The Photo Editors Series are conversations with well-known photo editors about how they view the media today, the role of visuals in reporting, the work they like to see, and advice for photographers on how best to connect with publishers.
In this event, hosted by David Campbell and Ilvy Njiokiktjien, the series combines an overview of the contemporary media landscape with practical tips. The editors in the series speak as individuals rather than representatives of their organizations, and the event is interactive with good opportunities for audience questions.
In this fifth episode, we speak with Mikko Takkunen, a photo editor on The New York Times’s International desk in New York City. be speaking with Mikko Takkunen, a photo editor on The New York Times’s International desk in New York City.
David Campbell: So Miko, thanks for joining us for this latest conversation in our Photo Editor Series. It’s great to have you with us.
David Campbell: You’re currently a photo editor on the international desk of the New York Times. Tell us a bit about your background and how you came into editing. And also, it’s the international desk. Generally, that’s different from domestic photo editing or domestic stories. Perhaps you can explain a little bit about that at The Times as well. But just give us a little bit of your biography on how you got to where you are now.
Mikko Takkunen: Thanks for having me.
Miko Takkunen: Sure. So, I spent over a decade in the United Kingdom. I studied actually, international relations, first and politics and through that, I just developed this interest in photography or like a hobby. But then, one of my friends showed me— I’ve told this story before many, many times, but I’ll share it here again is, one of my friends showed me the movie documentary about James Nachtwey called War Photographer. And I was just amazed. I mean, I hadn’t really thought about or known about photojournalism and you know, as a profession and I just realized that wow, there’s this thing called photojournalism that kind of combines the two of my interests at the time, like journalism, international affairs and photography. And actually, after the international relations degree, I ended up doing another degree in Wales in photojournalism. And I just decided that was the path I wanted to go on. And after graduating, I worked a couple of years as a photographer in London. But I was also very passionately blogging about photojournalism on this site called Photojournalism Links, which kind of became known and popular in the industry. And then I had this kind of peculiar jump from being a photographer and a blogger, and being approached by time.com in New York, that they’re looking for an associate photo editor, and would I be interested in applying and I did, and I got a job as a photo editor at time.com, and you know, they had a certain courage in taking me on, since I hadn’t any previous formal experience. But I guess they had seen that I had a certain eye and so on through the blogging, and I became a full editor at the time.com. I was covering international news there from 2015 to end of 2015—2012, to 2015. And then, end of 2015, I got a job at the New York Times international desk. And after a short training period, I moved to the paper’s former agent headquarters in Hong Kong, and I served as the Asia photo editor for over five years in the Hong Kong Bureau there. The Times has a big photo department. We have a lot of staff photographers, several dozen, and we have several dozen staff for editors, but there’s only six or seven international photo editors. But there were two of us in Asia. And I was the Digital Photo Editor, which meant that I assigned all our photography for the foreign desk throughout Asia, from Pakistan and Afghanistan, all the way to Japan, and then from Mongolia, all the way down to Australia and New Zealand. And it’s, you know, it was a big region to cover, a very exciting job. And, yeah. So, I think I missed the last part of your question. What was it?
David Campbell: No, that’s fine. That’s fine. Tell us a little bit about, I mean, how would you characterize your major responsibilities? I mean, what you know, if you had to bullet point your tasks and how would you describe that?
Mikko Takkunen: Well, yeah, that’s a good question. The main job is to really work with the text editors on the desk who are covering certain regions and identifying the stories that they are covering, or the paper is covering. And then when they come to me with stories that they are planning, I will then assign that, trying to identify the stories that we will assign original photography for and in the New York Times, we’re fortunate that we can do it whenever we really want. So, I would identify this is a story we will assign as original photography for. Assign or find a photographer, choose a photographer, send them on their way and then come back to the process when the photographer sends their images and then edits them for the online presentation. That’s really the basic nuts and bolts of the job. Obviously, it’s liaising with correspondents in the field who often reach out to me like, you know, it could be a correspondent in Thailand, and they’re thinking of a story, and they come to me like, do you think this could work? And it’s not always just in the, with the other editors, but it’s actually with the reporters and correspondents in the field, and then it’s receiving ideas and pitches from photographers and seeing if the desk is interested in those ideas that we could then originate from the photo department side?
David Campbell: Yeah. I mean, the New York Times is, in many ways, uniquely well resourced, and has a media organization. I mean, that’s a huge global media organization now. It’s operating 24 hours. I mean, this is kind of a big question. But from your perspective there, how would you characterize the state of the media industry now? Is it possible to generalize about some of the main things that are happening or some of the major challenges in the field?
Mikko Takkunen: Well, I would, even when I think of time.com and Time Magazine where I worked before, I definitely saw that there was a big change in how they operated and assigned photography. And I feel that, I mean, we’ve all seen there’s a disappearance of a lot of famous magazine titles and publications that still exist, assigning far less. And that is, I think it’s just a sad fact that has happened in the industry. I think, to some extent, New York Times is a bit of an animal, like an exception that we are very fortunate that we are in a position where we can assign a lot. And we’ve actually like, five years ago, we actually increased our day rate. And I think we doubled, nearly doubled our day rate five years ago. Whereas I think what a lot of publications have, they’re assigning less, and the day rates are back to the same as what they used to be, you know, 30-40 years ago. So, there’s definitely concerning facts or situation in the industry overall, but we’re, I think, personally, I can be, I’m fortunate to work at a time where we can still assign or we actually, I feel we assign more than ever, really.
David Campbell: Yeah. Thinking also about some of the broader issues. I mean, in many ways, photography has had, to some extent, a little bit of a reckoning around some identity questions recently. It probably requires a bit more of a reckoning on these issues. I’m thinking of in the wake of the me to scandals, the need for greater diversity in the profession. How do you think about these issues? And how do they influence your work as a photo editor?
Mikko Takkunen: Well, I certainly think that we editors, we need to use more local photographers in around the world, and people from different backgrounds, and I think there needs to be more like a gender parity for the, in terms of assigning. I think, you know, photojournalism has been quite a white male dominated field for decades and I think that needs to change. I think there’s been certain improvements, but there’s a long way to go. I certainly think that I am, you know, I, I’d like to, I’d like to try to think outside the box and not always go to the same photographers that we’ve been going on. And I hope other people do the same. And luckily, there are organizations like Women Photograph, and there’s African Photo Journal and Database. And there’s different resources and Diversity Photo where you can find new voices and photographers that are, you know, maybe come from from countries or communities that are less represented in the industry. Yeah.
David Campbell: Do you think those questions are I mean; those questions of representation are clearly essential in terms of if society is made up in a particular way then institutions should also do it the largest extent reflect that that makeup. But how does it change, kind of the stories that are covered or the type of eye that people have or the sort of visual work that is produced. Do you think there’s a direct connection between the identity of the photographer and the kind of work that’s done?
Mikko Takkunen: I think, you know, I’ve heard people say at The Times that we need to kind of look more like the communities that— the people who cover stories kind of need to be, somehow, look, there has to be some sort of reflection also on the communities and people we cover. I do think that when we have more diverse voices, we will also find the report will be richer from it. And I think people who come from certain communities, they see things that we don’t, or they cover them in new ways, and it’s important to have that diversity. Sorry, and what was the —
David Campbell: No, just thinking about—I mean, I think it’s absolutely essential to have that diversity. I think we would all agree on that. I’m just wondering about the link between the actual visual that’s produced and the self-identification of the person making the image and the story, whether it was possible, or say, a person with this identity produces this kind of visual, is that too crude? I suspect it is. So, what’s the relationship between someone’s background and their position and the kind of story or the kinds of visual work that produced? I’m not sure any of us have an answer to this.
Mikko Takkunen: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I don’t think that we always, you know, are in a position or I don’t think it should always be such a clear-cut case that, okay, this is a certain story about a certain community that we would have to find a person from that community to cover it. But I do think that certainly, like, you know, if we look at the abortion issues, in, you know, in the US or internationally, I think those are stories that really should, I feel like should be covered by women when possible. And when you have stories about certain issues, or groups, and if you are able to kind of incorporate a professional who somehow has a deeper connection to the group, I think it’s going to have certain benefits, you know, by the photographer, being able to get more intimate with the subject and get being able to do more in depth work. But I don’t prescribe to that or subscribe to the idea that you would always have to force it. And I think in some cases, in, you know, certain stories, it’s almost it can be beneficial to have a foreigner go in and do the story. Also, it sometimes safer. I mean, there’s a lot of stories where having a local photographer do it, it could be actually dangerous for them. So that’s certainly a consideration that to take, keep in mind,
David Campbell: Yeah, and I think as in the case of literature and other forms, the view of the outsider, stranger can sometimes be a distinct view itself, was not the correct view. It’s not the right view, it shouldn’t be the only view but a mix of these views, I think would be good for that.
Mikko Takkunen: But I would say that outsiders can see things that locals—I mean, if I think of my own life and own communities, it’s like you can become blind to certain things. And then when others come from elsewhere, they see things differently. And they’re almost excited to see, point out certain things that you don’t, you’ve kind of grown blind to. So, there is certain benefits to that too.
David Campbell: Kind of exposing the taken for granted. Yeah.
Mikko Takkunen: There’s also the very big danger of like the, you know, just kind of like grabbing onto those exotic things, or things that are exciting to you, that obviously aren’t, you know, in themselves.
David Campbell: And another very broad question. I mean, what do you see as photography’s or the role of visual images? What’s the role of the visual in storytelling generally? What would you say is like a primary contribution of photography to storytelling. Is there’s something special about photography that is distinct from other modes of information?
Mikko Takkunen: I mean, I think photographs take readers to places and locations that cannot themselves visit far better and deeper than words ever can. You know, I think, whether it’s Ukraine or Afghanistan or Somalia, you can write about people and places, but there are certain facts that photographs cannot share. But I think for pictures have the way to really connect the reader to those to the people and location depicted. And so, I think photography does a very good job in creating like, emotional connection between the people who see the images and the people depicted in them. So, I think that’s like the biggest contribution from photography.
David Campbell: Yeah, yeah. Cool. So, it’s probably a good time, you are going to share a story or two with us, and take us through some of the thinking behind how a particular story that you worked on in The Times was put together. So should we do that now?
Mikko Takkunen: Sure. So, I’ll just do screen share here. Yep. So, I just actually picked just one story. But this is, I thought it would be interesting to share, like a story that originated from a photographer’s pitch. This is a story on drought and hunger crisis in Somalia, which was pitched to us by photographer Malin Fezahai. She spent a good part of this year in different parts of Africa, and actually did quite a lot of work for us. And she has, you know, a lot of experience working on the continent. And she is Ethiopian and Swedish heritage. But as she came to me sometime in April, pitching this idea that, you know, we had done like, some short story about the drought in Somalia and she felt like, you know, we should get on the ground there and do something, you know, really ground reporting on people going through this famine, which is by some estimates, worsened in four decades. And obviously, the war in Ukraine has raised global food prices and there’s now really this acute food crisis. And I discussed it with our Africa editor, Laurie Goodstein. And she was into the idea. And we teamed up Malin with our East Africa correspondent Abdi Latif Dahir, who’s based in Kenya. And they spent two weeks in Somalia in beginning of May. They were working on a couple of stories of which the biggest one was this story on the drought and famine. And first, I will just point out that it was really good thinking on Malin’s part to, you know, to really think that, you know, this was already in the news, but how can we do, you know, good, strong story of it.
David Campbell: Yeah.
Mikko Takkunen: And I’m glad that we, you know, we were, the paper was willing to take it on. Obviously, Somalia is not a country where we go lightly. So, you know, there’s certain security concerns. So, you know, we, Abdi and and Malin, were in constant contact with one of our security consultants and they made a plan, like, where they, in terms of when how they travel, who’s the driver, and they kept, you know, daily contact on making sure that they were, you know, safe doing the work that they did work in Mogadishu. And then they also worked in Doolow, in some of the IDP camps, and health centers in the West, and in terms of like working on a story, like these, what I often do is that, you know, there was the initial pitching process, then, you know, taking it on, and then I had a phone call or two with Malin of like, what are we trying to achieve with this story? And what, you know, what are we, in terms of visuals, what are we trying to get? And then, you know, Malin and Abdi really planned those logistics of where to go and how to go. But then I pretty much, while they were there, I and— this goes with other stories too, I pretty much let Malin to, you know, do her job, as she, based on, you know, those earlier conversations so that, it’s not that, what I don’t like to do ever is create any kind of shot lists of like, you know, I want this and I want that and portrayed and you know, I think that kind of leads, just kind of like hinders creativity. And you know, the photographer knows themselves best, you know, what is possible given the circumstances. Obviously, we want to assign only photographers we know we can put, who can pull off the story. So, I mean, let’s say, if this idea had come from, like maybe a younger photographer who doesn’t have experience in, similar experience that Marlon had, we might have felt like, Okay, you have a great idea to go. But, um, you know, I don’t, I’m not sure if you would be able to pull it off. Whereas I was confident that Malin could pull it off.
So, that’s like the second part, but then, you know, and then she does her work. And then when she comes back, then I kind of reinsert myself into the process. And, you know, there’s usually a draft of the story. And then, and I see, start kind of building this puzzle of what does the text say and what are the photographs and trying to, obviously, seek out the, in my mind, the strongest photographs, but also make sure that we, you know, obviously, that we cover those locations and people, some of the people that we’ve covered, so that, you know, there’s definitely, you know, the photographs and text need to be matched. And I mean, this case obviously, you know, Malin and Abdi were traveling together, so in a way, all the photographs and text and the reporting was from the same place. But, you know, what I also don’t think that it’s always necessary is like, text could mention certain specific people, and I don’t feel like we necessarily need to always show that person if there’s another photograph that kind of tells the same thing and, or in a stronger way visually, because I feel like, you know, photographs, and ultimately, photographs should enhance the overall and not just, you know, illustrate like, you know, this person gets mentioned, this location gets mentioned, I mean, there’s like, there’s a whole section in the story from a market in Doolow, where I didn’t use any photographs. But like, for instance, this woman, Hirsiyo Mohamed, she’s in the lead, and she has this really, you know, horrific story how she was, you know, left home with three of her children, two of which died on the way to the IDP camp. And then, you know, Malin and Abdi met her at the camp, and she was photographed with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Maryam, and after she had already lost two of her children. So, you know, obviously, I mean, I think Malin’s photograph of her is strong, but also it, you know, once it comes after this very strong lead of the story, this describing what she went through it, I think, is a really powerful thing. And then this photograph of this young child, Fatima Yusuf, in a Mogadishu malnutrition ward, we have a bigger, you know, there’s several paragraphs of the parent, but like, I just thought there was this moment of tenderness in this one image that we didn’t need to show necessarily the parent and the child’s face, but this, you know, the simple gesture of the parent holding the child feet was, you know, very strong. And in terms of visual editing, I had discussed about doing some drone images with Marlin beforehand. So, she actually then hired, found a guy who could rent her a drone in Mogadishu. And so she took some drone imagery. And I just used this one photograph from the Doolow IDP camp. I think it’s; you know, I think drones are very good at capturing scale. And this was exactly what I had in mind when I asked her to do it, you know, if we get this kind of an aerial from one of these IDP camps that could be, you know—
David Campbell: Yeah. I mean, it’s a fantastic, in video terms, a fantastic sort of establishing shot for the whole scene and issue.
Mikko Takkunen: Yeah. And then obviously, but then I also, you know, I want to be mindful that I don’t want to overuse it. Usually, most stories maybe it’s quite often just one image, just kind of setting the scene and nothing more than that. And then there’s this girl called Maryam Feisal, who— it’s kind of unusual for us to have this kind of a portrait in a story. That is you have such a direct eye contact. And it’s, but we, I was just really struck by this image and all of the editors who saw it were as well and then I kind of included it as almost as a break in the middle of a story. It’s like a vertical photograph, unlike, you know, all the other ones which are horizontal, and which we nearly always— 99% of the photographs we run are pretty much horizontal, but like, I think sometimes, you know, vertical images, and it can kind of add something different to it, and to the mix. And obviously, especially when it was like an unusual kind of portrait with the icons that I use. But like, this is a story that came from the two-week trip, and then which by time standard, it’s a kind of medium sized enterprise, it’s not a huge story, but it’s definitely an important one. And then here, you know, it got one full page on a very widely read Sunday issue on June 12. So, we had this kind of the same top image. And, and then I also wanted to show Hirsiyo again. But then there’s also one new image that I didn’t have the online display of one mother feeding milk, to feeding milk to the child. And what often happens at The Times, we are the New York headquarters, we have a print hub team of photo editors who actually then take most of our stories from online, and they edit them for the paper, but then we kind of enterprise stories that you know, this, myself and some of my colleagues are very heavily invested in, we can, then we can also ask that, can I edit that footprint? So, these stories worked for over a couple of days.
David Campbell: Right. Are there different considerations for the sorts of images that work online versus the sorts that work in print?
Mikko Takkunen: Well, I mean, I guess the biggest consideration is the space. You know, you could, you know, you might kind of have like a medium sized story. And it was very visual. But it may be- and you could put a lot of images online, but it might not have the like the journalistic heft to actually get a very prominent, a lot of space in print. So, it’s like a judgment call. You might get one, two or three photos and what are those costs? What are those photographs that you use? So, it’s a much tighter selection? And obviously, there’s consideration? It’s 2022, but a lot of our pages are still black and white. So, if you know, is the story going to be in a page that has color? I mean, we often, for the biggest, for the Somalia story, you can request color, and which means that I, you know, I have this story that really needs to be in color, and then they try to accommodate it, put it on a page that has it and but you know, I think if you run these photographs in black and white, they would really lose a lot, especially the top one from the camp where you have the striking red color in the clothing. And so that’s one consideration. And then in print, you have to consider if you don’t get a full page, what are the other, what is the other story or other two stories on the same page? And what are those images show? So you have to sometimes play, edit your image for the story based on what are the other stories on the page or the facing page or the wider section. Like if we have a soldier shooting artillery in Ukraine on one international page, and then we have an image from some other war zone elsewhere, let’s say Yemen, we don’t want to do a similar type of image. So, there’s that kind of consideration certainly. Online, we approach every story individually in the sense that we don’t have to worry about what other stories in this section.
David Campbell: It’s a self-contained unit,
Mikko Takkunen: Exactly. Self-contained thing. Whereas in print, you have to kind of consider the other stories and the next space you get in the color and so—
David Campbell: Interesting.
Mikko Takkunen: So, you might get one image, but you know if it’s going to be big, do you get six columns or just two columns. So, it’s nice to work in print. It is a different different animal in a way.
David Campbell: You were talking about drone footage there and that’s kind of sort of new technology. We’ve got a question from Arky in the audience. And a reminder to others, if you want to ask questions, drop them into the q&a box, we’ll bring them in or come to them at the end. But in this question, he says the New York Times is quite innovative in using both visual imagery, data visualization, graphics, multiple media, video, etc. In its online stories, can you talk of any new form of visual story technology that really excites you?
Mikko Takkunen: Good question. Well, I’m a kind of a traditionalist, I mean, I think couple years ago, several years ago, everybody was getting into video, and even more photographers started experimenting with video, and some even moved completely to video. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I continue to, you know, just passionately love still photography and advocate for that and I’m quite happy just putting still photographs in a story online and do like and keep doing that. But I guess there’s, you know, what we’ve done from— Drone is, I think, is a great innovation. And it adds a lot like I said, especially capturing scale, and what we’ve done in like, in places like Ukraine, where, like David Guttenfelder was on assignment. And he was like, flying over with the drone, like, also, like a video of you know, of a clip of flying over a destroyed area can show more than just the still from that same place. So that’s, that’s interesting.
But in terms of like, photography and video, beyond photography and video, I mean, there’s ways, different ways of displaying stories that we’ve done with, for instance, experimented with so called tap stories, which is, you know, rather than scroll down a story, we’ve done, we do a story that basically just follows complete narrative, with images, and then very minimal text, and then they kind of especially work well, and they’re designed for the phone. So, you have your phone screen, and then tap and move to the same next image. And there’s a bit of text. And, and—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien:Are thos popular? Because I really love them, but you don’t see them that much.
Mikko Takkunen: There is kind of, there’s a certain production involved with those that—so we, when we first tried them, maybe four or five years ago, we did quite a few, but we haven’t done a ton of them. I could actually, you know, pull one here that we did earlier this year from from Afghanistan. This was by David Guttenfelder. So, let me go to screenshare here. I’m improvising so, things could go horribly wrong. If we have time, I’ll just quickly show one, since we’re talking about this.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I like improvising, so this is perfect.
Mikko Takkunen: So this is, you know, it’s a story that— this is obviously the desktop view. But on mobile, these images were cropped vertical to maximize the phone screen, which obviously, I felt horrific. I was going into David Guttenfelder, I’m so sorry. But we think in this story, I want to crop your vertical and, which you know, normally affected also what images you could choose, because they wouldn’t all crop well. And you know, you couldn’t always use the exact image that you wanted to. But like, actually, we you know, I think David was very happy, how it ran. I mean, and you know, if you see the story on desktop, you still see, you know, the full, full glory of his compositions. But this is a very different storytelling in the sense that this was a road trip that David Guttenfelder did with our Kabul bureau chief, Thomas Gibbons Neff, and one of our reporters, from Kabul to Kandahar. And basically, it was a story about the highway between those two cities. And it was a very much a narrative that followed their trip from Kabul to Kandahar. So, and literally, the photographs and the text go hand in hand, telling this narrative of this road trip, and—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: There are quite a few of images where I really can’t see how you would ever crop it to a vertical.
Mikko Takkunen: You have you have to go and see on the phone. It was a bit, you know, challenging at times. And then you have to still plan that. When you crop it vertical, you know, where does the text go? So—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Ah yeah. Beautiful images.
David Campbell: Yeah, it’ll be interesting to know whether those tap stories attract a different audience to other stories, because of the fact that way, the way they’re made for a smartphone.
Mikko Takkunen: Yeah. Am I still a screenshare or no?
Mikko Takkunen: I mean, I think, yeah, I don’t know the date on that. But I do, I know that it was, you know, it was pretty popular. And I mean, I know The Times is also very active on Instagram and doing Instagram stories. We have a whole team of photo editors, just planning those and I think that a big part of that is trying to capture audience that wouldn’t traditionally, they wouldn’t, you know, go and get the inky fingers by reading the actual print newspaper, which I still love. But like, I think a lot of people get their news online and also from Instagram and other social media platforms. But you know, even with this tap story that, you know, it was definitely like, made for the phone screen, we still made a big two page spread out of it in the newspaper. We just, you know, laid out the images and we just kind of organized the text differently. But like, one story can have different versions of itself for the phone screen and the desktop and print and then, you know, I’m sure we probably did like an Instagram story out of it as well. So—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No.
David Campbell: Yeah. Ilvy, over to you.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. I’m gonna ask you some—well, there are a lot of viewers today. And I’m pretty sure many of them are photographers. And I know, they’d like some practical advice from you. So, I followed your blog, kind of back in the day, and then you went to Time, so I kind of know the stories that you’re drawn to, but they are quite broad. Like, many of the stories you’re interested in are from different parts of the world. So, just for the photographers watching, what kind of stories do you generally like to kind of work on or that you like to see coming in from photographers? I know, you’re now in a region, of course, as well.
Mikko Takkuenn: So yeah, I mean, I handle Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Africa, the entire continent of Africa, for the foreign desk. So those are the kinds of regions that I assign. And I have colleagues who handle the Americas, like and outside the US and then colleagues who handle Asia and Europe, so, but I obviously want to hear especially what I hear from photographers who have, you know, pitches and ideas related to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and anywhere in Africa. Because those are stories that I would then, you know, get to work with. Obviously, if you have ideas from elsewhere, I’m happy to receive them, and I’ll pass those to my colleagues. But I love hearing ideas that are kind of like often—either they are ideas that are taking a new angle on a story in the news, or something that I’ve never heard of or known about and a community, a place that is somewhere out in the world. And this is like a facet, but fascinating visual story to be told, for instance, like Hannah Reyes Morales, a great Philippine-based photographer, had this pitch last fall about this community in the Philippines where people were hand-feeding whale sharks. But due to the pandemic, the tourists were gone, have gone away, but they still kept feeding the whale sharks with the hope that, you know, the tourists will one day return and, you know, the community would benefit. And, you know, I’d never heard of this place or the practice. And Hannah suggested going there for like couple of days and do a story out of it. And I discussed it with the Asia editor who was handling Philippines and we took it on board. And then it was just, you know, it was just like a four-day trip. And Hannah wrote it, wrote the story as well. And she had one incredible image of taken, like partially underwater and partially over water that you will see this massive whale shark below and fishermen above the, above the water and we ran it on top of the you know, New York Times front page, and it really was an idea that came from her, her execution and she even wrote it and really, I think introduced, you know, a lot of readers to place they hadn’t ever known about or whatever, even go to. And I mean, the visuals were just striking. One of the masthead photo editors you know, saw the front page before it was released to the public and she asked like, do we have a photo illustration top of the front page? It was an unbelieveable image. I wrote to her that no, it’s a photograph. And so, this is a perfect example of just like story that is not in the news. This is that tiny peg to you know, pandemic, a certain peg of the pandemic but it was really a great idea, great execution and it wasn’t even financially a big effort because she really pulled it off in a matter of couple of days, which was just extraordinary. Although I’m always more, I’m always eager to, you know, open to discussing giving photographers more time if it feels like that, you know, the stories will benefit from it.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And would you ever work with photographers you’ve never worked with?
Mikko Takkunen: Absolutely. I mean, most of the time, new photographers reached out to me, and I might, if I liked their work, I might reach out, I might try them on it, like a small one day assignment first, and if it goes, well, then we might kind of try something longer to couple of days. And then if we keep going well, they, you know, they can get those bigger one, two weeks or longer assignments and there’s a lot of photographers I gave their first assignments at the New York Times, and they become regulars. You know, Matt Abbott from Australia? I’ve heard him. Yeah, you know, I think I had him shoot some portrait, which I didn’t even first think, you know, didn’t go particularly well. But I’ve been like, I’ve seen this guy’s stuff is good. And then he became a regular and he went on to do this really tremendous work on the wild, on the fires in Australia and won a World Press Photo and now he just, he did a story for Nat Geo and also won a World Press Photo for the story. So—
David Campbell: Just to say we had a VII Insider event with Matt and another member of the Oculi Collective in Australia back in February and he showed that Aboriginal work before it won the awards. Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, it’s really, yeah, it’s very well deserved that he won the World Press with it, for sure.
Mikko Takkuken: Raised hands—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: People raising hands, let me see.
David Campbell: Are there questions you can go through Ilvy? And if people are raising hands, instead of raising hands, drop a question in the q&a box.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: First. Let me see. Are you also seeing them, Mikko? I’ll read them out loud. So. Good question from Gavin Doron. During initial outreach from a photographer pitching a story, do you prefer a lot of information and research to show due diligence or just enough information to get the point across? What are some common mistakes that photographers make in terms of conveying their story idea?
Mikko Takkunen: My favorite way of receiving pitches is just by email and I kind of, it’s so busy, everyone is so busy that I’m quite happy to get let’s just a few paragraphs explaining the idea. And but what is, how The Times is different to other, lot of other publications is that I think a lot of publications are looking to license work that photographers have already shot. So, if you shoot it with your own, you know, expense and then you sell it. And we might, you know, hoping that publication would license it. But what we usually want to do is that we want to receive ideas, and then take on those, like in Hannah’s case, we took on the ideas, and then we assigned her to do the work for us. And that’s a prime, like a primary method of working and I mean, there’s exceptions that we sometimes somebody comes with an unpublished work, and we license but and then we might assign them to do a bit more work. But you know, I think 99% of the time, it’s always us assigning original work. But so, we can be approached already in the ideas phase, but it tends to be a couple of paragraphs of like, what do you think is the story? You know, why do you think we would be interested in it? How long would you need minimum to do the work? And what are the kind of major expenses involved that I should be aware about? And what is the access? Like, are you telling me an idea that, you know, you have access to something really exclusive, but then when we, you know, you actually, you’re — Are you like pitching to do something that you don’t really have any kind of access yet? So, it’s good to know that, especially if I mean, obviously, if it’s something like that could be difficult to get permission to do.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So, this would be like just in an email, because I know people want to probably know, do they need to send a PDF? Or do they want to—
Mikko Takkunen: I find just email is fine. And I think our security, like IT security probably doesn’t like getting us like opening all sorts of Google Drives. And that, you know, downloading WeTransfers so it’s you know, it could just be like email with a couple of images attached. And I mean, I’m not opposed to the occasional PDF, but nothing like, you know, I wouldn’t like send WeTransfers or some, you know, massive terabytes. Yeah. You know, Google Drive, you know, with terabytes of information.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. So, just an email with, yeah, all the information they need. There’s another question from Ava. I haven’t read it yet. So, let’s see. I noticed the New York Times also uses Getty Images. How can we stand out to the New York Times as a stock platform? And what is it like to pitch an entire stock platform versus a collection of visuals to a photo editor? We photograph Animal Industries and offer these images on our stock platform. We Animals Media.
David Campbell: Yeah, to add some context, we also had a VII Insider event with Joanne McArthur last August on from We Animals Media about animal photojournalism. Yeah. So, I think Ava is asking about, they’re involved in this particular niche, extremely important niche. Is that something that you would go to, or would you want to see a pitch about those sorts of ideas?
Mikko Takkunen: Well, I would think that, you know, especially like, climate and science desk, I could imagine that they might have, or, you know, travel desks might have use for that kind of content more than maybe the International, but I will say that we have, you know, even though I’ve been talking about, you know, a lot of assigning and original photography, we do, you know, we have logins to all the major, you know, news agencies and subscriptions with Getty, Reuters, AP, EPA, and we, you know, use a lot of the images, but obviously, then we also when we sometimes have stories that we can’t find the suitable images from them, we go to likes, the smaller ones. And I certainly if there’s a, you know, an agency like that, that has really great, like animal imagery that is not available, easily available elsewhere, you know, they should reach out to the New York Times photo desk and see if, you know, we could create a, you know, if there’s interest in from our managers to have, like a New York Times login and also then, you know, agree on a fee that we would pay to use those on our stories. But certainly, I know that, you know, like, I have colleagues in the culture and arts desk that use, like a lot of these agencies that I never have to go to, like, they have all these like legendary, you know, film stills from, you know, all these classic movies, or like, celebrity portraits and stuff like that. And so we use dozens and dozens of news agencies and other photo archives to, you know, to source images from, and I’m sure there’s also a need for animals and other—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Other types of stories. Okay, thank you. And I’m pretty sure that when you work for the New York Times, you probably don’t have to look very far for new photographers, because I’m guessing they are sending you emails a lot, and you get pitches a lot. But are there other ways, like maybe photo festivals or Instagram pages where you kind of try to find new talent? Or does it really just kind of come to you in your inbox?
Mikko Takkunen: Well, I do get a lot of emails, and I always, I’ve kind of made my mission to go through them and always respond to everybody. it sometimes takes weeks, or sometimes it can take months, if it gets, you know, lost somewhere in the in the shuffle. But I, you know, even I always go through them, I try to reply to everyone, and I’ve definitely found some really good photographers through that. But also, I mean, I try to kind of keep an eye on, on what other publications use, but also wires, there’s a lot of, you know, there’s a lot of really great photographers out there who kind of had their start in the wires. And I think, and I think wires often get a bad rap. There’s tremendously good photographers there. And but also, there’s people who, you know, especially just starting out and, you know, I’ve noticed a lot of good talent, you know, that have been shooting for AFP and, or, you know, Getty and so I’m always kind of keeping an eye on that. And, you know, and there are some of them I, you know, yeah, assign, and they become regulars for us. So, that’s important. But also, I mean, I mentioned Women Photograph, I think, is a really tremendous source. And there are a lot of other similar types of web platforms as well. And but I would say, like, you know, I do sometimes when I hear about photographers, like you know, I check the Instagram, but I still think that you should have, you know, a professional website, or some sort of website where your images are shown. It doesn’t have to be a professional, it could be a free WordPress blog platform where you put your best images and you don’t even have to pay the 20 pounds for your domain name. It could be your [email protected] but put your best photos there and a phone number and an email and that you know, it’s a chance for you to be seen. I don’t think Instagram alone is enough and I know that there’s, you know, there’s people who don’t like to put in their email or phone numbers on their website because maybe you are open to harassment. But I may be, I don’t know, I find it kind of difficult sometimes when I find a photographer, and then there’s no like, email address or phone number,
David Campbell: Or contact details.
Mikko Takkunen: Just a contact form, and then you just kind of hope that hopefully, you know, they’ll read it and you know, and you hear from them, but it sometimes, you know, we’re in such a hurry, that is like the best I just like finding people and calling them on WhatsApp or whatever, and reach out and—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, yeah, actually. I’ve even heard from editors who say that, you’ll have a beautiful website, and then people don’t have any, like, no contact form, no nothing. Like, okay.
Mikko Takkunen: I find it baffling, like, I have to be able to, you know, you could have the best work, but then if there’s no way of me to contact you, and, you know, I’ve also tried to make myself like, available by you know, I have my email address on my social media platforms so that people can easily find me. So, I think editors can do their part as well that, you know, that we can be—I know that, you know, if you’re just starting out, and then you’re like, Oh, you might you know—who’s the editor there and you know, and then you might find out who the editor is, but you don’t have any way of reaching out to them. So, I think editors can do a better job of being available because ultimately, we all benefit from that.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Of course, from being able to contact each other. And while this kind of naturally brings us to the question, do’s and don’ts, this was a big don’t—don’t have a contact form, or, but there must be different do’s and don’ts, I guess, for photographers who are reaching out to you, or in any editor, maybe in general, what would you say? I mean,
Mikko Takkunen: In terms of contacting editors, I think like a cold call is kind of too, feels a bit too direct way of contacting, you know, like, it’s just like getting a call from somebody I’ve never heard of, and I might be in a meeting or doing something, under deadline to, you know, getting something finished and getting it out in the world, and then somebody calls me that I’ve never heard of, they probably wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have, you know, probably a lot of patience to chat at that moment. And that probably wouldn’t be the first impression the photographer would want to leave. But I would say that for people starting out, I would think on a bigger level of the do’s and don’ts is that you know, I think there’s like a lot of contests and competitions, you know, in our industry. Forget about those and try to be the photographer that you want, you should be in a way. So, there’s a lot of fats and styles in terms of toning, or subject matter that people cover. You know, like, whether it’s everybody doing stories about, like coal mining, or everybody doing stories about this and that and toning in a certain way, like, do the kind of work you really feel is important and cover it in a way that you would like it to be covered rather than trying to mimic somebody, I think that’s a big, like a do and then also don’t ignore the financial aspects of the job because what I—because of the industry is going through this kind of difficult time in many levels, I find that there’s been a lot of people who have dropped out of the industry because they can’t make it work financially. So, make sure that you have a side hustle, whether it’s in photography, or something else, and you can keep doing photography, and you don’t, you know, and try to struggle too long and drop out completely, because it’s really sad to see that, you know. I keep thinking of certain names that used to come up, like really, you know, some photographers who, you know, winning awards, emerging photographer, this emerging photographer that but then like, in couple of years, they’re gone, because I don’t know. They probably, you know, got married, want to start a family and they realize how can I ever have those things that normal, like, people, you know, when I can’t even pay my rent, and then and so it’s like, thinking also beyond the photography to make sure that it works, you know, you have it going, you know, in a financially stable way. As stable as you can because, you know, it’s always it’s always a struggle, but you know,
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, that’s really good advice, actually. Because you’re right, not that many years ago, let’s say 10 years ago, at World Press so many people won. And some of these names are totally off the, I don’t even know where they are now. Right.
Mikko Takkunen: It’s really sad to see that.
Ilvy Njkiokiktjien: Yeah, you’re right.
David Campbell: About stories that people cover. There’s a question from Georgina in the audience. She wants to ask; do you think it’s better to specialize in a topic as a photojournalist or to cover everything? And there are also mid positions between specializing and covering everything too. But should people have something, a repertoire that they’re known for? Or should they be available for all types of stories?
Mikko Takkunen: I guess there’s two schools of it. I mean, I think if I think of my colleagues here in in New York, I mean, there’s a lot of photographers who just kind of pick-up whatever stories they do, and they do it very well. And they don’t have a particular speciality, but like, in terms of international, we found that, I think, or I found that there’s a lot of people who have— either you’re in a certain, the location is your speciality. Kind of the you have expertise on a certain country or region. And then you kind of, like, it’s good that you, I know that you really know how to work in that country or that region, and then you do more work there. It’s good to be kind of based somewhere, or like, keep going to certain region where you would kind of like to be considered for work. I mean, like, if you if you know, you’ve done tons of work in, just like, in all over Europe, and then you suddenly come to me with a pitch from like Afghanistan. I mean, like, I might not look at it as seriously as if you’re somebody who’s actually done and has a track record of doing work in Afghanistan. And so that’s, I think that’s a big thing like having, I mean, there’s a lot of people who don’t, I mean, I think especially now with the way Afghanistan has changed due to Taliban takeover, I think there’s a lot of people who actually aren’t even being based there. They are now moving out, but they will probably, I would imagine a lot of these people will kind of keep doing Afghanistan stories, because they’re still passionate about the country. It’s just too difficult to live there, but they will—and I would imagine still a lot of publications will keep sending them there to cover the country. And so that’s a big specialty. I mean, obviously, there’s different— I’m talking about, like, you know, my small world of, like the foreign desk and photojournalism, but there’s obviously, you know, the sports photography is a whole different world, and portraiture and so on, but in terms of photojournalism, and if we talk about like, New York Times foreign desk, I think it’s good to kind of be known as a, kind of attached to a certain region or a country. And then, it’s certainly, I think, if you do strong personal work on one certain topic or certain topics, I think, you know, you’re certainly, I think, more considered than to take on bigger projects that might, that we might have related to those topics, rather than just some jack of all trades, who can probably can do a good job, but like, we think, okay, somebody’s done good work on certain—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, yeah. On the subject—
Mikko Takkunen: Subject matter, then they can, you know, they could probably be really good. They could do that good work for us, too.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I know, we’re kind of nearing the end time, almost. But I see Maggie has a really lovely question as well, Megan Steber. I’m quite interested in this answer. So, this has happened before to me as well. If someone, let’s say, myself or another photographer—asking for a friend— exactly—had been working on a project for a long time and part of it was published in another publication, but there is still a lot of, still a lot of fresh work that was not published on a major crisis subject, would you be interested in seeing new work on that same subject, especially if it’s an ongoing crisis?
Mikko Takkunen: Absolutely. And there’s a saying that I’ve heard some old school New York Times editors say, who, like, it’s not covered until the New York Times covers it. And, I mean, it’s a kind of really egoistic thing to say, but I’m saying it here, because it makes a point that, you know, if there’s a big story in the world to be told, just because somebody else told it, we have to tell it as well. I mean, you know, we’re supposed to supposedly the paper of record. We have to cover it ourselves, too. I mean, I think if you know, if Photographer A covered it for Washington Post we probably, like last week, I don’t know, would we put the same photographer on it for us the following week, but I certainly, we want to cover all, we have to cover the biggest stories and also, you know, just because you work for a competitor, it doesn’t mean that you couldn’t work for us. We really, I think there’s been certain reputation that we, you know, if you work for the Washington Post, you couldn’t work with the New York Times, or other publication and but that’s certainly not true, certainly not true anymore. I want to, we want to work with the best people. And if they work for other publications, that doesn’t matter. And we want to, we owe it to our readers to cover the biggest stories. So, but obviously it means that if somebody does a very exclusive angle, a story, a certain person, we cannot be seen imitating, I mean, that will be like stealing, you know. We don’t—what I often say to photographers, like if they, you know, just if you have ideas, just send it to me, and you know, if we feel that we want to do it, you will be there, you can be certain that you will be the one doing it. I’m not in the business of stealing people’s ideas. I mean, everybody would know it anyway. And it will be really bad that, you know, that, you know, Photographer A pitched this idea to Mikko last week, and then he put on Photographer B on it. I mean, that’s just, that just can’t happen. So, your ideas are safe with us. And if we don’t pursue them, you know, you can hopefully get somebody else interested.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, go ahead. Sorry, Mikko.
Mikko Takkunen: I always try to be open to people’s ideas, because I want them to come to me, because what what is, it goes to all of this also, to the point of replying to people’s emails, because, you know, you send me a great idea. And I don’t get back to you, and then you send me another time, and I still don’t get back to you, you might be that some photographers wouldn’t approach me for the third time. And then they have this, some really incredible idea and then they go to another publication, and then they will do it and they create amazing work. And then I’m like, why didn’t you come to me? Well, because you didn’t reply to me. So, I think really is what a part of my modus operandi is to be kind of approachable and available and at least consider people’s ideas. And I saw that, you know, once they have the idea that I’ll be the, you know, the first, or one of the first to get it. At least, to get it.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I think that’s beautiful, because it’s, well, quite rare. I think there are many editors who, who don’t respond, or we, I know it myself from some experiences, although I’m now, I think ever since I joined VII that has changed a lot as well. But I know it from teaching a lot of the students and many of them are at quite high level and working in the field a lot and working for good publications and they always say I never get a reply. What should I change? And I’m like, Yeah, I don’t know. Even next time I’ll tell them email Mikko, you’ll get a reply.
David Campbell: Yeah, exactly.
Mikko Takkunen: Yeah, my email is [email protected].
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thank you. That’s lovely for sharing. Thanks for—
David Campbell: And it’s on your social media profiles.
Mikko Takkunen: Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. Also. Thank you, Mikko.
David Campbell: Yeah, so this has been a great conversation Mikko. Just one question to finish, which I think is interesting. Because we all read photojournalism links back in the day. I mean, what do you think about photojournalism blogging or photography blogging now? Are there sites that you read, or the people who you’re paying attention to? It seems a lot less active, I would say,
David Campbell: Maybe we need to bring Photojournalism Links back again.
Mikko Takkunen: Yeah, yeah, I don’t really— there are not really like blogs that I’ve been going to. I mean, I think it’s more like seeing what people share on Twitter, what people are sharing on Facebook or what I really love is when photographers kind of share appreciation to their colleagues work in Instagram stories, you know, like it just could be like photography or just like sharing a still from a colleague that made a really incredible frame somewhere and then I’m like, I’m going to go and check it out. So, I often find good work like that, come across pictures that way rather than like going to blogs or I mean, sadly, like New York Times we had the Lens Blog, but that’s been retired for a couple of years now. I’m not sure if it’s coming back but—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes.
Mikko Takkunen: I, I—
David Campbell: The thought exhausts him already. Maybe we’ll have to do it on Insider as well. I mean, we, you know, obviously VII Insider has a blog and we’re trying to run article length pieces, you know, analytical pieces because I think there’s a need for that. It’s not easy to find writers, people in the audience who are interested in writing. Pay attention to that, you can also pitch me for articles. We’re interested in that. But yeah, that regular ongoing daily, weekly blogging about what stories are out there is not there so often, I think.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. But it was very popular. I mean, it’s, I loved reading the Lens Blog and of course and there were many more actually a few years ago but yeah. Yeah.
David Campbell: Anyway—
Mikko Takkunen: There’s a niche for somebody to start.
David Campbell: A niche for somebody. Yes. If someone wants to start it, get in touch with me. We can provide a platform for it, so.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, well done, David.
David Campbell: So, a great conversation and great to have you, Mikko. I know the audience is saying lots of things. Really appreciate it. We’ll put this up online for people to watch again—
Mikko Takkunen: Thanks for having me.
David Campbell: —to see and yeah, let’s, we hope to see you in person soon.
Mikko Takkunen: Yeah, have a good summer everybody.
David Campbell: Thanks.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thanks, Mikko, bye.