CNN launched their photography blog in November 2011. From showcasing photo-essays around the world, this broadcast network’s photo blog writes about powerful photo-driven stories and a behind-the-scenes look at emerging and established photographers. Recently Blink’s Sahiba Chawdhary chatted with CNN Digital Senior Photo Editor Elizabeth Johnson about CNN’s photography department. Elizabeth joined CNN in 2011 where she helped their photo department grow rapidly with social media engagement. She has helped triple the number of @CNNPhotos followers in the past few years.
Sahiba: Tell us about yourself and what you do at CNN.
Elizabeth: I’m a Sr. Photo Editor for CNN Digital and supervise the photo department at the Atlanta headquarters. I helped launched the CNN Photos blog in November 2011 and edited photography for the CNN iPad app when it launched earlier that year. Now, I coordinate daily news coverage and assign photographers to long form feature stories. I also run the @CNNPhotos Twitter account manage our Throwback Thursday franchise and occasionally write for the CNN Photos blog.
Sahiba: Does CNN assign freelancers to shoot photo or video stories?
Elizabeth: We work closely with our enterprise writers who create long-form stories. We hire freelance photographers for their stories to do anything from portraits to reportage to still life, and the occasional video. This year, we’re also doing a lot of original work on elections, CNN-hosted debates and conventions.
Sahiba: What role does photography play at CNN?
Elizabeth: Photography is incredibly important because we’re a broadcast company. CNN does video and television so well that we’re at the top of it in a lot of ways. Photography tells complementary stories, often quicker. And to be honest, our audience loves photography and will spend minutes looking at it. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but in the age of gifs and multi-tasking, three minutes on one URL is saying something!
Sahiba: Tell us about the CNN Photo Blog, how it got started and what kind of work you are focused on publishing.
Elizabeth: The CNN Photos Blog began as a way for CNN to show that we care about photography. I remember sitting in meetings and discussing what it should be and we all agreed— it should be important photography. That’s it. We’re open and interested to any type of photography, about any subject, from any era. And so is our audience!
Sahiba: What is the best way to pitch stories to CNN?
Sahiba: Are you looking for anything specific in the coming months? Are you open to pitches from freelancers on Blink?
Elizabeth: We’re always looking for interesting angles off the news. And yes! I get pitches from Blink members and I always look at everything I get, even if sometimes it might take me some time to get back. Like most photo blogs these days, we are looking to be the first outlet to publish a story.
Sahiba: Any new projects that you and your team are currently working on?
Elizabeth: Most recently, as you can imagine, we have elections and debate features coming up on the CNN Photo Blog in 2016. We did these beautiful portraits of the Republican and Democratic candidates with Nigel Parry at the first two CNN debates, and had Vincent Laforet rig seven cameras in the Venetian Theater in Las Vegas. Some of our election work is going on display at the Newseum in D.C. in April.
Outside of the election, CNN photo department has recently commissioned work on Gun violence, the American Dream, a rape survivor and MLK’s neighborhood. On the photo blog, we’ve published work on everything from arctic researchers to bear dancers.
Sahiba: What best practices should freelancers follow before, during and after a shoot?
Elizabeth: Ask questions before. Make sure you understand the assignment and the direction your editor is giving you. Know about your subject, do your own research before you go. If you find that something isn’t as you expected during the shoot, don’t wait until the end of the day to bring it up. I’d rather know that there’s a problem when there’s time to fix it.
For me, in news, it is imperative that I have caption information. I can’t tell you how often I have to ask for that more than once. So know what your editor is expecting from you and be sure to deliver.
Sahiba: CNN Photos has grown a strong social media presence in the past few years – what kind of strategies did you use to achieve that growth?
Elizabeth: Social media can be a tricky beast, and I’ve tried a lot of trial and error when posting. For @CNNPhotos, it’s about knowing the audience and catering to what they’re interested in, if that’s information, stats, or beautiful photography. And we always post with a picture — you might be surprised how much additional engagement that earns.
Sahiba: How do tools like Blink help your team at CNN Photos? Are there any other tools you are using for sourcing great content and talent?
Elizabeth: For the blog, Twitter, Facebook, Blink and Visura are great resources. I also follow a lot of people and agencies on Instagram. For assignments, I have a roster of photographers, but sometimes I just web search. I do wish more people would include where they’re based on their websites. I think photographers are afraid they will be overlooked if they aren’t in the city where the shoot is, and with budget cuts that’s possible. But I was recently looking for a photographer already in the area for an assignment. I was on a tight deadline and I closed out of half a dozen websites that didn’t have locations available. It was a bummer.