Leslie dela Vega has been a photo editor for The New York Times business section since 2016. In this recent interview for our series, “Who I’ve Hired,” she explains how she finds and hires photographers who “go a step further” and bring back images that surprise her.
PDN: Who have you hired lately for the first time, and why did you hire them?
Leslie dela Vega: I had an assignment in Columbus, Ohio to shoot a banker. Usually when photographers think “business desk,” they think: “I better get him behind a desk, I better get him in front of a wall.” I wanted to find a photographer who could do something different. I started perusing my Instagram account and I noticed that Nathan C. Ward had started following me, so I clicked on his site. It turns out he’s in Columbus, Ohio. And he was so different from portrait photographers that I’ve seen, because he was trying to shoot people in ways that are not traditional. So I said, “I’ve got this banker, I’d like you take a portrait of him, and I want you to do you.”
PDN: Did you give him any more instructions than that?
LdV: We didn’t know what the location was like. But we knew he was going to shoot this 50- or 60-year old Caucasian man, in a bank, so: Make it work. I did say “Do you” but I had specific requests. He took the banker, and shot him all over the bank. He used shadows, graphic lines, space, it was just so beautiful, and he gave me so many options. Since then, I’ve just been hiring him for other things, like interiors, and things you don’t normally see on his site.
PDN: What were the specific requests you gave Nathan?
LdV: I said: I need a variation of scale, I need two to three setups, and he gave me like 15. I know some photographers don’t really have the time to do that. So really it’s more about specs and what I needed [than the number of setups]. I told him I’d love the use of graphic lines, spaces and color. I ask photographers to think creatively about textures, colors and shadows. Nathan was also open to talking to the subject and the PR person, to find out what he [would be able to] do. He pushed it: “Can we shoot here? I’d like to be able to shoot there.” It was nice that we were able to get more than just the banker in a conference room.
PDN: Who are other photographers you’ve hired lately?
LdV: Another is Carlos Gonzales. He goes by the pseudonym The1point8. I was working with him when I was at Rolling Stone. He was shooting music [concerts] beautifully. He has a way of getting a certain angle, where he’s in a different space than the rest of photographers, or he does something where the moment’s really different than other photographers.
I had a story about pregnant Chinese women who were coming to the United States to give birth to their children. I asked Carlos to cover it for me. We had no access, so I asked him to go shoot the neighborhood where these women would stay. I gave him a neighborhood, and a building, and he was very creative about it. He shot this Chinese woman walking on the street, holding an umbrella. It was so beautifully done, and I’ve been using him constantly,
He doesn’t really do portraits, but recently I asked him to shoot a portrait for me of a technician at Patagonia who is creating new technology for surfers and divers. I asked him to shoot [the subject] at work. He went underwater and he shot him like this [see slideshow]. I love this shot. Carlos always goes a little step further, and comes back with such great stuff.
PDN: Besides a good eye, an ability to surprise you, and going the extra mile on assignment, is there anything else you look for in the photographers you hire?
LdV: It’s nice to get that person who just loves photography, and is open to shoot whoever, or whatever—someone who is OK with doing the small job and the big job. And a big important thing for me is kindness, because when you’re meeting with a subject, I don’t want them to feel they’re under pressure.
PDN: How do you like to be approached by photographers? What’s the best way to get on your radar, and keep in touch without annoying you?
LdV: It’s usually by email that I get most promotional materials. Rarely do I get anything mailed anymore. Do your research—I don’t really have time to look at the more generic, general emails—and be more personal: “Hi Leslie, I’ve seen what you’ve done in blah blah blah.” Make it personal! I usually hit people back if it’s personal. Otherwise, I know it’s not me specifically you want to reach out to, and I’m just going to move on. Unless [the email] has a great image.
Second, keep in contact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “I need a photographer in Dayton,” and then someone will call me from Dayton or nearby and say, “I just wanted to check in.” That happens a lot.
PDN: How much contact is too much or too often for you?
LdV: I have a photographer writing me ever two weeks. For me, that’s OK, because we have so many photo shoots on the business desk, that’s it’s nice to remember who’s out there. Photographers should contact me maybe once a month at the minimum. [Any longer than that], you might be missing out on some opportunities.
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