‘Good photography has a relationship to patience’

Culture‘Good photography has a relationship to patience’

National Geographic magazine’s senior photo editor, James Wellford is on the Indian Photo Festival’s jury this year. He speaks to Bhumika Popli about how images can tell stories.



Ahead of the India Photography Festival, to be held from 19 September to 20 October at Hyderabad’s State Art Gallery, we spoke with James Wellford, senior photo editor for global issues at National Geographic magazine, who is on the judges’ panel for this event.

Q.You have been a photo editor almost all your life. What’s your approach to editing?

A.Editing can mean many things. It depends on what you are editing for. Are you editing for a daily news story, for a long-form feature or for a book? They all have different momentum and feel. Add to that the different dispositions and ways of photographers and how they see the world. Every time you edit something, it is a new experience. There are fundamental aspects of editing, like where you start, how you start. I will edit a story many times. I will feel complete with a story and wake up the next morning and start again. Editing is something that lives. Of course, there is the final act where the magazine closes but editing at its best is in perpetual motion. It is a constant state of affairs when you try to render energy and meaning, visually, to a story.

Q. Could you tell us about the collaborative aspect of photo editing?

A.Editing is something collaboratively done with the photographer and the writer. You have to establish how you open the story and draw people’s attention to the work. It is not really mathematical. It is more like a piece of music. It has to have a certain rhythm and a certain beat. And there are many different cooks in the kitchen and no one ever agrees. I like to do it on my own with a couple of collaborators: a photographer, a very good designer and usually a critic who has a fresh take on things. I actually like to print out the images and put them on a wall or on a floor and move them around like pieces in a puzzle. Many a time so much good material doesn’t make it to the final process. It makes you cry sometimes. From almost 70,000 images, around 25 make it to the final magazine, and online it would be between 50-55 images. So much good material does not make it to the final editing. It is a painful process. And here we are talking about some of the best photographers in the world. But there is much to believe in the making of the story because what doesn’t appear in the magazine or online could one day be in a book, or maybe in an exhibition, or in an entirely new magazine. So when I lose pictures I badly want, I don’t cry for that long.

 Q.How do you plan and edit a photo story?

A.At the National Geographic magazine, we spend a long time on edit, sometimes too long. Because you have to be careful, you may over think. You can try to make things often very literal and that’s a danger for photography. Photography should not only be literal; it also should affect your imagination. It has to have a mystery to it, a beauty to it. It needs to open a conversation rather than close one. Where people use photographs as a form of punctuations, I think of that as a limiting way of editing. I always think of photographs as verbs; as something moving. Where people like to come back and look at the story again.

I also like to look at a story from the beginning to the end, and from the end to the beginning. The process of editing is very much contingent on the space you have for a story. I don’t mean to be confusing, but the act is confusing. You have to have a conversation with the photographs. You have to literally make music, something that works. It is not ever final. This is very important for photographers. They constantly need to work on their portfolios to keep it fresh and alive because pictures demand that.

 Q.It’s an interesting parallel you make between photo editing and music. Could you talk about that aspect of your work?

A.I always see a lot of things in the analogy of music. The way the instruments go in different directions and then come together in terms of synchronisation. My influences are from music because I attend a lot of music concerts and my brother is a musician. I like performances. If you have a sarod player or a tabla player, I love that jugalbandi. They go in different directions but they always come back, 16 or 32 beats later, together. And that’s how I look at photography. That’s the way collaboration happens in photography for me. Editing has a musical sense to me and I find rhythms in stories.


Q.How did you start out as a photo editor?

A.Some people get into photo editing by chance. For others, I think they like to be near storytelling and creative people. It is a gruelling life. I started to work in agencies in the ’80s and agencies were places where dozens and dozens of stories came in every week, so it was like working in a newsroom. I am interested in the news, be it politics or history. Anything that has a storytelling aspect to it. It is like you are having engaging conversations about the world through images.

I have never been bored in my job. It is not boring because you are working on so many interesting topics and often with very talented people who care about their work. It is physically boring as I am in a cubicle. People think it is not a nine-to-five job. It is a perpetual all-time job. It is life.

 Q.We live in a time when everything and anything can be easily captured with digital cameras. How has modern technology impacted photography in our age?

A.People have different skill sets and you can learn to make a beautiful aesthetic image. You can expand beyond that and can get more creative, once you learnt your instrument. Have you ever noticed musicians tune their instruments differently from what is the set norm? It is like letting go. With digital technology, many photographers overshoot every situation. They often don’t stop to see what they are shooting. And that’s just technology taking over. Maybe not everybody does this but there are such a profuse number of images that get very noisy and in which it is hard to see what the photographer is trying to depict. By the way, I like snapshots. I like really simple images as well as the other ones. I like all kinds. The old process of holding a camera and photographing something you see could be very frustrating for some. You can’t immediately see what you did. But it was a kind of love, for that process, that thing… It is an interesting way to shoot some film and develop that discipline. You miss so much when you are always looking at the back of the camera. Hi-tech cameras are cheaper than film. Quicker too. But the art of photography becomes slightly different. It becomes a different game of patience. And I do think that really good photography has a fine relationship to patience.

 Q.How did you come to learn photo editing?

A.I had a bunch of influential editors and I also had an eye. No one really took me under their wing. It doesn’t work like that. I love to be in museums because when you are in museums, you get a sense of editing through curation—how a particular object is placed. In editing, there is always an agony in the choice. As an editor I would never like to steal the voice of a photographer, I am trying to channel their voice. There are disagreements but those disagreements are part of the creative process.

 Q.Could you also talk about the ethics of editing?

A.Ethics is a very important part of journalism. It is all about the context and sadly the context is often lost, and editing can severely damage context. People mostly start to associate a place with the image they see. So it is always important to give captions and basic information. Otherwise, it is dangerous. We need to be alert. You may want to run something which is aesthetically strong, but it needs to be accurate.

 Q.What would you like to say about image manipulators?

A.Manipulating of images is sadly on the rise because tools of technology allowed this game to become easy. A number of people have been called out on that and have been disgraced because they felt compelled to make that image something that’s not. It shows desperate insecurity. It misses the point of what the work should have been about. You need to be honest about the manipulation if it is done for a certain kind of story or a different magazine. It was embarrassing that Steve McCurry did it. He is established. He didn’t need to do it. McCurry is just one example among many such.





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