TDJ INTERVIEW: Sarah Harbutt

Sarah Harbutt is a photojournalism brat. She is the daughter of Charles Harbutt, one of the most distinguished photographers who contributed to magazines in the last half century. She grew up knowing photographers, and listening to their stories. In 1989 she went to work for Kathy Ryan, the photo editor of the New York Times Magazine and learned her craft as a picture editor there.

Two years ago, she was hired by Newsweek, which had been going through a terrible indenty crisis regarding photography. Morale was, as Dan Rather would say "lower than a snake's belly on a hot Texas afternoon."

Her appointment coincided with the formation of the Editorial Photographers group, an online discussion forum that was trying to raise photographer's day rates. She was able to accommodate the photographer's pleas to raise the day rate from $400 to $500.

Sarah has found herself in the cross-hairs of an industry in transition. In the meantime, she has to get out a magazine, and field photographers.

The Digital Journalist interviewed her in the Newsweek offices on West 57th street. Less than an hour before our interview, there had been an anthrax scare in their offices. Neverthleless, Sarah, gave us an hour of time to talk to talk about what interests her most passionately, photojournalism.

Video Interview with
Sarah Harbutt

Picture Editor, Newsweek

Interview by Dirck Halstead
Video by Susan Markisz

Send an email to Sarah Harbutt

Enter a Gallery of Pictures
from Newsweek Magazine

"What a freelance photographer must do... has changed..."
On the supposed demise of photo departments.
"The energy in my department is so alive..."
On how Newsweek uses its resources for photography
On the types of shooter that she's looking for:
"Someone who can push the limits..."
The agencies have gone into a business climate which does
not reflect photographers’ rights or authorship or needs.
On the Newsweek staff dinners:
"It's a wonderful moment to talk about ideas..."
" I would resist the temptation to polarize...
I would encourage bridge building."

TDJ: Please tell us about yourself, and your attitude towards what is going on in photojournalism today.

SH: I worked for 12 years at the New York Times Magazine under Kathy Ryan, an extraordinary photo editor and I watched her cultivate the NY Times Magazine under four different editors and in the course of that, she chipped away at the way photography was used, the authorship of the photographer, the rights of the photographer, and has created a magazine that is exceptional on those scores in the world of magazine photography, so with that as my professional lesson, I come to Newsweek very much in the frame of mind that the world of photojournalism that I would like to create is something that I need to work on, to create myself. It’s not something that is going to be handed to me. It’s not something that exists in the world, and I think that this is very much the posture I would ask everyone to take. The freelance photographers who have developed VII are developing that. A world of “agents” although there is no particular “agent” at VII…an agency that is of their own design, that speaks to the photographers’ needs, speaks to the rights of their work, their authorship of their work, and can move forward in the industry, blazing a trail for the kind of utopian world that we all want for photojournalism.

I think that a lot has changed in America, not just photojournalism. I think the magazines have changed…the numbers of magazines have changed…. the magazines that can survive in this economy have changed, and therefore what a freelance photographer must do to meet those challenges has changed. Existing in the kind of isolation that a freelance photographer used to have is no longer acceptable. What that does is breed a sense of alienation, an “us versus them” and misunderstanding of what happens within the magazine, a misunderstanding of the mission of the magazine, a misunderstanding of their role within that relationship with the magazine, and that ignorance can create enormous hostility which is not helpful. So I think by getting involved, and getting informed and connecting to the authorship of your work, whether it is Richard Drew’s picture of people jumping out of the World Trade Center or Jerome Delay’s work out of Pakistan, that it’s not just wire service photography, but that the photographer behind the lens is a name, an author, and has a signature on their work, and this too is something that is new for wire service photojournalism. It is investing oneself in the business as well as the work of photography at magazines and that’s new, and I think very exciting, and very good for people.

Now it goes one step further, in that the photojournalists who are able to also make a mark for themselves in the art world have enhanced their prestige and power and strength within photojournalism even more, so if Eddie Keating is showing at a gallery, they increase value to their work, their eye, their signature, and that is new…maybe for the masses, that is new.

TDJ: That’s really interesting. If you look at Perpignan in the last couple of years the wires have really emerged, and are doing a great job.

SH: It’s the wires and the newspapers…the two groups that have staff jobs.

TDJ: Let’s jump to September 11th, which was a watershed in many ways. We have been saying at The Digital Journalist the last couple of years that “photojournalism as we know it, is dead…” the demise of Life, the change of the big newsmagazines from news to lifestyle issues. At some magazines the picture department was like a morgue; then with September 11th, photographers responded just like police, fire and EMS people did. They did some of the best work in their lives. Then the pictures came to the magazines. And the magazines got back to their business of journalism. Can you comment on this?

SH: Yes, I have two thoughts. First the photo department at Newsweek has not been a morgue. It has been incredibly charged in the last two years. I think Newsweek, unlike Time was coming out of the effects of Digital Journalism, and coming out from under the death of Maynard Parker, who had been the spirit of Newsweek for about 20 years. Under the leadership of a young editor, Mark Whitaker, we were faced with the challenge to reinvent Newsweek in a very different climate than had existed in the 1970s. However, in the 1970s, Newsweek still did a cover on the wedding of Luke and Laura in General Hospital so the concept that Newsweek is suddenly doing cultural news is not well grounded. Newsweek has always straddled the ground between cultural news, and what people call “hard news” in foreign arenas. September 11th shook America, not just newsmagazine editors. It shook America and I think for the newsweeklies, who have always had the interests of the American population at heart…those are readers…our 4 million readers. They are not New York City residents, they are Americans, and trying to speak to their interests, to respond to their curiosities, and speak to their needs, is what newsmagazines do to survive…that’s your audience…that’s who you are speaking to, so I think what happened September 11th is that the whole country was shock, and the whole country started to look at events beyond our borders, that seemed irrelevant prior to September 11th. The FBI, the CIA suddenly found themselves short of intelligence outside of our borders in areas that were suddenly critical. That will be reflected in what the newsmagazines cover. How the event shaped the photography in particular, I think is that Newsweek instituted a feature called “a thousand words” a couple of months ago. The premise behind it is that there were images that tell a story better than words that can convey the impact of a story better than words. So Newsweek had been committed to its photography well before September 11th. The September 11th events were visual. The number of witnesses will recount the image of people falling from the tower…the fact that the fall took so long, that you could watch the person leap, look away, turn back, and still see them falling, falling, falling, their tie rippling in the wind, a detail that you will never, ever be able to erase from your mind. That’s visual. The theatricality of the event, the enormity of this event, is visual not verbal. It was a story that defied words. It could only be told in pictures. The data is contained in a couple of paragraphs, but the visual theatricality, drama, trauma, the horror, is all-visual. It’s been a long time since America has had a story that relevant to itself. It was all of America that was focused on America, not just the news magazines.

TDJ: Do you think this is a passing thing, or will we go back to predominantly cultural issues?

SH: That’s hard to answer, because the question is really: how is America going to respond to this? Does America goes back to business as usual? Is America going to go back to its television programs? Personally I think America has been profoundly changed and I don’t think the events of September 11th are over, and may not be over for a very long time. Certainly, for those of us in New York City, it’s going live with us as a wound. It’s going to take them a year just to remove the debris. The stench of downtown Manhattan is like living in a crematorium. It’s disturbing. The anthrax scares are terribly alarming. People are moving out of New York City. Poeple are changing the way they live their lives, the way they do business. Some are seeking greater isolation by working at home, others are seeking community. It’s impossible to predict how America will recalibrate its sense of self after these events, and I think the newsweeklies will try to stay in touch with that, and reflect those shifts, rather then being some sort of authority that is dictating what should America should be reading about. It’s more a relationship with the American reader, reflecting back and enhancing their interests, so I think that is a difficult thing to predict.

When I arrived at Newsweek two years ago, I was able to pull together a team, very much along the lines of what Grazia Neri is wishing for. Incredible enthusiasm for photography, for great pictures, for getting a great picture published, and as each of these new staff members have been able galvanize the whole department in this quest, suddenly, we are able to work much more in concert with the text editors about telling the story. I think for magazines that are typically led by text editors, becoming comfortable with the subjective world of photography, and a news environment where they are hoping to be objective is a very interesting process. It is a process of gaining trust and respect, communicating, articulating the power of a photograph in words to win inch by inch your way back up to a respectable position. I’m speaking because I love photography. I look at Newsweek and I see two thirds of the magazine is photographic. Text editors don’t look at the magazine that way. They see the magazine as text, and the photographs are decorations. That’s a point of view. There are two points of view that need to be negotiated within the magazine. The more successful that relationship is, the more successful the magazine. The photography is enhanced…the text is enhanced, and then the magazine is enhanced. I think that has probably always been true. There are letters from Walker Evans to his editor at Fortune, complaining about the poor use of photography in the magazine, the design, the picture clutter and they don’t speak to each other and now it’s 60 years later, and the newsmagazines have the same debate. In some ways, I am hesitant to say anything is dead, partly because the energy in my department is so alive. My enthusiasm is great, and the potential of Newsweek is extraordinary.

TDJ: We hear about the atmosphere at Newsweek, the open newsroom, which is how people get ideas and energy, but we still come to the problem about how we are going to pay for all this. In this climate, with advertising reduced, how are you going to find the resources to pay for what promises to be a very expensive period ahead?

SH: I think that I am very lucky to work for the Washington Post Company, and the Graham family. They are not AOL. When September 11th hit, and so many of the advertisers pulled their advertising from the magazine, they put out four issues, two special issues, without advertising…Johnson and Johnson helped with one. That’s a commitment to journalism. That’s not a commitment to bottom line…they went the distance…they felt they had great stories to tell, with great photography, and we felt we could do it, and we did do it. The magazines left a vapor trail on the newsstands, so I think Katherine Graham was a maverick, and I was enormously proud to have worked for her while she was alive. Her family has taken on that baton…they are deeply committed to news and journalism, and I think in some ways that enhances Newsweek’s ability to ride this out. Of course, we have to be careful. We have to make sure that the photography that is produced is very pointed and directed, that we are not spending money shooting tangents to stories that are not absolutely necessary. That forces the whole magazine to be much more organized, much more pointed in its direction each week…it’s a fantastic response to news, to respond this quickly in a weekly…. it’s almost like improvisational theatre…you respond instantly and you are only as good as those instincts, so to keep that alive, to keep the urgency, and the intensity of Newsweek alive, we will continue to shoot, but we have to be very careful. We have to make sure we are not overpaying. We are going to have to let a few things go by us. We’re going to have to realign our resources to tap wire
photography more, we can do that skillfully, by tapping wire photographers who we think are very strong, like Jerome Delay who I mentioned before…a phenomenal photographer, that pushes the limits of how to see the story, and that makes it very exciting to follow his work…to cover your bases in a different way. Rather than have 17 photographers scattered around Afghanistan, assuming they will be our only sources of strong work, we say, “OK, so Jerome’s in Pakistan…who’s here…who’s there?” and what we can be counting on from those sources? And how do we supplement it? And who do we send in that will really make it special, that will ratchet it up a notch of coverage…. to make it unique to Newsweek and give it that voice and signature, to make different from what everyone else is doing? I think that will enhance the magazine.

TDJ: What do you look for in a photographer these days?

SH: Well, like the example of Jerome Delay, I am looking for someone who can push the limits on how you can visually tell a story, as opposed to a neutral, objective distance from the subject or a graphic alignment of a story. You see it when you are editing, it’s what you expected the picture to look like. It confirms your preconceived notion of what the picture should be…that’s the kind of photography you want to stay away from. I want to push it to a point where somebody could give me either another way of seeing it…emotional reality or something that challenges my preconceived notion of what it should like, not just same war, different year. Each thing is unique, so I need to find that. I need to find the person who is going to see it in a unique way.

TDJ: Where do you find those photographers coming from?

SH: There is not one source…that’s what is so fantastic about it. It could be a portraitist, like Jonathan Torgovnik. I ran into him in Perpignan, and he said he was interested in doing some reportage…well he did September 11th for us, and did a lot of the interiors that ran in the magazine of the office spaces that were spectacular. He has continued on [assignment], has gone to Fort Bragg and he is continuing [to do] the story for us. But he was somebody that I would not have expected this from…a stylized portrait photographer. So it could be a video artist…a still life photographer…anybody who is going to stop for a moment and say “this is interesting, look at this! This is interesting, who would have expected that?” That’s what I want! Otherwise we’re confirming the obvious and not challenging the reader or ourselves.

TDJ: Where is the convergence? It seems like photographers are going down one side, and corporations, like Getty and Corbis are going down another path. How do you see a resolution eventually that brings photographers and magazines back in synch?

SH: I think this is an area where we have to trail blaze. The conglomeration of American publishing is the conglomeration of American business. It’s not unique to editorial photography or editorial news magazines. It’s part of a phenomenon of what is happening globally in business. How we respond, how we maintain individuality, authorship, rights, fair pay, all of that is something we need to negotiate and navigate as we go. I think the folks that started the agency VII [have created] the agency with that in mind. The role of an agent has changed tremendously in the last 20 years, and all the people that have been involved of the negotiation of day rates to where they are now, all of their roles are changing, the photographer’s role, the agent’s role…all that is changing. It used to be that a newsmagazine could call Sygma or Gamma, and they would put 5 photographers on. That’s gone. There is no more delegating like that. If I call Gamma it is because I want Noel Quidu to go into Belgrade for us. So that’s changed the ownership of the assignment…it’s come back to the magazine, and back to the photographer. The personal relationship is between the magazine and the photographer, and the agent has gone somewhere else… so have most of the agencies. The agencies have gone into a business climate which does not reflect photographers’ rights or authorship or needs, so in the vacuum that has been created by that, the relationship has to be forged between the photographer and the photo editor, and on up. They are a signature, as much as any guest writer is a signature. The more they are engaged in that process, the more they engaged in what happens within the magazine…what the interests are of the magazine, the better they will be able to navigate that relationship and decide whether or not they want to continue that relationship if those needs are not mutual. For the staff that I have in the photo department it’s the same thing. I may not have these people for 20 years. I may have them for 2 years as they go into a creative arc into their next phase, but during the 2 years they are present, they challenge, and stimulate, and push the visual potential of Newsweek even further, which is fantastic and all I ask. I just have to keep that roster up so I am constantly tapping talent like that, talent and energy, so it doesn’t become a banker’s job. I think you will find a lot of people at the newsmagazines that have been doing the same task for 20 years. At some point that has to be like shoveling coal…photographers who are doing the same tasks every day, whether it’s the White House, the Rose Garden, whatever, the same thing, day after day…its shoveling coal. Well, that’s what we are sorting out now, you know, it’s got to change.

TDJ: Explain to me the Friday night dinner process. I think it says something about the way you work.

SH: Newsweek years ago started hosting a staff dinner at our “Top Of The Week” cafeteria. It’s a candlelit dinner with white linens and silverware. It’s a fabulous meal, and I think that basically the intention is to encourage staffers to eat dinner in house; I think it was probably for budgetary concerns, to keep the prices down, also the lengths of dinners down on closing day. But we were also invited to invite guests, and this is something the photo department does fairly regularly. The wonderful thing about these dinners is that there is no hierarchy. You can sit down at the same table with tech support and the Managing Editor. It is a wonderful mix of people engaged in different parts of the magazine’s production. I have had several dinners there with my department, where we will be talking about something we produced that week, and trying to jigger it, because it had been done so quickly…we had three different photographers and we were playing with it in our heads, and we were talking about it, and we decided the better way to go would be to take one photographer’s work, and tell that whole story with the one photographer’s work, so I bolted from dinner, ran downstairs, to the art department, and started tearing up the layouts, to show it in this other way, and it is the way we went. But the moment we had a chance to relax and discuss creatively what we were producing for the magazine that week was at that dinner. We have had photographers come in, agency editors come…. it’s a wonderful moment to talk about ideas, about projects, to get to know each other, to break bread together, to enhance a sense of community and accessibility between the photographer and the magazine.

TDJ: Do you have anything you would like to add to this?

SH: I guess the thing I would want to say to people who have looked to me and to Newsweek as sort of a stone-faced arbiter on the industry, that it is a process…a fluid process we are engaged in. A lot of things are changing now…visually, technically, industrially, politically, and culturally…given that a lot of photographers are going to have a hard time…a lot of photographers have always had a hard time. There have been great photographers that have a hard time. I would resist the temptation to polarize those of us at the magazines, both in the picture department and editorially, versus those that are freelance. I would encourage bridge building and not the polarization of the two camps, because I think that creates the paranoia, distrust and malcontent, which is not necessary.

TDJ: Who builds bridges with whom?

SH: I think it is a mutual thing. EP (The Editorial Photo List) has built enormous bridges within the photographic community by exchanging information, not always accurate but creating a community for the once completely isolated freelance photographers. I was married to a freelance photographer. I know how isolating it is. It is all word of mouth, gossip and rumor, and feeds on itself, and people feel they are being left out and not considered, and dropped, and it gets to a pitch where tempers are very short. So I think none of these magazines consider themselves picture magazines. Not a one! So, we are dealing with that too, and I think that to assume a spirit of amity and not a spirit of abuse, and if you don’t like the way something is being handled, you yank your stuff…you yank your stuff! It has to be that clear, instead of not yanking it, and getting mad. It’s a process.

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