Why Pitching Magazine Photography Stories is a Great Path to Editorial Assignment Work
December 4, 2019
The entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, from a story Spencer Lowell pitched to The New York Times Magazine.
A Panamanian golden frog, photographed by Spencer Lowell at Smithsonian’s National Zoo for a The New York Times Magazine story he pitched about extinction banks around the world.
The central character of Melissa Groo’s story about snowy owls was a quirky scientist named Denver Holt. Groo built a rapport with Holt before she pitched the story to Smithsonian.
Warren Falls, Warren, Vermont. From a story Gregg Segal pitched to Smithsonian magazine about swimming holes around the U.S.
Last June, Smithsonian magazine published “The Sublime Sensation of the Swimming Hole,” a story about swimming holes around the U.S. pitched and shot by photographer Gregg Segal. It was one of about ten story pitches he had submitted all at once in 2018. “They were really well-thought-out pitches,” says Smithsonian’s chief photo editor Quentin Nardi, who encourages pitches from photographers. “He’s thinking like an editor. He did his homework.”
Pitching stories is a good way not only to land assignments, but to build client relationships—and your career, according to the many photo editors and photographers we interviewed for this story. Based on the insight and advice they shared, Segal’s swimming hole idea had all the hallmarks of a good pitch: It was a concise paragraph or two conveying the scope of the idea, what the pictures would look like, and why the audience of the target publication would be interested.
“Swimming holes are the epitome of summer and childhood and the months between school,” the photographer says, recalling what he wrote. “I wanted to evoke what makes us want to dive into deep, cool water.”
Segal proposed photographing swimming holes in California, Texas and New England, with a focus on the diversity of people and activity at each one. He also offered to piggyback his travel on other assignments. “[The pitch] was too good for us not to do,” Nardi says. “It’s a good summer story and totally Americana. We do feel-good stories every once in a while that are saturated in American culture.”
Pitching as a Career-Builder
There’s no question that pitching stories is easier when, like
Segal, you already have a relationship with the photo editor you’re pitching. “Obviously, a photographer we’ve worked with in the past, and have a history with, it’s a little bit easier to picture in our mind what [the proposed story] is going to be,” says ESPN senior photo editor Julianne Varacchi.
But pitching is also a good way to build relationships with editors you don’t know, and it pays dividends even when your pitches are rejected. Pitching “can steer photo editors to stories and themes you are interested in [shooting],” says photographer Yael Malka, a former photo editor at The FADER who began shooting for publications in 2016. She has successfully pitched stories about quirky subcultures to The New York Times and other publications.
Spencer Lowell, who launched his career just over a decade ago, specializes in stories about science, industry and technology. He says pitching has allowed him “to point my career in the direction I’m interested in.” Pitching stories to photo editors, he explains, “is way more productive than sending out promotional materials, because even if [your idea] is not right for them or if they’re not looking for stories at that particular time, it puts you on their radar, and lets them know that your gears are turning and…something down the line will come up.”
Photographer Maggie Shannon says she took advice early in her career “to really focus on pitching,” and adds, “It’s been such a boon to my career…If you have a story idea that you’re really excited about, then send it out. I feel like photo editors sense that excitement in a pitch when you really love something.” Shannon says she gets calls from photo editors who have seen stories that she has pitched to other publications. “It’s been such a special thing to have these stories I love and are close to my heart be out in the world, and have people see them.”
The Concise Approach
In general, photo editors want photographers to keep their pitches brief. ESPN photo editors, for instance, don’t want to wade through long proposals in search of the meat of a story, says Varacchi. “It can be a couple of sentences long. Think of it as an elevator pitch.” But she hastens to add that every story is different, so there’s no one-method-fits-all approach to pitching.
Shannon notes that the length and detail of her pitches depend upon who she’s approaching. “When I’m pitching editors I don’t know, then I feel like I have to put more detail in [the pitch], and send reference images or historical images to back up the story I want to tell.”
In the fall of 2016, Shannon made a successful pitch to WIRED magazine, which she had worked with previously. Anna Alexander, the magazine’s director of photography, notes that it isn’t easy to pitch photo stories to WIRED. One reason is because the topics WIRED covers— business, science and computer security—aren’t always very visual. And “it’s hard to get a new angle” on them, Alexander says.
But photographers have success pitching stories to WIRED about “tangible creations,” she adds, and that’s what Shannon did. While covering a Star Trek convention in New York for Vice, she came across a re-creation of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. “The detail and construction and design were so beautiful,” says Shannon, a Star Trek fan. She talked to the set builders, and learned they had replicas of all the Star Trek sets in Ticonderoga, New York, where they ran set tours out of a strip mall storefront.
In pitching the story to WIRED, she included “a little history, [information about] the people involved, a link to some photos I’d shot, and a little about how I saw the story visually,” Shannon explains. She also sent links to the Star Trek set tour business in Ticonderoga. “Maggie’s pitch was concise and provided all the relevant information I needed to make a decision,” says Jenna Garrett, a WIRED photo editor at the time. She adds that the idea was also “perfect for the WIRED audience.”
The Buttoned-Down Approach
Some stories and circumstances call for more elaborate pitches. For instance, conservation photographer Melissa Groo’s story last fall for Smithsonian, titled “Why Is the Snowy Owl Disappearing?” started with a detailed, one-and-half page pitch. Though Groo had previously shot three assignments for Smithsonian in collaboration with a writer, the photo essay on the snowy owl story was her first solo pitch to the magazine.
“I spent a total of a month working on preparing the pitch, building relationships with Denver Holt”—the scientist at the center of her story—“and thinking about the schedule and the budget,” Groo says. “I spent time, I spent money. It was a subject I was passionate about.”
Groo wanted to make sure the pitch included not only good visuals and an interesting character, but a solid basis in science and a hook in the form of a new discovery. “That’s what you want to hang your hopes on. The new discovery is a link to climate change, and its effect on the prey of the owls [lemmings] and the success of their breeding season.” Groo says she flew to Montana twice at her own expense “to sit with Holt in the field, and get his thoughts on shaping the pitch.” She also took some photos of him that she included in the pitch.
Nardi says Groo “came to us with a trifecta pitch. Not only was it a story about snowy owls in nesting season, but she had access to the world’s most renowned expert on snowy owls…and there was brand new research coming out, so that made the pitch timely.” That it was a story about cute animals—“We do love animal stories, and our readers love animal stories”—and a renowned scientist who was also a quirky character made it “a slam-dunk pitch,” Nardi says. “It was so compelling we couldn’t pass it up.”
The Dividends of Experience
For established photographers with a specific niche and long-term editorial relationships, pitching stories can be easy and informal. Lowell says that early in his career, “I would write a whole treatment, pull images, make a PDF, write a big email.” Now, two decades into his career and with a well-established brand and clientele, he doesn’t have the time—or the need—to prepare formal pitches. Instead, he says, “I try to filter out what the most concise idea for the story is, and send as little information as possible, but something to start a conversation.”
For example, in 2016 he pitched to Popular Science a story about the Orion spaceship program—NASA’s initiative to (eventually) land astronauts on Mars. Lowell has worked with photo director Thomas Payne on a number of stories over the years. “He’ll reach out to me every so often and ask me for pitches,“ Lowell says. Lowell says his email pitch to Payne was: “‘I’ve been thinking about this project. I thought you might be interested.’ And then I sent a link to that [Orion program] gallery at NASA.gov.”
That started a conversation that led to a photo story about the construction and testing of the capsule at three different facilities around the country. (Lowell used his NASA contacts, which he has been cultivating since graduating from Art Center College of Design in the 1990s, to gain the access the story required.)
In 2017, Lowell shot a feature story for The New York Times Magazine called “Arks of the Apocalypse,” about repositories around the world that are being constructed to save seeds, coral, amphibians and other threatened species and elements of the natural world. That project began with an unsuccessful pitch to associate photo editor Amy Kellner about robotic wildlife that officials use to catch poachers. Kellner rejected the idea as interesting but not newsworthy, Lowell recalls, but said she was working on an issue about climate change—and did he have any ideas for that?
Lowell says he suggested a story about energy storage, but The Times Magazine had recently done that. He then suggested a story about an ice core repository, where scientists use air bubbles trapped in the ice cores to study ancient climate conditions. Kellner liked that idea, and asked if Lowell had other ideas along those same lines. “I sent back a list: seed bank, ice cores, coral sperm bank, coral nursery….I sent a link to the seed vault, a couple of reference images, and no more than a paragraph in an email.” From there, it was just a matter of getting access to the various facilities to produce the story. From his original pitch about robotic wildlife, Lowell says, “It was a collaboration between [Kellner] and I to flush out the actual story. That’s not out of the ordinary. With any editor, that’s generally how it plays out.”
Pitching Dos and Don’ts
It should go without saying that pitches have to be carefully targeted, but almost everyone we interviewed for this story emphasized the point. “Finding the right home is a big part of it. You want to be pitching to a magazine that would actually run those stories, and you want to pitch to magazines that would help you get [the] access” required to shoot the story, Lowell says.
Still, a surprising number of story pitches fail simply because they’re directed to the wrong publication. As Nardi says with some frustration, 80 percent of the pitches she gets are for stories “I can’t even touch,” mostly about the environment or hard news stories: “Deforestation, toxic chemicals, poverty, women’s rights, transsexual rights—[Smithsonian] will never run those stories,” Nardi says. “Know the magazine. Respect the photo editor’s time. Don’t send them a pitch that they will never in a million years be able to run.“
Nardi offers other advice about pitching etiquette. “Know your photo editor. Know your photo editor’s email. Don’t [send a pitch] to a personal email address. Try to know your photo editor’s gender. I’m so used to being called ‘Mr.’ that I don’t even care, but if you’re trying to make a good impression, little things add up. If you’re going to cut corners talking to me, what are you going to do on the [story you’re pitching]?”
Another pitfall is laziness. Varacchi describes the thin pitches to ESPN she rejects: “Hey, I’m going spend time with athlete X at their home.” Varacchi says her reaction to those pitches is: “OK, but what’s the next layer? What’s going to make it super interesting so people want to find out? Are you revealing anything? Is there any insight you’re providing? I’d say the more layers to the story, and the more interesting, the better.”
Shannon says the advice she recently gave her photo assistant is to “really do the research and know the story you want to tell, but be open to ideas from editors. It’s almost like writing an essay: You really want to tell the full, fleshed-out story, give as many visual references as you can, but not overwhelm them at the same time.”
Finally, follow up after a week or two if you don’t hear from a photo editor you’ve pitched. And don’t take it personally if they decline. Pitch it to another publication, or, if you can’t get any takers and you’re really passionate about the idea, do what Lowell does: just start shooting, and pitch it again at some stage of completion.
Maggie Shannon’s “Trekonderoga” pitch to WIRED
Maggie Shannon wrote to WIRED: “I was wondering if you’d be interested in collaborating on a story on Trekonderoga, a complete Star Trek set reproduction located in Ticonderoga, New York. Starting in 1997, James Cawley built the recreated set according to the original blueprints. Cawley has spent the past 15 years working on this project along with help from other fans, prop fabricator Ed Miarecki and concept designer Daren Dochterman.
“I’d love to photograph Cawley and his team along with the incredible set and beautiful props he’s built with a special focus on the construction and design. I met some of the people and saw the bridge portion while photographing the Star Trek Convention in New York City for Vice and can attest to the extreme attention to detail they’ve put into this project…”
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