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 events are interactive with good opportunities for audience questions.
In the second episode, David Campbell speaks with Thomas Borberg, former photo editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper Politiken.
David Campbell: So, welcome to this VII Insider event, the second in our Photo Editors Series. And it’s really great to have Thomas Borberg with us from Copenhagen today. And Thomas is in a unique position because in his career he was once a photographer, then 11 years a photo editor-in-chief at Politiken in Denmark, and last year returned to being a staff photographer. So, he’s sat on both sides of the fence, which gives a number of unique perspectives that we’ll talk about. Thomas is well-known as someone who lectures in photojournalism, has done that around the world, reviewed portfolios in festivals around the world and been on juries around the world so he has extensive experience that gives them a lot of insight into the industry. So great to have you with us, Thomas. And tell us a little bit about your move from being a photographer to editor and back to photographer. What was that journey and what motivated those those moves at each stage.
Thomas Borberg: Maybe I’ll just start out explaining what Politiken is, actually, because I think it’s a big part of why I made the decision. So, it’s an old-fashioned broadsheet paper. And then, as you can see on the front page, images and photography is a very, very important part of our language. This is the Sunday edition from last Sunday. It also has 10 pages from Ukraine made by Mads Nissen with a sleeve like this, or cultural, this is a Danish actor, just to show the diversity of photography, but then it’s a really, really, really, really important part of the newspaper. So, I think that’s the place to start. The first image was published there in 1908. A lot of things have happened since then, you know, the Danish wave of photography in the late 90s, we had some of the best photographers working as staff photographers at Politiken. So, I’m, you know, I’m very privileged to be a part of a long, strong tradition with photography. And I started as an intern in the late 90s, educated from the school of journalism in Aarhus, which is known for its you know, high, high level of quality. It’s a nice, nice place. And I was lucky to be interning at that time. And I was actually hired as a staff photographer right after I graduated. And I was there for 10 years, and probably the best job in the world, not only because Politiken is such a nice place, but you know, just being a photographer, having a camera around your neck is a universal tool to open up people’s lives and places where no one else can go. So, I was really, really lucky to be part of this quite big department, which is, it still is actually. We have eight staff photographers, we have three interns, we have five photo editors, we have an archive with more than 25 million images that are still working. So, and we kept, you know, there’s a stagnation, no one was fired, no one was, you know, put away, maybe a few but, you know, compared to how photo departments around the world have struggled within the last years, we’re still an important part of the business. And because of that, I decided to, when I was asked 11 years ago, or now 12 years ago, if I wanted to try this job as a picture editor, and I said, If not now, then it would be never, and I’m so, so happy that I did. Even though I left the best job in the world, I think I achieved the second best job in the world.
David Campbell: I mean, one of the things that’s interesting about photo editors is that there is rarely a specific training in editing. And it’s often for— it’s quite common for photographers to move from being photographers to move into editing. What sort of skills do you think you’ve developed as a photographer that were highly relevant to being the photo editor for that team? What sort of skills did you transfer from one to the other?
Thomas Borberg: I think that the the main thing is actually that, that being a photographer at that place, not not anywhere, but being a photographer with the Politiken, on a daily basis we have created a language about photography. And I think it’s very important that if you have to convince another editor, or another journalist, why this image is more important than this one, or even better, you need to be able to put words on photography, and you need to be able to talk about why something worked out well and other jobs or something didn’t. So, you know, by creating a language you are able to talk about and develop your own photography and also the department’s approach to photography. So you know, the language about photography I think is really important. And by that, also saying that we have a department where, where we share everything, you know, even though we have, you know, World Press winners, Mads Nissen, Jacob Ehrbahn, different amazing photographers, they show their raw files, or, you know, share their concerns, questions. So we have this talk about, you know, how to become better or how to, you know, tell stories in the best way.
David Campbell: Yeah. How would you describe your major responsibilities as photo editor? You know, what were the primary things that you had to take responsibility for? How did you organize them? How did you work with the staff photographers?
Thomas Borberg: I think the most important thing is the story, not the photographers. So, you know, but working in a place where we, where we seek the best stories, where we use curiosity, and where you can facilitate the best way for photographers to work, you know, give time and space and money, connect with the good skilled journalists, so we get the best output of the good ideas that they get. But of course, it’s a story that comes first.
David Campbell: And in Politiken was it— did the photo editor, conceive of stories, look for issues and so on? Or were you responding to the the written journalism side? What was the relationship between those making visuals and those reporting on particular stories?
Thomas Borberg: I don’t know if Politiken is a very special place, but I think we have like a— we divide our journalistic tools into like the written words, articles, text, news, graphic, drawings and photography. And very early in the stage we did we decide which tool we should pick to tell the story the best way. So, often we have, you know, photographers and journalists and graphic layout people working together for the, you know, for the best result. So, I think, you know, we have we have this tradition about not just using photographs every time but use it when it’s the best way to tell the story. So, we have this equal value between these so on a daily basis it is, of course, a compromise, to get the stories told in the best way. But then we also have this feeling about what will work best and will respect the choices that the editors and everyone does.
David Campbell: And what do you think is photography’s major contribution to storytelling as a journalistic format when you’re sitting there as a photo editor and debating with other journalists and so on? What is it about the visual image that is distinctive, as opposed to other journalistic medium?
Thomas Borberg: Of course, it’s speed, that we read the image for the story, but as you know, it’s so fast that we change what we see into feelings and emotions in our mind and body. But it’s not only a privilege we have as storytellers it’s actually a tool that maybe that most of the photographers attending now are taking for granted, you know, because images create the same impression of things that are going on. So, it gives us tools in democracy to get information and knowledge about the life that we are living from which we can make decisions and that’s the most important thing in democracy. So, without you know, being you know, doing something really, really religious, photography is the basic tool to understand the time we’re living in and afterwards. It’s the fundament, you know that, then the future generation will understand this time because showing an image, it’s much easier to understand what we actually see than sharing words. So, if I ask everyone to think about a big truck on a parking lot, everyone will think about different parking lots. Is it day or night? Is the truck from the front, from the side, is it blue, is it red, is this parking lot empty? Is in front of the supermarket, you know. Just by showing, just flip an image for half a second, everyone will know exactly what we’re talking about. And knowing, you know, that how strong images are communicating, we need to make a wise decision and create a, you know, editing reality in a way that people can absorb it and make their own decision.
David Campbell: Yes. And when you say an example, like a truck in a parking lot, of course, in our own minds, we’re immediately to understand that we’re actually immediately constructing an image itself. I was recently in the United States, so I’m starting to put together a very large truck, you know, at a truckstop or something, but if I had been somewhere else, something else might have been prompted. But that point is all based on constructing an image and so on.
Thomas Borberg: And we should know that people are, you know, people are thinking visual, every, every time, you know, all every day, because if I asked you to think about the word hospital, it’s not the letters hospital, it’s immediately images. It’s the smell of medicine, it’s you know, it’s the sound of the bleeping machines in a hospital. You know, it’s things that actually, we react on emotionally. It’s not the letters hospital. And as a photographer, we should know that, that we should try to find those small spots of sounds and feelings that we can capture and pass on to the viewers of our images.
David Campbell: Now, despite the importance of the visual and despite the importance of all those things that you’ve just discussed, in terms of the media industry worldwide, it’s under pressure. And there have been lots of layoffs, there’s been lots of cutting back, fewer resources and so on, though, it seems like Politiken with a number of staff photographers has been able to protect that. I mean, how do you view the media industry, you know, in a global sense? What do you think the state of the industry is? And how do you think photography is or isn’t surviving or prospering within the industry?
Thomas Borberg: For many years, I think it has been really, really bad to see that it was, you know, whole departments was put down or people was fired, photographers fired. But, recently, we had this conference from the photographers union in Denmark, and three photographers was invited to the stage to tell us about, you know, they’re all— they’ve been at the School of Journalism, and always they’re all photojournalists. But they got new jobs in different positions, not in newspapers as as we used to, but different places. So, maybe there’s a change right now that we don’t only talk about the importance of visual storytelling, but that we are actually hired as storytellers. So, what we should do now, use this new wave, maybe, and do a really good job. I think we’re still in experimental time, so if we do with this job bad, you know, if we can’t compete with traditional journalists, then we will lose. But if we create a new need for photojournalism and I think that’s possible, actually, I think there will be room for us also in the future. But it’s, of course, it’s really sad to see that whole departments are put down and there’s a, you know, lack of money everywhere. But I think we have to, you know, to look for new ways.
David Campbell: You said the three photographers have gotten positions in other organizations. What sort of organizations were hiring people to do visual stories?
Thomas Borberg: But it was in a big company, they’re doing some plantation or something. They wouldn’t normally not use a photojournalist. There was one, he was hired by a city to do something about recycling, to make visual storytelling about recycling because it’s a new thing, you know, climate stories, but this city hired him just to do that. So, no, he’s not working at the local newspaper. But he’s still working in the city. So, I think you know, there are small holes of glimpse of hope out there for maybe not the business as news business, but photographers as a business.
David Campbell: It was interesting at the beginning, you showed us the print version of Politiken and said it’s very much a print newspaper, but presumably it has a digital presence as well. What’s the balance between print and digital for Politiken? And what are the differences from the photo editor’s perspective of choosing images for print versus choosing images for digital?
Thomas Borberg: There was a big change, also, within the last, you know, 10 years at Politiken, because we used to have one deadline, and one big image, and it was— if it was less than six columns, you know, the photographers would explode, Oh, you can’t have it, if it’s two columns, you’ll never have it, I’ll never send it to you, you know, but now really furious. But now we need to, you know, have it in a small wide crop, you need to have a vertical, horizontal, you need to do, you know, so many different things. You need to add video. But that’s a transition, you know. It’s a development that you can’t work against. But I think you have to get the best out of it. And also see the opportunities and possibilities in the new digital format—now it’s not new anymore— in the digital format. So, instead of you know, fighting against it, and say the paper was better, and in many ways, it was. Also new, many new ways that we can actually tell the story. And as a part of the, you know—all the photographers in Politiken have been, you know, educated, so they can now use all our digital machines to create stories that they believe are told in the best way, so that instead of seeing them as competitors, they tell stories in a very different way. And of course, with Mads Nissen’s 10 pages in the written paper edition, he can add sound or video in a digital edition. And it’s just two different ways to do and I think you have to see the possibilities, instead of just talking about what you lose compared to the good old days. And it is two different ways of storytelling, but even the digital world, you know, desktop is this format, mobile is this format. And we have 40% on mobile. So, we need to make, you know, mobile storytelling, as well. And we have to think about the desktop, it’s often, it’s two different pictures. So, as a photographer, you really have to think about how you want to you your story to be told at the end, and work with that from the beginning.
David Campbell: And were you assigning as editor? Were you assigning people to shoot stories specifically for digital and specifically for print, or was the photographer shooting the story with a number of different assets that would then be used either in print or digital?
Thomas Borberg: Normally will say you need to tell the story the best way, and sometimes it’s using video. And sometimes it’s just still. Normally it would just be still, except if we agree on something else. But we have, it wasn’t last year, some years ago, one of our most famous musicians died. And one of our churches played the most famous song using the bells. And we had a photographer and a journalist person just close to the church while the song was playing the bells. But they didn’t make a video. And I was furious because they could make a really beautiful article about how it sounded and how people reacted. And they did still photography. And it was like, you know, brain fart because of course, everyone just wanted to know how that sounded using the bells. Right? And for me, you know, at that point, it wasn’t about quality. It was about timing it was about, Oh I just take my mobile phone and make the most steady addition of this and let’s see what will happen. But, you know, that was uh, it isn’t to hit a certain photographer in the head, but you know, just be able to divide and think about how the story is told the best way. So I don’t, we don’t have any demands that you have to deliver video, you know, I think it’s totally failure. Editors asking for charge for photographers to do both, I always say why. You know, if video is the best way, then make a video. If not, you just concentrate and focus on still photography.
David Campbell: With someone like Mads working in Ukraine on assignment, he’s shooting a story. Does he have to think about shooting in certain formats so it can be used on mobile or desktop as well as print or is that a process that’s undertaken back in the department with a photo editor and using crops and so on?
Thomas Borberg: With news in Ukraine, it’s he’s just, you know, take a lot of pictures and send it back home, and then we will make decisions. But I know that Mads and the journalist both are making a lot of instant videos telling about the journey. So, they think about video, they think about storytelling, and they’re using themselves—normally, we would just tell stories about the people that we meet. So, you know, it’s just using Instagram in a way where people get a feeling of the story in another way. So that’s also about picking the right tool at the right point, or telling the story in the best possible way. But we don’t have any demands. I can show you example from the newspaper that Mads, that Mads did.
David Campbell: And while Thomas is doing that, just a reminder to folks in the audience, any questions you have, drop them into the q&a box, we’ll bring them into the discussion or cover them at the end.
Thomas Borberg: So, this is, this is from Brazil. And you know, he’s using drones just to show how many graves that are prepared for people dying in San Paolo, and you could even see the city just behind. So he’s using video as a tool, as a beginning to make like kind of overview using his drone for that. And then it will just continue with, you know, still photography. So the photographs are, you know, doing something else than the video, so it’s an example of how you can use, you can use both.
David Campbell: And obviously, the photographer was was using these technologies in Brazil, but you and others in the department doing a photo editing and putting a story together, that’s where the crucial decisions are made. Is it fair to say that I mean, what’s the relationship between the photographer and the photo editor and the people back home as it were, and the story that comes out?
Thomas Borberg: You need to have a good relationship between the photographer and editor, and you need to work together on the final result. You know, competing, is really everyone will lose, I think. But of course, if Mads is submitting, like, you know, we’re sending back 30 images, we need to pick the best with 10 pictures. But I know that the editor from the Sunday edition will say you have six pages, and the photo editor will say we need eight and Mads will say we will need 10 and the cover and the the front cover. And it will probably end that way. So, you know, you have to fight every day. But when you know you have, you know, quality material, or very important stories to tell, everyone agree that we need the best pictures and maybe we need to increase the amount of pages as well. So normally it will be, you know, we will work closely together between the— with the editors and the photographer.
David Campbell: And does working closely mean that you would show a first edit back to the photographer and they would comment on it or are those decisions only made by the photo editors?
Thomas Borberg: Actually I know for this Sunday edition Mads actually made some pre-layout that he mailed back home to the editor, just to show, you know, before he sent them, it was like raw material, that maybe we’ll make this combination or put these four together or stuff like that. So, you know, he knows about the whole process. So when he gives very specific examples, how it could look, you know, it’s a big help for the editor working, you know, back in Denmark.
David Campbell: And when you’re editing a story, like this sort of thing that Mads or someone else would send back, do you have some sort of visual principles or visual guidelines that you’re trying to follow in the sort of images that that you’re selecting?
Thomas Borberg: It depends on the story. And I think actually you need to have guidelines, but you need to break them often. Because if not it will kind of just, you know, repeat itself. And I think that’s the most scary thing that could happen, that people would know exactly what will be on the next page. So, I think you constantly need to change your approach to do new things or just do something you haven’t done before. But guidelines could be, we have this saying that we don’t want to see pictures of the people talking, we want to see pictures of what they’re talking about. And just by having a dogma like that, we avoid a lot of faces of white men between 40 and 60, experts having opinions about something very important. But just saying, Okay, can we make pictures or a story about what’s actually talking about? What is the topic? What is at stake? And can, you know, can we be present somewhere else than in with the minister of something or with the expert of something? So, that could be some kind of dogma.
David Campbell: Yeah. Is there something about— I mean, when you come, in particular, to choosing, say, a lead image or a cover image? So, you know, the first image in a slideshow or a cover image in print or whatever? Is there some sort of guideline or some sort of aesthetic quality that you’re thinking about when you’re looking at images and think, that would make a great cover? And if so, what is that quality?
Thomas Borberg: I can show you another example, because that would be showing this one, of course, because this is the picture that won World Press photo picture of the year, last year, yeah. And this is also made by Mads Nissen. And of course, when we saw this picture, we immediately could see the— not only the cover potential, but also the winning potential, because that was through Corona. And this is, you know, everyone was apart from each other, we couldn’t hug, we couldn’t do anything. People were dying all over the world. And Mads went to this house for elderly people and they had put in like a plastic curtain. So, the employees and the old people could talk for the first time in five months. And this is Rosa Lucia and Adriana hugging, and of course, when you see the potential, just, you know, this is so universal—this is in Brazil, but it’s a hug, we know how it is to you know, hug another person. We can see that the mask she is using, that it is kind of you know, it’s a Corona thing. Like three years ago, there was no masks anywhere. So you have the mask, you know, Corona is present just by the mask. And you have this hug with, which is such a nice feeling that we, most of us know how it feels. And then you have, you can ‘t see, you know, who’s hugging who, you know. They are equally hugging. So they both need this hug. It’s not only the older woman, but both of them. And then of course, this plastic, where they put Adriana, the big one, up, putting her arms into— it’s shaping the wings of an angel. And when you have an image like this, there’s so many different layers that when we saw this image for the first time, we could see that it was of course, a cover, but it was also, like, potential.
David Campbell: So what what was that—I mean, what was it that immediately made you think, cover image?
Thomas Borberg: Because it communicate so easily, we react immediately with our feelings. So, this is not, you know, it’s not an image for our brain. This is an image for our heart, our feelings, and immediately you react with feelings. So, and if you don’t see the wings of the angel, it’s still a beautiful image. It’s still an image of feeling, but all these different layers just add to the story. But, you know, and still, the plastic is, you know, putting a lot of questions that we can’t really answer right away. So it’s also a bit mysterious. So there’s so many different layers in this one. And I really, really like it. It’s part of, it was a part of the story with several pictures of people hugging, but none of them had this, you know, this special moment.
David Campbell: So, it’s an interesting combination, where on the one hand, it’s the simplicity of the image that immediately is striking. But it also has a complexity in the layers that you’re talking about.
Thomas Borberg: Yes, exactly.
David Campbell: And how it combines those two dimensions together. I’m wondering, Kent in the audience is asking— and this is a good question. Do you have some images from Ukraine issue that you showed up in print version? And wondering whether, if you can show some Ukraine images if you have them, if not, we’ll just discuss them and explain why some images from Ukraine are selected and are considered better than others. Because, of course, in the context of a war there, it’s important to document everything so, the photographers are taking a huge array of photos, and then a selection is being made. And we’re seeing a lot of destruction, we’re seeing buildings hit by missiles, etc, etc. Take us through some of the thinking that you would have done as a photo editor at Politiken about how to select images from a war zone like Ukraine.
Thomas Borberg: I think they have, like, different purposes. Because you need images to tell new stories where you need to, you know, they have a high value for a very short time. And then you need more, you know, feature stories with a less, less news value, but they are important for a very long time. And I think you need to balance those two very different approaches. Also, when you are out in the field shooting, but also editing afterwards, what kind of images do you want to show, but what kind of impact you want to make on people. So if you want to inform them, you know, news pictures can be really, really, really important. But if you want to leave a feeling, you might want to choose, or look with different eyes to the image. And of course, I know this is very old fashioned showing images this way, but I will do it anyway. But for me, this is, of course, an amazingly strong image because it’s the goodbye, we know that all the men are told to to stay in Ukraine and all the women and kids are leaving. And even though we can’t see the people behind the glass because of the humidity, you know, this is I think, this is an image that everyone would react to. Because this is, again, a universal feeling that we know how it is to leave. We know how hurtful it is to say goodbye to people that you love. And especially in this case where they don’t know if they will ever see you again.
David Campbell: Yeah.
Thomas Borberg: It’s such a touching picture because I think everyone can relate to this. Even though— if you’re a woman, or if you’re man, if you’re a kid, if it’s an old man, old woman, you know, everyone can relate to this image.
David Campbell: And I think there’s, in that image, the fact that you can’t make out the identity of the people gives it a wider quality as well, because it’s very interesting on that second page where the bar of the train window actually runs through the person’s eyes as though they’re being hidden by that. Then it could be anybody. It’s also quite close up. And is that so you know, that question of perspective, and closeness, and so on. Again, it sounds like there are not automatic guidelines and rules, obviously. But is that closeness, something that you’re looking for when you’re editing images in a story?
Thomas Borberg: I think you need variation. I think you need, you know, you need to have— normally, when you say a traditional, not with Ukraine, but normally on a feature story, you need five different images.
David Campbell: Right.
Thomas Borberg: You need a portrait. You need like a portrait environment where you get a feeling of the person, but also the surroundings. You need some kind of overview. Where are we? This is winter, summer, what time of day, stuff like that. So you get a full impression of what you’re seeing. Then you need some kind of detail shot. And then you maybe need some kind of activity, people are moving doing something. So, if you have like, if your story consists of these five different pictures, you would normally have a full body of work that outsiders would understand the context of.
David Campbell: So, it’s really the variation of those different perspectives and so on that is going to help put a story together.
Thomas Borberg: Yeah, I think if you only have like overview pictures, you will lose spontaneous emotions because it will be too far away. It will be more for the brain, things that you can see, but less to react on. If you only have faces, it will be—go through, you know, book section in New York Times with all the writers. So, I think you need to combine those so you get to feel that this is real people. And then some of them have names, and some of them are just part of the big group. Like this one that Mads did.
David Campbell: Yeah.
Thomas Borberg: But you have this, this one face that is so important for the story,
David Campbell: The child.
Thomas Borberg: To see the amount of people, there’s so many people fleeing here. But there’s just one face looking at us. And I think that we need, of course, we need the variation to understand, you know, how many people are actually affected by this, but also to get some kind of feeling about who are they actually. They have names. You know, they have sons and daughters and stuff like that. We need both. So, from an editor’s perspective, you need to find this balance to inform, but also to make people react.
David Campbell: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s a perfect parallel. And perhaps this is a connection between photography and videography. But a lot of videographers talk about getting the establishing shot to show the scene, and then a sequence of extreme close ups, close ups, medium, wide, and so on. And then when you edit, you’ve got all these assets to draw upon. Do you think that’s a parallel for photographing a story as well, to talk about perspective in that way?
Thomas Borberg: Yes, but I suggest you have to be aware, and then, you know, how you should tell the story, but sometimes, you know, just decide if you want a more conceptual approach and just make a decision and believe that it’s actually going to be fine. But of course, you have to meet, you know, you need rules or concepts, follow them, but also try to, you know, break them once in a while and try to rethink, or renew your, the way you you see the world. Otherwise, we’ll just, you know, copy ourselves all the time and that’s not very interesting. Not for us, not for the readers as well.
David Campbell: Exactly. Not for the audience. Obviously, you know, in a war like Ukraine, and conflict situations, the question always arises of what to do with graphic images of death and destruction. Did you encounter during your time being photo editor at Politiken these questions? And how did you think about whether to show a graphic image or not show a graphic image? What was the kind of thought process behind those issues?
Thomas Borberg: It’s not easy. And I think that even though you sometimes make decisions, you will find people that disagree. So, it’s not easy, but I know that in, I think it was 2001, we need to check the, change the ethics for showing images at Politiken, because Denmark went into war in Iraq. And before that, we were not allowed to show pictures of dead people.
David Campbell: At all?
Thomas Borberg: Not at all. And we made a new, you know, we made a new guideline or rule set because of that, because we couldn’t go, you know, we couldn’t tell stories about war without being able to show the most, the worst consequences of being there, you know, that you could actually get killed. We knew that soldiers would would be killed and we knew that they would, you know, they would kill someone else. So, so, we changed the guidelines. So we were actually able to do it, but not just because you can it doesn’t mean that you should. So you need to you know, discuss every time is this relevant. What are the alternatives? I know that we had this discussion, I think there was about 40 kids that was gassed in Homs.
David Campbell: Yes. In Syria.
Thomas Borberg: In Syria, and how should you show then there was used gas killing innocent kids without showing dead kids. And we ended up showing them, but not on the front page.
David Campbell: Right.
Thomas Borberg: So, we did, like, you know, there’s different ways you can do that. So, and we don’t want to be tabloid, but we want to tell the story about the world. Not only when it’s good, but also when it’s bad. We have a privilege to be storytellers, but we also have an obligation to be storytellers. Because if we only inform about new cooking books or a nice restaurant or theater place, you know, we’re not doing our job in the right way. So, but I think, I know for tomorrow’s front page it will be showing dead people. And I know that there was like a lineup of six different layouts with dead people that they could discuss at the meeting. You know, how can you show that so many people are actually getting killed right now in Ukraine without shouting out so loud, that people stop listening. So, you need to show images that inform also when it’s terrible, but not so strong, that people close their eyes. You know? You need to find that limit or that balance between. You need to go maximum I think, sometimes, but you know, it’s difficult because sometimes things are so important like the drowned boy, Alan, at the Turkish beach, the shore.
David Campbell: Alan Kurdi.
Thomas Borberg: Yeah. And he drowned. He was found dead. And that image went all around the world. But also because he had a name. But should, you know, should we bring that kind of image? Or should we not? Because it can create debate. At the same day, 40 people drowned out of the coast from Libya. And no one mentioned that with any, you know, not a word and not an image. So, suddenly, you have like this, everyone has, you know, got the same. Guardian has this front page. We all have to do that. New York Times, wow, they have the front page, we have to do the same. I think sometimes you just have to make your own decisions, breathe in down in the stomach, make a post and just, you know, make brave, important decisions after having really good discussions about what to do. And, you know, don’t be tabloid just because you can, that’s not the right way to go.
David Campbell: Is it still, even though Politiken now can show graphic images, and that guideline was changed, is it still rare for them to show graphic images of death? Or is it much more common?
Thomas Borberg: I think that there should be a very, very good reason to, to show that kind of images. But we do it once in a while.
David Campbell: Yes, tomorrow’s front page will be an exceptionally rare front page because what it’s showing?
Thomas Borberg: Yes.
David Campbell: Interesting. Could you draw on another one of the stories that you worked on as photo editor—you had some examples—and just talk us through a couple of decisions behind that story, and how the selection of images was made.
Thomas Borberg: Yeah, now, this has really changed, changing the topic from Ukraine. But we’ll go, we’ll go somewhere else. I want to show something from our cultural section. This is a Danish singer. And this is made from one of our interns. It is really you know, going from Ukraine to this part. Okay, just breathe. This is one of the very popular Danish singers and this was made by one of our interns called Emma. She’s not at Politiken anymore, but she was there and was really, really, really good. She made this old fashion, you know, paper copies. And did this story using colors, using the format of old prints.
David Campbell: Right.
Thomas Borberg: This is such a nice way to do a story about a professional pop singer. I like the photographic approach, but I also liked the layout. And they did that together, you know, taking the yellow from her shirt, knitwear and put it on the on the paper. And this is of course, made closer together with the layout people at the newspaper. But I liked the way to approach this. This could be you know, more like a classical top woman interview and that would be really, really boring. But now you have, you created a private family album with a small personal story.
David Campbell: Yeah, I was gonna say it’s like she has opened up a family photo album. And you can even see the plastic binding down the side, so, as those pages come out.
Thomas Borberg: Exactly. And I don’t know and it’s a funny thing because I just want more images and more images, even though it’s the same woman in all these images. I just want this to continue. This is a, this is really, really nice. This is another thing that really made a big impact. This is a, it’s 10 minute long but so I don’t want to show everything but this is a Jacob Ehrbahn. He’s been following, you know, refugees around, especially Europe for the last seven years. He did a beautiful book about how Europe is changing right now. But he put a GoPro on his helmet, and he went out to the Mediterranean to pick up refugees trying to flee from northern shores of Africa.
Thomas Borberg: I just wanted to show you this because I think it’s very good example that you don’t need a lot of equipment or tools to tell a good story. And just by, you know, what this video is, like 10 and a half minutes long, and it takes us to a scene where we would never go. And even though I see Jacob’s very few but amazing photographs from this place, the video kind of just give an x-ray impression of how it actually was out in the in the middle of nowhere. So, this is definitely example that, you know, just adding a small GoPro camera can then add a lot of extra to your story.
David Campbell: Indeed. I mean, it gives you a really unique perspective. When he arrives in that rubber dinghy on that scene with people floating in the ocean and some other boats, you appreciate the scale of it, both the number of people, but also the fact that they’re literally in the middle of nowhere in the ocean.
Thomas Borberg: Yeah. For me, this was a good, you know, and using this video and have Jacob’s strong voice and strong opinion and experience from this place. Just having his voice telling all about it, you know, people was just crying in the television when it was shown.
David Campbell: There’s a question from Ann in the audience. She wanted to know, the previous story, of the pop singer, that was in Politiken? I wonder if you could cut and paste the URL and drop it into the chat box?
Thomas Borberg: Yes. I’ll do that.
David Campbell: She can get to spend some more time with that.
Thomas Borberg: Yeah. I’ll do that. Just at the end.
David Campbell: Yeah. Okay, that sounds good.
Thomas Borberg: Can I show this one before?
David Campbell: Absolutely.
Thomas Borberg: Okay, because we have this area, with a lot of people with another ethnicity than Danish, living together in some kind of ghetto. And we have this amazing photographer Miriam Dalsgaard. And she always try to go beyond the average approach to areas like this, that’s dangerous, you know, violent problems. So, she found this hairdresser. And she did a story about hair, and about how all these different cuts have different names. And it’s so beautiful because it’s portraits of people. So it’s portrait of this area, you know, but it’s, it’s made with real people telling about their hair. And this is about, you know, creating new ideas, having a beautiful approach to, you know, to— so we, as a viewer can rethink our, you know, perspective to areas like this. This is, you know, we’re all biased about places. But I think when, as a photographer, you really have an obligation to go places and to tell stories that you think are important, but also in a new way. And I think that Miriam is so so good at so many different examples, samples of how she, you know, invent or see different stories. I like that. So for me, this is a very interesting example.
David Campbell: Yes, very original. Would she have pitched this to you as an idea that she had?
Thomas Borberg: Yeah, because you know, it’s a couple of hours driving from Copenhagen and if she need to, I think she went there three or four times because there was not always people in the barber shop. So, but, you know, it’s an easy one to sell, you know, I need to go to a barber shop three times. Is that possible? Yeah, you can just go. And there was no real deadline because, you know, it wasn’t for the Sunday, it could easily be published in two months. So this is one of the stories, you know, with actually a low news value. But it’s relevant for a very, very long time. That’s why I can show you this, it’s—
David Campbell: A low kind of spot news value, but a high cultural news value.
Thomas Borberg: Yeah.
David Campbell: And when you were working as the editor, how often would photographers come to you and pitch to you versus you assigning them? Was there any sense of that? Is that— did you prefer to work one way or the other?
Thomas Borberg: No, I think we’re depending on good journalism and good journalists that are, you know, have their maybe special area where they know people, they know what is going on. But I think we have a again, very nice tradition that we can also go the other way. So if a photographer has a really nice idea, we can go and you know, grab a journalist and say, Hey, I have this story. Can you help me make some words for this, maybe in the coming weeks? So, but often, it’s still very, you know, old fashioned in the way that the journalists have their own idea. And we try to illustrate that in the best way.
David Campbell: When a photographer comes to pitch to you, are there things that you liked? Or didn’t, you know, that you thought were the best way to pitch or not such a good way to pitch? What advice would you give people pitching to editors to make a successful pitch?
Thomas Borberg: You should know your customer. What kind of publication is it? Like, is it digital? Or is it print? And I talked with the picture editor at The Guardian, Fiona Shields, once and she said that she receives more than 200 emails per day. And even though you have you know, maybe you’ve been working as a photographer on this special long term project for six months, and you want to pitch it to her or someone else, you know, they have five seconds to make an opinion about that. So what I would suggest is that you make a PDF, or even better make, like copy paste the same as a PDF with a small pitch, very, very short pitch, and maybe three or four images. So you will make, you know, the editor curious about the project. And they can immediately see if it’s something that, you know, catches their interest. And then you can add something else. But you know, I receive a lot of emails with retransfer links, and you could go and see more and go to this PhotoShelter thing, and blah, blah, blah. And it’s not to be impolite, especially not to people that have been working for a long time on a project. But sorry, we don’t have the time for it. So, you have to think about how will it be received in the other end. And for persons like Fiona, it will be like deleting emails with this pace during the day. So, make it short, make it precise, and make it, why should she or me or someone else actually buy this? Why is the timing perfect right now? Why is this—you know, a lot of people are still writing to me, telling me I’m in Poland right now, which is really nice.
David Campbell: Yeah.
Thomas Borberg: But I have people in Poland, or we have people in Poland right now. So, they should be, you know, come up with something new, or something else. Or it’s not enough that they are present in Poland. So, but one PDF, or even better copy paste the PDF into the first page. And then how to reach you easily. Because the most important or the most, not important, especially not important, but the most busy editors, New York Times, National Geographic or even that decide, weekend newspapers, whatever, you know.
David Campbell: Yep.
Thomas Borberg: So, it’s not to be impolite. They’re just out of time.
David Campbell: No, it’s very practical. But if you’re sending links and asking the editor to do some work, you’re introducing points of friction that mean they won’t have time to go do it.
Thomas Borberg: They won’t even open it. Sorry.
David Campbell: Yeah.
Thomas Borberg: For every link that you add to an email the chances you will never be, you know, opened is, you know, higher.
David Campbell: So, easy access, upfront, short, with contact details also right there so that if they want to call or email they can do so straightaway.
Thomas Borberg: And I know for sure also because sometimes I really tried to reply to everyone that actually submitted something to me. And I know that a lot of photographers was surprised and said, wow, thank you for actually answering me. So, I know for sure that a lot of editors, maybe they don’t even see it, but if they see it, maybe they don’t reply, just try again. And if you really think the story is amazingly good, or very, very important, you need to write again to say, I tried, maybe you didn’t see it, maybe it just, you know, slipped through all the other emails, but please, this is so important, you need to look it up.
David Campbell: I know you’re very busy, but I’d really like you to have one more look, if possible, if you make it easy for them to have their look.
Thomas Borberg: So you know, if you call them they will probably be occupied anyway, so I think sending an email makes them actually, you know, reply when they have time. If you call them? I think you should know the editor in advance to call them.
David Campbell: Yeah, yeah. So we’re coming towards the end of our time. We still have a bit more time for questions in case anyone in the audience wants to drop questions into the q&a box. I’ve got one hard question for you, Thomas, which is what makes a photographer stand out to you? Is there, again, it won’t be the same thing for everyone, but you know, if someone’s approaching in the right way and putting those images so that you can see them? Or perhaps you’re also looking on Instagram or wherever else, what makes a photographer stand out, what makes work count as good so that it stands out.
Thomas Borberg: I think it of course, it’s about storytelling, you need to find an important story to tell. Because if it’s just about photographic technique, or flash or something like that, personally, I don’t find that very interesting. Once you know, I saw the Johanna-Maria Fritz, the story, the like a birth story. Well, she did stories about circus in Muslim countries. And I saw that pitch and I was like, you know, blown away. Not only because it was such an interesting story, but because it was also very well told, you know, photographically. So you need, you need to be present, you need to have a really good story. You need to have your own approach. I don’t care if it made with a, you know, mobile phone or pinhole camera, if it’s a good story, and it’s well-told and you have, there’s something at stake, you know. What is this story about? Why should I read this? And if you’re actually such a good photographer, you know, you make something special, then you would automatically stand out. So, I think, you know, we’re back to the beginning, you know, you have to create a language about photography. So, you get your own personal language, and that you can convince other people why this story is so damn interesting, and why they should publish it, or share or do something else. So a good idea, not only conceptual approach, okay technical skills and then editing, I see an awful lot of bad editing. And you can also, you know, ask for help from colleagues, or journalists, or, you know, other photographers to help the editing process. And I’m a bit, I think it’s a bit weird that so many photographers, you know, stay with the material by themselves, you know, keep it, like, hide it, instead of just open, you know, to get advices and, and actually just make the story even better.
David Campbell: Right. And by good editing here for a presentation and a pitch. I imagine that you’re referring to that variation that you were talking about earlier, in terms of the types of images from establishing the place to the portrait to the, and the variety of things.
Thomas Borberg: Yeah.
David Campbell: Is that what you mean by good?
Thomas Borberg: Also, it’s very simple storytelling. Like, why is this, why is this story interesting, but also, you know, why are those specific images picked for this story? You know, when I was in World Press, you know, that, you know, we saw some amazing story that was so bad edited, even though we could see that this story could have been very fine, the editing, just, we just needed to throw it out. And so sometimes we you know, we were so sad that we needed to throw out a good story with actually very good images, because it was badly edited. So, I think the editing thing is actually more important than people tend to think.
David Campbell: Yeah. And editing in most cases like this. I mean, you’re absolutely right about the juries. That was probably the most common comment that juries had is, I like that frame. I like that frame, but I don’t understand the sequence, the editing is terrible. And when you’re in a category called stories, you need to be able to have a sequence and a narrative.
Thomas Borberg: So, ask for help. Ask colleagues. Ask me, you know, I think I really like to do that, but I think it’s very important that people, you know, share their failures.
David Campbell: Well, I’m going to say that I think that maybe that’s one of the most important pieces of advice on editing is to ask for help and collaborate with someone, because it’s very hard to do yourself on your own work, I imagine. I mean, do you edit— I mean, you are probably a little different, because you have 11 years experience as a photo editor and now you’re back photographing. So you can probably edit your own work, but do you find it easy to edit your own work? Or is it a thing?
Thomas Borberg: No. So, I ask, I often ask our interns, actually, because they have like a younger, you know, vision. And their visual voice is, they’re not as routined as I am, but they are, you know, they’re young. So I often asked them about music, you know, how to get inspiration from music and from photography. And I love to ask them.
David Campbell: Interesting. A question from Ted, which I think is a good one. I mean, as an editor, you will be approached by people that you do know, and you don’t know. So, you know, people with big reputations, whose names you know, you probably know them personally, and someone that you’ve never met, and they’re cold calling you and so on. Does the person you know or the person with the larger reputation stand a better chance than the unknown person? And if so, how is the unknown person going to break through a little bit?
Thomas Borberg: I have to be honest, and say, yes, a person with a higher reputation has an easier access to the, you know, to Pollitiken. Your own Ilvy is a good example because like 30 pages from her Born Free project from South Africa were published in Politiken. And I knew her work in advance. So, I think she probably wouldn’t have had 30 pages, you know, just coming out of nowhere. But at the same time, Joanna-Maria, which is a very good example, that I didn’t know her work at all before. And it was one of the best stories. I’m so happy that we published it because I was so happy that she wrote me. So, you know, it’s also about timing. Because, you know, maybe we just published a story about circus three weeks ago. And now we, you know, even though it’s even better than the one we published three weeks ago, we can’t buy and publish a news story about circuses around the world. Just an example. So, sometimes it’s about timing. Sometimes it’s about, you know, different things. But you shouldn’t stop contacting places where you want your stories published, just because you don’t know them in advance. And if you have, if you get in contact with an editor that reject your work, maybe you can ask why.
David Campbell: Yes.
Thomas Borberg: Say because this is actually the best I’ve ever done. I’ve worked on this project for three years. Can you give me just, you know, two clues how to continue, or why you didn’t want to publish my work? Maybe editors don’t have time for that. But I tried to sometimes explain why I’ve rejected stories even though I found them. Interesting.
David Campbell: Yeah. And given you’ve been on both sides of the fence as photographer and editor did your photographic style affect the way you edited and did the way you edit affect what you’re shooting in stories now? What’s the relationship between those two?
Thomas Borberg: Actually, I tried as an editor to be more, to be very open also to photography that I wouldn’t understand from my perspective. But I tried not to be very photojournalistic, but very wide in my opinion about photography, also about things that I didn’t understood. And I think that’s a very important role as a picture editor is not to narrow down things that could be interesting for others, other than myself. And of course, what I see affects me I have like, photo books.
David Campbell: Yes. Extensive library.
Thomas Borberg: So, of course, I try to be, you know, and get inspiration from someone else. And also to follow all the [inaudible] and all the rules I tried to teach our students for the last, you know, 11 years. I had more than 50 students, and they will know all my stupid guidelines. And now I try to follow them and it’s not easy. I know that. And it’s really difficult to be a photographer. I realize that.
David Campbell: So, last thing to ask you, what would be the single worst thing a photographer could do onapproaching an editor, and what’s the single best thing they could do? What’s the what’s the number one do? And the number one don’t for a photographer approaching an editor?
Thomas Borberg: Yeah. Actually, you could ask them, How do I approach you best? If it’s a Danish photographer, and it’s a person that I don’t know, I would normally say, drop by for a cup of coffee, then we can meet in person and I can see your work, right? That’s the best, because then you get a relation. And the relation is, could be important. But also if it’s in like an international, like, how do you approach your best? Do you want me to make like a zoom talk or do you just want an email or something like that? So you know, but a long like, three pages long email, a copy paste with WeTransfer links—
David Campbell: The worst, the worst thing.
Thomas Borberg: I think it’s a no go.
David Campbell: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Thomas Borberg: But it’s not only about going to editors. You should go to portfolio reviews, you should go to book launches, you should go and make relations. Go to Perpignon, to the big photo festival Visa pour l’image in September, because it’s also about relations. You will meet a lot of editors there. And then, you know, pick those, you know, the two most important editors for you, try to make appointments with them. Know exactly— what if you have like, three minutes? What would you like to show them in three minutes? And that should be your professional approach.
David Campbell: Yeah. So, act in person as the same way you are going to make a pitch on email. Don’t waffle, don’t give links in person, get straight to the point with images to show.
Thomas Borberg: And from the beginning, the editor is not there to edit your story. You should edit yourself. That’s also important. Maybe they can help you edit it after they, you know, decided to publish it. But you know, the first impression shouldn’t be like, a garbage bin full of, you know, all your raw material without any decision made at all.
David Campbell: Excellent.
Thomas Borberg: But, you know, there’s light out there, it will be fine. But you know, you have to meet people, you have to create relations. You have to, you know, let them— use Instagram. I use Instagram a lot.
David Campbell: Okay, we’re coming towards the end of our time. Adrian was just asking for clarification on the festival you just mentioned. Adrian, it’s in Perpignon in the south of France. It’s called Visa pour l’image. It’s a photojournalism organized festival. There are a lot of others which hopefully post-COVID will come back. I would give a big shout out to anyone who was in Southeast Asia for Photo Kathmandu, which has happened every couple of years, which is an amazing festival and an amazing place to go. Angkor Wat, which is a good festival to go to. Also in France, Rencontres d’Arles, so that’s in the town of Arle in the south of France. And that covers a very broad range of photography and Arles, it’s becoming something of a photo center. But yeah, check out festivals like that. Chobi Mela in Bangladesh happens every couple of years. Again, hopefully these things will come back in some form post- COVID. But there are some some very good opportunities to meet and see work and see editors and make those connections.
Thomas Borberg: So—
David Campbell: Sorry, just to say something we may do on Insider at some point actually when festivals come back is actually list which are the good ones and recommendations and so on. There’s probably some others that you know, Thomas, that I haven’t mentioned. What other festivals would you suggest?
Thomas Borberg: There’s so many, just to say it depends, you know. You can go to the Hamburg portfolio review in September. You can go there. They have various amazing photo festivals in Norway. Maybe you can even work, you know, as a volunteer and then get in for free or even though it’s quite expensive in Norway. You know, try to find your way in, but you need— it’s your own responsibility to create relations and to seek for festivals and inspiration. If you just wait at home that someone will call you, I think you should maybe look somewhere for another job.
David Campbell: Yes. That’s a very good piece of advice to end on. Thomas, time for us to wrap up. I really want to thank you for your time today. It’s been fantastic. Lots of practical advice, lots of insight. Just what we’re looking for in this series. Thank you very much.TThank you for having me.
David Campbell: You’re very welcome.
Thomas Borberg: What a pleasure and good luck out there, everyone.
David Campbell: Yeah, see you soon in person, I hope.
Thomas Borberg: See you soon. Take care.
David Campbell: Bye.
Thomas Borberg: Bye bye.