Telum Talks To... Mikko Takkunen, Photo Editor, The New York Times
Congratulations on your 10th work anniversary! You started your career as a Photographer. After two and a half years, you moved into the media industry as a Photo Editor. Please tell us more about your journey.
Thank you! I started my career as a photographer in London, but I was also a passionate blogger about photojournalism on a site I created called Photojournalism Links (no longer active), where I shared some of the best photojournalism I came across online. The blog became quite popular among the community. When Time was looking for an associate photo editor to join them in New York, one of the Time magazine photo editors hinted that I perhaps I should apply. The thought of moving to the editing side had never crossed my mind, but the thought of joining a legendary title as Time got me intrigued, and I ended up applying. The interview process was very rigorous, and I had to do all kinds of different editing tasks and be interviewed by a lot of different people, partly I imagine as I didn’t have any formal editing experience. In the end, I got the job, and after first starting at Time’s London headquarters, I moved to New York in the autumn of 2013. I never imagined having an office job, but I absolutely love what I do, and I’ve never looked back. I worked for Time until November 2015 before joining The New York Times to be their Asia photo editor in Hong Kong. After three months of training in New York, I came to Hong Kong end of March 2016 and jumped straight to the job, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
What's life like as a Photo Editor at The New York Times?
In simple terms, it’s about assigning and editing. We are fortunate at the Times that we can assign a lot of original photography, so my job is to choose the photographers for any given story to have our own photography, instead of using news agency pictures. Later I then select their strongest pictures for the articles. Assigning has become pretty straightforward in the sense that while I cover 25 countries across Asia and Oceania, I have regular Freelancer contacts in most countries in the regions. Nevertheless, there are often cultural or safety issues to take into consideration before and during the assignments, which means that while I like to give photographers the freedom to find their own way into the story (I don’t, for example, ever make shot lists stating what and how to photograph, apart from some general advice perhaps on portrait assignments), I quite often end up being in touch with photographers throughout the assignments, especially in risky environments.
Sometimes it’s just about lending an ear to a photographer working on their own days our end or trying to make their work easier by trying to provide relevant intel that they might not easily have access to on the ground.
Equally, the editing process can sometimes be quite a delicate dance on deciding the right amount and mix of images as well as sometimes thinking on behalf of the subjects – especially when it comes to more sensitive stories, and the repercussions of showing them in a New York Times article might have for them, even if they agreed for it themselves. Assigning and editing are really the nuts and bolts of the job. Still, beyond that it obviously involves a lot of communication with correspondents on the field as well as their editors in the newsroom.
What is the main difference between a Journalist and a Photo Journalist? How do you use photos to tell a story? Why do photos play a key part in the news?
Not all stories are as visual as others. One of the most important skills for a photojournalist and a photo editor is to be able to identify which stories have visual potential and concentrate time and effort on those as that’s where we can make the biggest impact. Of course, those stories still need meat around the bones in the sense that we don’t cover something just because it’s gonna be pretty pictures. There needs to be a journalistic reason to cover it. The strongest work usually comes from when both text and visuals support each other, especially when it comes to hard news, aftermaths of natural disasters, for example. You need the text to give you the context, facts and stories on the ground, but I don’t think you get the full sense of it without seeing the pictures. These are the kinds of instances when I believe people want to see as much as they want to read the news.
When you start producing a story, do you select a picture first or do it after writing a story?
I often hear from correspondents or their editors when they plan news coverage or feature story and then I get involved by assigning a photographer, and then quite often, the photographer coordinates with the writer whether to visit a place at the same time or not. With news, you want to be there as soon as you can, and often together, whereas, with feature stories, it’s often better for photographers to go independently, preferably after the writer. I become involved again when there’s a late-stage draft, and I will start making selections of which photos to attach to it.
What motivates and inspires you to be a Journalist and continue to be a good Journalist? Do you have any tips for young journalists?
It’s a great privilege to be covering news, events and people shaping our world so readers can better be informed.
You have to do your work with great integrity and responsibility as people need to be able to trust what you write or show. Treat your subjects and your readers with equal respect.