantly not a fit for the brand. I think sometimes that hurts you more than it helps.

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