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The Social Photo Editor of The New York Times Breaks Down Her Job

Feature Image Credit: Andreas Meichsner for The New York Times At a large publication like The New York Times, there are a number of photo editors ...

Feature Image Credit: Andreas Meichsner for The New York Times

At a large publication like The New York Times, there are a number of photo editors – including those in charge of curating great photography on Instagram. To find out what these photo editors are looking for, we caught up with their Social Photo Editor Kerri MacDonald, who oversees the @nytimes and @nytarchives Instagram accounts.

We spoke with Kerri about how she selects images to feature on both accounts, her tips for writing engaging captions, and how photographers should pitch her.

The @nytvideo journalist @bcsolomon is in Mosul, Iraq, where he’s reporting on the battle against the Islamic State. Earlier today, he photographed this Iraqi soldier escorting @nytimes through a checkpoint. After months of fighting ISIS, Iraq is holding the territory in the eastern part of the city. And yet parts of the east bank of the Tigris River remain under siege, and residents say they’re repeatedly targeted by ISIS snipers, mortars and grenade-dropping drones. Now, American-backed Iraqi forces are preparing to take western Mosul in what will likely be the most intense fighting of the war. What is it like on the ground in #Mosul today? Tap on our profile picture to see an #InstagramStory by @bcsolomon.

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How did you arrive as the Social Photo Editor at The New York Times? Tell us a bit about your background in photography. 

I grew up in Canada and moved to New York to pursue a masters degree at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, right next door to The New York Times building. A few months in, I was fortunate to land an internship with the Times’ Lens blog. And after I graduated, I was offered a job producing the blog. I did everything from handling image files to writing, making videos and managing social media. Most importantly, it meant that I was looking at a lot of photos — long-term projects and daily news — every day.

I then went on to work as a photo researcher and photo editor in our Hong Kong office. Eventually I returned to New York and worked as a photo editor on a desk before taking on my current role.

What does it mean to be a Social Photo Editor? What’s your goal for the @nytimes and @nytarchives Instagram accounts? 

My job title is a bit unusual! I’m a photo editor embedded on the social team. My job is to think about our visual presentation across social media — primarily Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I spend the most time on Instagram, curating @nytimes and overseeing our newsroom presence on the platform. Jessica Anderson, a social strategy editor, works with me on strategy and captions for the @nytimes account. We then launched @nytarchives together, encouraged by the feedback we saw when we posted archival images on @nytimes.

We have an incredible network of photographers around the world, and our goal with @nytimes is to feature work by all of them.

We try to represent the breadth of New York Times coverage, so you’ll see food photography, celebrity portraiture and the reportage-style work we’re known for. We strive to take a reflective tone and focus on the best of the visual news and daily life moments caught by our photographers. And we consider our captions just as important as the images: We try to tell full (albeit short) stories on Instagram.

The @nytarchives account is different; on the whole, it’s meant to be fun. Our primary focus there is to bring our followers a sense of surprise and delight. We’re diving into the rich photo archive of The New York Times, and we’re writing in a fairly informal tone. We don’t want to teach readers about history or focus on “this day in history,” but to provide interesting background for eye-catching photos.

The biggest challenge as a curator and photo editor, on both accounts: We have so much strong photography. Some weeks, it can be overwhelming to try to do it justice.

For 7 years, Harley Murphy’s family struggled to find affordable housing. They lived in a tiny house owned by her grandparents as they looked at run-down homes. But this year, they moved into a 3-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot home built by a local social services group — and by the Murphys themselves, who shingled the roof and helped frame doors as part of the deal. @fremson photographed 7-year-old Harley inside her new bedroom in Kimberly, #Idaho. The image of rural America ingrained in many people’s minds — lost jobs, empty storefronts, shrinking populations — was often reinforced in the election. But the reality is more complex. In southern Idaho, new manufacturing jobs and population growth have resisted the pattern, and the perception, of rural struggle. In this south-central region of Idaho, anchored by Twin Falls, unemployment is 3.2% — lower than booming Seattle or Idaho’s biggest city, Boise. Twin Falls is a place where rows of hay brush right up against the edge of town, but it’s also the biggest community for 100 miles in any direction. Visit the link in our profile to read more. #regram from @fremson, a @nytimes staff photographer.

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What have you learned about how to write a good Instagram caption? Anything that’s not worked as well? 

That’s a challenge! The question people often ask is: “Do people even read the captions?” We believe people do — though we’re realistic enough to realize that many people scroll somewhat mindlessly as they make their way through Instagram, or any other social platform.

It depends on the image, but usually our goal is to tell a New York Times story in each caption. We’re writing to the photographs. If we use a picture of a person, we include that person’s voice. When possible, we tell the story behind the photo — was the photographer in a helicopter? Did he or she walk for 6 hours to reach the spot pictured? We try to be conversational, but there are times when we don’t veer far from the reporters’ wording.

“Different people have different reasons for hating to see that evening sun go down, but nobody has a better reason than the New Yorker who travels by subway. Physically tired from a full day’s work, emotionally sapped by the worries of his job, he knows at sunset that the worst is not behind him but, in fact, about to begin.” And why, exactly, is that? Because “rush hour turns lambs into lions, gentle people into fiends and fullbacks.” This rant for the ages ran in @nytimes 56 years ago this month. The thesis of the 3-page piece: “If manners makyth man, the subway surely unmakyth him.” Our staff photographer Sam Falk bravely descended underground to help illustrate the New York City straphanger’s daily struggle. — @jlynnanderso, @nytimes social editor # #NYC #subway #eveningcommute

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What common mistakes do you see photographers make when trying to pitch you? How do you prefer to be pitched? 

Don’t call a female editor “sir”! Generally, I’d say that many pitches I see are wordy and don’t include enough photos.

I’d prefer to see a brief synopsis with some additional information attached, and I like to see more than a few images to know if something is working. I don’t love being pitched on Facebook Messenger. Email is best — then I can easily share something with other Times editors, if it makes sense.

Where do you typically look to find new photographers to feature?

I pay attention to bylines. I follow a lot of photographers on social media — not only to see their work, but to see what and who they’re sharing.

I follow more than 1,500 people on Instagram, so I do a lot of digging there.

Magnum just published a great explainer on working as a professional photographer on Instagram: 5 Instagram Lessons. Personally, I don’t mind seeing personal photos, but I think photographers should know where to draw the line. I do think it’s important to share personal work or work you’re doing for other organizations. (Just be sure you’re clear on that organization’s guidelines for social media.)

What’s your favorite photo from the @nytachives account? 

I can’t say that I have one favorite. I love this photo of a crowded subway (above), by Sam Falk, and we had a lot of fun reading the accompanying essay: “If manners makyth man, the subway surely unmakyth him.” This photo of JFK is a classic George Tames image.

And I shouldn’t admit it, because I’m not even a cat person, but I’m a big fan of the cats — those in top hats, “Reza Kahn Pahlevi of Abbas” (above) and “Bou Saada,” as well as “Taffy” the holiday cat. I think it’s delightful that The Times put so much effort into photographing cats in decades past.

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