4 questions with Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel, associate photo editor at National Geographic

March 16, 2017
Category: Newsletters

This profile initially appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel fell in love with photography in college, had a moment where she thought she was going into development work, but then came back to work in documentary film and photography. She co-founded a local photo salon hosted in her Brooklyn home, which brought together a community of emerging and established (mostly) photographers of color to commune, critique and look at photography.

(A lot of cool shit happened in between.)

Today she works at the intersection of visual media, fine art and social justice. She is currently an associate photo editor at National Geographic magazine.

Related Training: Eyetracking Photojournalism

She knows what’s happening. She knows what’s good. And she knows how to bring people together.

Which is why I thought she was the perfect voice to expand on advocating for diversity in the visual world. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What happens when there are less women photographers and/or less photographers of color represented? What effect does that have on the images we see?

I think we see more oversimplified stories and images. Women make up half the world’s population, and the majority of people globally are non-White. Why aren’t there more of us telling our own (and others’) stories? Everyone, of course, embodies multiple identities and attributes beyond their gender or ethnicity and regardless of either of those things, I think anyone who spends enough time with a story can tell a story with nuance and compassion.

I think the danger of helicoptering into a complicated situation is that there is often a significant power dynamic and cultural gap that can lead to visual oversimplification or exotification. Not to mention a desire and expectation for a certain kind of image of what war, disaster or poverty look like. And that’s a trap that any photographer, editor or reader can fall into — male, female, Black, White. If we ask complex questions, we have to retrain ourselves for complicated answers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on why women and photographers of color aren’t better represented.

I think the obvious answer is that media organizations, even though they’ve made movements to become more diverse, ultimately aren’t the most diverse places. White male writers tend to quote White male experts. Our social and professionals circles can be quite narrow and that determines who we call and who we reach out to when we are on deadline.

People tend to hire and work with folks they already know, trust and are comfortable with. It’s a risk for you as an editor to hire a new photographer.

National Geographic magazine has a very strong visual voice. But, that voice has largely been cultivated by White men. How do you begin to bring new voices into the fold?

It’s many layers of unpacking legacy. Most photo agencies are still dominated by the usual suspects — White men. Internally in our photo department,  it’s pretty balanced between male and female photo editors, but there’s room for improvement in terms of racial diversity.  On a day-to-day basis, people here are excited to see and work with new photographic voices and while the Geographic has added quite a few new photographers to its roster in the last decade, we are still working towards greater racial and ethnic diversity.

At the end of the day, for the photographers and for us as editors, it’s the work that determines if a photographer is considered for an assignment. But knowledge of a subject matter, journalistic skills, ease of communication are all important too. It’s a balance of all those dynamics.

This industry is so relationship-based, so it’s a calculated risk when we work with anyone new. At National Geographic, it’s a different lift and budget than a newspaper assignment. We are really pushing the photographer to lead more than they they may be used to. We are expecting the story to be a collaboration and, for a magazine story, we want them to think about visual storytelling and hitting a variety of notes in the 10-15 images that will be published.

But there is open dialogue internally about cultivating more relationships with the women and photographers of color whose work we like and who we think are at the right place in their career and practice that a long-term assignment will be successful for both them and us.

How can non-visual digital leaders be advocates for increasing representation for photographers and topics of coverage?

I think it’s never just one person’s decision to hire a woman or a person of color who’s the right person for the job. I have to have the support of my boss, who has to have the the support of her boss, who has to have the support of her boss. If you get to make these decisions in a vacuum then more power to you.

But supporting your staff in taking risks on young and emerging photographers is a huge step. And then informal mentorships or formal internships are very helpful and eventually the network grows.

These are things that aren’t going to happen passively. It’s active.

Educate yourself about issues of race and gender. If you’re not sure where to look, ask a colleague who’s plugged in to share articles with you. And it’s not just photographers, it’s writers, it’s editors. If you have a diverse team working on a story — the more perspectives in that room — the stronger your story will be. It’s not a one time deal — it’s a constant hustle. It takes intent, a steady commitment and talking about it openly and honestly amongst your staff.