Taylor Le, Pacific Standard Creative Director, On Finding and Hiring Photographers

May 4, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

When Pacific Standard won the American Society of Magazine Editors Award for best feature photography earlier this year, the recognition brought attention to the outstanding photography in a magazine many people had never heard of before. PDN talked to creative director Taylor Le about Pacific Standard’s redesign in 2016 and the photography she assigns. Before joining Pacific Standard, Le was a freelance art director working on special edition issues and books for several Time Inc. publications. She spent almost nine years as group art director at Source Interlink Media, where she worked on several magazine launches and helped build photo departments. She was also senior art director at Runner’s World. Her design has earned her awards from Folio:, Society of Publication Designers and MIN.

Taylor Le.

Taylor Le
Creative director

Pacific Standard
801 Garden St., Suite 101
Santa Barbara, CA 93101


PDN: What’s the editorial mission of Pacific Standard, and who are its readers?
Taylor Le: Pacific Standard is a nonprofit social justice magazine based in Santa Barbara, California. We focus on education, the environment, and social and economic justice and our audience is well read, highly educated. We’re committed to telling stories that matter and getting information out there that is valuable to the public. We want to reach everyone, but our ultimate goal is to reach policy makers.

PDN: Are the readers visually sophisticated?
TL: think so. Before the redesign [in summer 2016], it was more like a journal. When you opened the magazine, it was nonstop text. When we decided to do the redesign, we wanted equal amounts of text and photography. We redid everything from how the content is organized to how it’s paced and how the photography is incorporated. My dream was to have a book that people could keep on their table forever.

PDN: What percentage of the photography you use is commissioned, and what percentage is existing work that you license? Are the percentages the same on the website?
TL: About 80 percent of the book is commissioned exclusively and 20 percent is licensed to fill the smaller departments. Online is a different beast because it moves so quickly, with so much new content on a daily basis. I’d say the percentage is flipped when it comes to web.

PDN: Congratulations on your American Society of Magazine Editors photography award [awarded to “Adrift,” a photo essay by Francesco Zizola].
TL: Thank you. I’m over the moon and so proud of my team, Francesco and NOOR. Can you believe it—this was our first photo essay, ever. And on top of that, it debuted in our newly redesigned July/August 2016 print issue.

When [Executive Editor] Jennifer Sahn joined us a couple of months before the redesign, we had shared similar thoughts and desires to tell stories through impactful imagery and Nick Jackson, the editor-in-chief, made this happen by carving out a chunk of space for us to work with.

Jennifer and I knew a photo essay section was something we wanted in the redesign. We were both fans of [photo collective] NOOR, so we reached out to them. Originally we wanted to commission something exclusive, but they have so much work in progress that hasn’t been published before. We went through Francesco Zizola’s photo essay [on the European refugees]. I knew it was meant to be when I saw the portrait of refugees wrapped in [thermal Mylar] at golden hour. My heart was instantly lifted. It was so simple, so delicate, so hopeful.

PDN: You seem to work with a variety of photographic styles and genres.
TL: I like to surprise the audience. I think when people pick up a magazine like this, they expect documentary-style photography. But my past experience with automotive, fitness and entertainment magazines has taught me to widen my palette. There’s so much talent out there and so many ways you can push photographers creatively. There’s a way to work with a variety of styles and still keep the book cohesive.

Photo © Sam Kaplan. Layout © Pacific Standard

A look at the makings of the Impossible Burger, photographed by Sam Kaplan and styled by Victoria Granof. Photo © Sam Kaplan. Layout © Pacific Standard

PDN: You also assign conceptual images. How do you plan those?
TL: The editors here are great, and they get me the stories way ahead of time. I’ll take notes and highlight words, and then I start sketching. Sometimes I’ll pull reference images just to see if I’m on the right track, and to use like a mood board. Then we’ll start looking for photographers and talk about how to surprise our readers.

We did a story on the Impossible Burger. It’s a 100 percent plant-based patty that bleeds like real meat. We wanted not only to shoot the burger, but to show how all these vegetables mix together to make this meat-looking thing. We talked it out with [photographer] Sam Kaplan and sent over some of my concept sketches. Initially, we had thought of showing grass being fed into a meat grinder, but the editor suggested we show all the ingredients. That’s when the stylist, Victoria Granof, explained how she could source the ingredients and make it look amazing.

PDN: What are some of the ways that you find new photographers?
TL: In general, I’m constantly paying attention to my surroundings—ads, billboards, whose work is being featured on the latest iPhone commercial, who’s shooting for my favorite magazines, not so favorite magazines, new magazines and foreign magazines.

My two favorite search tools by far, however, are Instagram and Pinterest. I don’t have much time in a day and something like Instagram or Pinterest has evolved the way I search and cast. I love quick, visual hits. One “#” or an “@” sign can lead to a gold mine of talent.

Photo © Yadid Levy

Yadid Levy photographed Sandra, an orangutan who was declared a “non-human person” entitled to certain legal rights in a recent court case. Photo © Yadid Levy

PDN: Who are some photographers you’ve worked with recently?
TL: Yadid Levy photographed Sandra, an orangutan in Argentina that was granted non-human rights. Yadid shoots fashion and travel. I found him when I was looking for photographers in the region and I noticed he lived in Israel and Argentina.

Lee Jeffries photographed elderly homeless people for our issue on the homeless. That issue was very people-oriented, and I didn’t want a [standard] portrait on every page. I did a search on Instagram. Lee is based in London, and had done portraits [of homeless people]. What stood out to me is their detail and their grittiness. I said, “Can you shoot [close ups of] old homeless people for me, and focus on their wrinkles and details of their face?” Jennifer, our executive editor, and I are copying links and sending them to each other a lot. Eirik Johnson is someone we’d wanted to work with for a while. He’s more of a nature photographer but that’s what made this project great for him. We wanted to photograph the homeless in their environment, so we sent him to photograph homeless people in their tents, so our readers can learn about that experience.

Bryan Anton is a gem. Bryan had filmed and edited a reel for a friend of mine. The reel led me to his profile. He also photographs beautifully. He captures people the way they secretly want to be captured. Bryan eventually worked on a promo video for Pacific Standard’s redesign and moved on to photographing Born Identity, a feature about a transgendered vet in the November/December 2016 issue.

PDN: You’ve mentioned working with fine-art photographers, photojournalists, still life and fashion photographers.
TL: I hire photographers for their style, but oftentimes I’ll challenge them to do unexpected things—for example, having a fashion photographer shoot a documentary style feature and vice versa.

The results I get are unexpected, graphic and sometimes quirky. I love it. The stories I deal with are pretty heavy. The book needs this element of surprise.

PDN: What is the section Field Notes about?
TL: When I reach out to agencies and photographers to license their images, I try to describe Field Notes as a stepping into a well curated art gallery with enough installations and visuals to fill the senses. It contains short essays that are immersive, and photos that are rich and colorful.

PDN: Is there anything else you wish photographers understood better about your work, or about Pacific Standard?
TL: I want photographers to know that their work matters just as much as our text stories. Their work takes us that much closer to reaching our goal—to touch lives, to make a difference, to expand knowledge, to bring the public compelling visuals that they don’t often get to see.

Related Articles:

How Storytelling Platform Narratively Assigns and Selects Photo Stories

Create Spotlight: Visual Storytelling at The Atlantic

How Photo Editors Find and Hire Photographers