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How did you get started in photography? As a student at Barnard College, I was curious about everything. Working at the student newspaper gave me an excuse to visit every campus club and interview people on the street. I didn’t want to pick a career—I wanted to keep learning how the world worked. So I interned at the photo agency VII and the Jersey Journal to get my bearings before diving straight into freelance work. For three years, I got to travel around the world as a freelance photojournalist, shooting for the New York Times, photographing a leper colony in Argentina—the works. But I felt exhausted. As a freelancer, you spend 50 percent of your time nagging people to pay you, 25 percent marketing and the rest actually doing the work you love.

Luckily, I got hired by Metro New York for a photographer/reporter position and discovered how the newsroom of a daily paper works. The tabloids are a great place to learn how to be a reporter. The city was wide open to me: I photographed Michael Bloomberg donating blood, the Occupy Wall Street protests from start to finish and sandhogs working on the Second Avenue Subway. But the Web was taking off in a big way, and in order to learn from the best, I put down my camera to join MailOnline, the website for the British tabloid paper Daily Mail. I can still get a great quote for a major news story in less than 30 minutes.

From there, I went on to become the managing editor of the New York Observer, where I led an amazing team of talented journalists, editors, designers and interns. There’s nothing like closing that—formerly—pink paper! My favorite part of the gig was running the internship program, teaching young journalists how to blog, write headlines and break news, so when the opportunity to join the Atlantic as a news editor surfaced, I grabbed it. I initially focused on news coverage, but then I transitioned into visual editing to use my experience—management, photography and editing—all at once. Today, as a senior editor, I make sure the Atlantic’s website imagery compels readers as much as its text. That can mean hiring photographers in foreign cities, brainstorming illustration ideas or even troubleshooting the y-axis of a chart on wage gaps.
Using photography to open doors for people—that’s the good stuff.

Tell us about your favorite past assignments. My favorite assignments were being the pool photographer for an Obama visit to the United Nations and getting sent to Trevelin, a Welsh colony in Patagonia, Argentina. But my most meaningful work wasn’t done for any particular publication—it was volunteer projects. Using photography to open doors for people—that’s the good stuff.

In 2011, I visited Barrier Free Living, a homeless shelter that caters to people with disabilities, and a woman I photographed asked why I was changing lenses. I gave her a quick photo tutorial, and her eyes lit up. When I asked the director if I could teach a basic photography class to the residents, he said that it could work as an art therapy class. So I kept returning during the next few months to teach the residents a crash course in understanding visual language and how to take photographs. At the end of the class, I put on a show at the Mark Miller Gallery in New York City’s Lower East Side to showcase the students’ work.

More recently, I curated the Newswomen’s Club of New York’s Spring Photography Show and Auction. I’ve been involved with this organization for years, the only professional organization exclusively for women journalists in the metropolitan area and going strong since 1922. Through this show, we raised thousands of dollars for the group’s educational programs.

What do you look for as a senior editor of visuals at the Atlantic? I teach everyone who works on the Atlantic’s site site to look for the three As.

Authenticity: Does this image reflect a genuine moment in time? Will viewers think it was taken in the real world?

Accuracy: Does this image accurately reflect the article it accompanies and elucidate the subject matter? Is the relationship clear?

Awesomeness: Does this image use composition, lighting and depth of field creatively and interestingly? Have you seen it a million times before? Does it surprise you?

Photographic essays on a soulful church service in Senoia, Georgia, an award-winning high-school marching band and talibes, exploited students in Senegal, blew me away. You can see the profound relationship between the photographers and their subjects in each essay, which lets Atlantic viewers access a deeper understanding of these topics. It took months to put each photographic essay together, and the results were not pieces of parachute journalism. I want to see fully fleshed out documentary essays.

Have your goals changed from when you first started out in the photojournalism industry? When I first started, the industry’s competitive nature drove me. I loved waking up at 6:00 a.m. to call all the local photo desks, rushing to fires and getting the shots that no one else got. It was crazy! Every day was different. I got to witness so much of the world, and I feel so lucky to have lived this life—but lugging a 30-pound camera bag on my shoulder took a toll. Now, I love leading teams and teaching people how to use imagery to tell stories. Since I’ve worked as a reporter, editor and photographer, I can explain photography to just about anyone in a way he or she can understand. Empowering my peers to not only comprehend, but also appreciate, photography feels so natural to me.

How has photography become more important as journalism adapts to digital? Readers see the photograph before they read the headline. The image has to connect to them, stand out from the sea of images they’ve been exposed to on Facebook or Twitter, and articulate the tone of the piece and publication. In those seconds, readers decide whether or not to click.

Then, if readers click and land on the article page, the image has to continue capturing their attention. The more complex the image, the more time viewers spend looking at it; the more images, the more time spent per page—a valuable metric to advertisers and publishers alike. Investing in photography is an incredibly efficient way to attract and keep readers’ attention.

How should photographers pitch their personal work to photo editors? Go to portfolio reviews. I try to go to one every month. I meet so many incredible people at reviews—plus, I can guarantee that you will have my undivided attention. Like every other photo editor, I have a ton of work to do during the day, with a minute per email. But I almost always make a valuable connection during a review.

What advice do you have for photographers who are just starting out? Two things: Only listen to the people who believe in you. I can’t tell you how many people actively tried to dissuade me from this career, saying that I’m not tough enough, don’t have the right camera or can’t make it because I’m a woman. Forget them.

Second, photograph a story you know a lot about or have a personal connection to. A photographer’s job is not just about taking photographs—it’s also about disarming and creating art with people.
Emily Anne Epstein oversees visuals as a senior editor at the Atlantic. She previously worked as the managing editor of the New York Observer and as a photojournalist and reporter for several New York City publications. A born and bred New Yorker, she graduated magna cum laude from Barnard College with a BA degree in English and film.
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