Today we continue our interviews with this year's Head On Photo Awards judges and meet Nicky Catley. We are fascinated to take this peek behind the scenes of some of Australia's iconic news outlets and to hear all about the fast-paced work of a photo editor. Read on.
Please tell us a bit about yourself - who are you and what do you do?
I am a photo editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald and The Australian Financial Review. I did a degree in History and Curatorship and started my career as an intern at the National Museum of Australia in the Department of Social History before moving into picture research, then photo editing and shoot production for a broad range of magazines from established glossies to new launches, commercial rags, and special projects during the magazine boom times in the 1990s and Millennium.
In the early 2000s in London, I’d rise very early and work on new mag launches, then go to my day job picture editing at glossies - sourcing props, managing shoot teams on location, editing transparencies in the office - followed by working late into the night on special projects. There was a bonanza of work around in the early Millennium and UK colleges were spitting out a steady stream of photo editors from specialised courses to meet the demand for work. Of course, this boom didn’t last when the market shifted with the GFC and the transition to digital, and many publications folded.
I moved into newspaper supplements/magazines in the early 2000s working under some legendary photo directors, Katie Webb and my ex-boss Cheryl Newman who is also this year’s Head On judging panel. The Telegraph Magazines under Cheryl and Katie at that time was such a creative place with powerful photography departments, and the art directors there then treated the photography commissioned with respect and reverence. I had such fun assigning conceptual, provocative and emerging photographers (such as Alec Soth in 2004) as well as those from the established stables of Magnum, Panos and VII. The Telegraph Mags had good budgets attracting those top-tier photographers and we developed huge collections of photo books, close relationships with the photography galleries, book publishers and photo artists - there was a lot of cross pollination between the editorial and art photographer sectors. The team there was like family, we looked at and discussed emerging photographer folios on a daily basis and together attended the European photo festivals.
I moved back to Australia 10 years ago and have worked since as a photo editor in news for Fairfax now NINE. News photo editing is a completely different genre to feature and magazine work and despite having the eye miles from years of pic editing in many ways I had to start from scratch and adjust quickly to the cracking pace of breaking news (I recall in those first years on news sourcing a sober pilot and helicopter on Christmas Day for bushfire coverage with no notice). I also had to build a whole new contact book of Australian regional photographers and develop the trust of an established crew of staff photographers.
I am currently part of a team of brilliant photo editors (all of whom have decades of experience behind them) at the SMH/AFR under Managing Photo Editor Mags King, the tremendous driving force behind the strength of the Herald’s visual coverage. Over the last 15 years the conversation around photojournalism has often turned to a lament about its death, and of course, the industry has changed and budgets have been slashed, but photography at the Herald is in a stronger position than ever and is very much central in the newsroom. This is due to the many years Mags has spent building the strength of the department by developing trust with the news desk, digital and print teams and growing the confidence and skills of each staff photographer so that photos aren’t just afterthoughts or simply token illustrations to a written piece, but central to the storytelling.
Can you give an overview of one of your typical workdays?
I work on many different sections, from features to news. A typical day for me in news would involve attending national conference and outlining the photographic coverage for the day, working with news directors and section heads to make sure photographic content matches daily news lists, brainstorming with editors and journalists on creative ways to realise a story, managing assignment diary, rapidly reading a lot of copy, sourcing/assigning regional photographers, curating the photos on digital stories, presenting photos in conference, editing photos for print and liaising with online editors to make sure the best images are presented on the digital platforms. At the same time forward planning for anticipated events, and researching photo-led story ideas for long-term projects.
What skills are required or personal attributes essential for success in your position?
Foremost a fantastic eye, a strong sense of visual taste and an understanding of the politics of visual language and the history of photography including contemporary debates. You need the confidence to be able to back your choice of photo and push that selection through, plus the wit and determination to source and then secure the perfect image. Photo Editors are more than a service industry; we don’t just provide pictures to accompany stories as often news and feature content is visually led. Recently photojournalist Dean Sewell came to me with a fantastic photo essay on mice plaguing western NSW. When I couldn’t push that story through one editor I persisted on pitching knowing that different section editors have varying tastes and appetites. The essay ended up running recently in print in the Sunday features section, but did best on social media, his photos driving 18% of SMH’s audience traffic that day! Dean’s swarming mice photos are a reminder that the theatricality of events is often visual not verbal as data can be contained in a couple of paragraphs but an entire story can be captured in a single visual record. In horrific events, like the Black Summer of 2019/20 photographs spoke where words fell short.
Photo Editors also need to have a robust sense of ethics and the people skills to be able to sensitively treat the subjects of complex investigations.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging? Enjoyable?
I like working with fellow photo editors and a big team of photographers. Having worked on a myriad of smaller magazines where I was the sole photo editor assigning freelancers I’ve come to enjoy the collaboration, creativity, support and friendship of other picture editors and staff photographers who all experience similar frustrations or successes. I’m lucky to have a mentor in Mags King whose absolute belief in her team pushes everyone to be the best they can be, and I work with a crew of courageous photographers who constantly startle with images that challenge any preconceived notion of what I think the photo from any given assignment should be. It’s this creativity in the face of so much pressure and the relentlessness of the news cycle that keeps me in the job.
Who or what should we be looking out for in the field today?
Like most photo curators/editors I am drawn to photographers with a cohesive body of work on a single narrative, a personal or long-term project delivered with a strong sense of visual identity.
For editorial assignments I look for photographers who are reliable, trustworthy and innovative - photo editors don’t want to be bored, we see the same stories day in day out, the key is delivering those stories in new and fresh ways. Surprise us! I work with a masterful news photographer each weekend, Steven Siewert, who questions every brief I give him, and given a repetitive story be it on housing prices, childcare or covid announcements always produces imagery that is fresh and intriguing.
Thanks so much to Nicky for this intriguing interview - we hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we did. Now that you've met nearly all the judges of this year's Head On Photo Awards, make sure you enter your own images before entries close on Monday, May 31.
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