How to Pitch Your Photos to: BuzzFeed News
By Jenn Gidman
Kate Bubacz grew up in Western New York, where Kodak was once king (and for which many of her own family members worked). Today she's a senior photo editor at BuzzFeed News, working her way up in the industry from her photojournalism studies and a TV Guide internship to opportunities in New York City that eventually landed her at the Internet media company.
On any given day, Kate may be setting up a Los Angeles photo shoot, working with the design department on a layout, or taking an in-house portrait of the prime minister of Canada. But another important part of her role is to review and accept pitches from photographers—including student hopefuls. Kate talked with Tamron to offer advice and tips for young up-and-comers to get their photo pitches noticed, and perhaps one day even nab a photo editor job themselves.
Does BuzzFeed accept a lot of outside photography or is it mostly done in-house?
Yes, we rely almost entirely on freelancers for the majority of our projects. We accept pitches, including: "Hey, I'm traveling to x and would love to cover y." I try to meet as many photographers as I can and find out where they're at and where they're going to be in the future. The trickiest part is finding the right person in the right place; I know a lot of very talented photographers, but many of them are based in New York, and we don't have a lot of assignments in New York.
What's important for students to know about reaching out to photo editors at media outlets like BuzzFeed?
If you're a student photographer, you're in a somewhat privileged position of people still wanting to help you. Reaching out and noting you're a student can sometimes open doors that reaching out when you're in your 30s won't. I'll have meetings with students because I remember people having meetings with me. Don't be afraid that because you're a student you shouldn't reach out because you fear your work may not be up to snuff. I get that you're still developing your style and growing.
How much time do you allot to looking through pitches?
Right now I try to respond to pitches on Mondays or Fridays, when I have a little more downtime. It can take anywhere from one to four hours, depending on how many pitches I have to go through and how many projects I'm working on.
What kind of research should student photographers do before sending a pitch?
Understand the media outlet or publication you're pitching to. BuzzFeed is unique in that we accept a lot of different work and don't have the same kind of traditional legacy to uphold that others do, but I know many organizations have a certain look or feel they're going for. So tailor your book or your pitch to fit the publication or outlet.
Also do your research on what kinds of stories they've covered, especially which ones they've done recently. If you pitch me on a story on refugees, for example, and I've just published four stories on refugees, then I'm probably not looking for any more refugee stories at the moment.
What's the best way to contact a photo editor?
The majority of the pitches I get are via email, which is what I prefer. I try to reply back to everybody within a week or two, though sometimes that's not possible, depending on how busy the weeks are. Please don't call me—the only times I've been cold-called by photographers, it's invariably been during a crisis or during breaking news, when I don't have time to talk. I don't mind setting up calls with people, but cold-calling isn't the way to go.
What about follow-up?
If you send me a pitch and I reply, we're in an email exchange. If it's urgent, breaking news and you have the only pictures of it, put that in your subject line and I'll probably reply to you immediately. If it's an evergreen story and I haven't replied, it means I haven't had a chance to look at it yet—and sending me a follow-up anywhere before two weeks to a month is too soon.
After one follow-up, I'd suggest waiting another three to six months before pitching the same subject, unless you have something very, very different to show. So, to use the refugees example again, if refugees are your beat and you pitch me a story in January, then you follow up in February and I tell you I don't have space for it, the next pitch you send me before June had better be a really amazing refugee story if that's the topic you're sticking with.
It's definitely an art, not a science; all of these are simply guidelines. Sometimes, for example, you may find yourself within a bidding war between publications. You'll pitch something and someone gets back to you two weeks later, then another editor calls two days after that. That often happens when whatever you've photographed suddenly becomes relevant and everyone wants it.
Try to form relationships with editors instead of just cold-pitching to them, though. If you know you're going to be in New York or at a photo festival, or if you have friends that can introduce you to a photo editor, that forges a more personal relationship. I receive so many emails every day—if I know who you are already, it ups your chances of being noticed.
How should work be submitted?
If you're still at the idea stage and think you have access to an idea that's really great and that hasn't been done anywhere else yet (but maybe you need some help advancing the story), send two to three pictures. If you've been working on a project for a while and are pitching it for publication, include 20 to 30 pictures in a lightbox gallery.
Don't send me photo attachments. Because a lot of people have small inboxes—attachments will kill editors' inboxes and they'll spike your email so they can't function. I'd recommend sending work via PhotoShelter, WeTransfer, or any service that can compress files. I'm also all about links to websites and online portfolios.
How can students distinguish themselves in a pitch?
The best pitches are ones that offer a unique take on a story. They're not just saying "Here's this thing that's happening." They're also saying, "Here's this thing that's happening and why," or "Here's this thing that's happening and this is a different take on it." Those kinds of pitches add something to the conversation instead of rehashing what you'll find elsewhere.
For time's sake, don't send more than two paragraphs with your pitch: Tell me what the story is, what it's about, why it's a good fit, what access you have, and where you'd like the story to go. Although I do want some context with the images, the photos should speak for themselves.
If you get rejected, be professional. Think of this as a marathon and not a race. Even if I reject your pitch this one time and you're upset about it—or if the story is accepted but then gets spiked at the very end (it happens!)—I'm not going to be at this job forever, and you're not going to be working on this project forever. This industry is really small. Keep in mind that you're going to work with me again at some point, so don't completely ruin the relationship.
If you're persistent, respectful, and creative, you'll get somewhere in this industry. There are many excellent photographers out there who just keep at it. If an editor doesn't get back to you, try another one. There are other photo editors in the world, other publications—even small startups can turn into bigger things.
Are there any red flags when you get pitches?
If you've been out of school for a bit, I'd expect to see a project that's been well thought out and aligns somewhat with your background. If you come to me and say, "I'd like to go to [Havana], my response is probably going to be: "So would I." Your pitch needs to show you've researched a story and have access to a story, and that you can produce images of the right caliber. If you're saying you want to go to Havana, yet you've never traveled internationally, don't speak Spanish, and have no idea of how to hire a fixer [guide]—all of those things would be red flags for me.
On a more local scale, if you tell me you want to cover a protest, yet I look at your work and all you have are still-life photos, I'm going to ask why you want to cover a protest. Be confident if you're making bold choices—that will definitely catch my eye. But make sure you can back those choices up.
If students want to aspire to be a photo editor down the road, what background and/or skills should they bring to the table?
It depends where you're working. For instance, BuzzFeed is a digital-only corporation, so everything I do is Web-based. For an organization like that, having a background in Adobe platforms is like knowing Microsoft Word if you're an office employee elsewhere. You should know how to use Photoshop, Bridge, Lightroom, or Photo Mechanic by Camera Bits at the moment—whatever editing platform you choose.
You should also have a working knowledge of where to get photos. The obvious ones are the wires, but outside of that, are you familiar with paparazzi agencies? Stock agencies? Photo collectives and production houses? Those are things you'll definitely learn on the job, but they're also things you should make the effort to learn on your own.
Research skills are important, too, as are being able to handle administrative tasks such as email and taking care of invoices. I don't think you need a particular degree. Having a degree in photography is obviously useful, but it's not necessary. There are photo editors who studied writing, for instance, and still end up in this field.
Finally, just look at as much photography as you possibly can. Try to figure out what you like and don't like. Editing comes down as much to taste as it does to anything else.
What's a typical day/week like?
Right now I oversee all of our photographers working internationally, as well as our large-scale projects and anything related to investigative topics. In a typical week, I'll first be in contact with photographers already working on projects: I'll check in to see how their stories are going, when they're planning on filing, whether or not they have the resources they need. I also spend a good amount of time reading drafts from writers, either in early stages when they're pitching to figure out what kind of photography will be needed, or in final stages so we can figure out how we'll approach art during layout.
In addition to answering emails from current and potential photographers, I'll also read up on what other publications are doing to get a sense of what's going on in the world. Once all of that's done, I'll go through paperwork, fill out invoices, and answer pitch emails. We tend to publish our stories later in the day, so after lunch I'll work on layouts with our design department. Then, if we're planning any major shoots out in LA, I'll make phone calls to our people out there to help figure out stylists, studio locations, and so forth.
My position is also somewhat different than the norm because we're so tiny: There are only two photo editors for all of BuzzFeed News, so we're involved in everything. At other places, you're often only assigning or only doing research or only planning full-on production shoots. Here, I get to do all of that. That said, I should add I don't do all of those things I mentioned every single day. It's not always that chaotic!
To wrap things up, speak to the competitiveness of photojournalism today and how photography students can work within that paradigm.
First, don't freak out. I don't think the state of photojournalism is nearly as dire as it could be, and good stories are always going to be in demand. There are so many new platforms photography can be used on (Instagram and Snapchat, for instance)—none of which were even remotely in conception when I was in school, which wasn't that long ago.
Second, it's a competitive industry, mainly because these days the barriers to entry are relatively low. To distinguish yourself, therefore, you have to be well researched and know what you're looking for. Two things photographers should focus on is how they're approaching the people in their stories and how they're approaching the background in their stories.
Finally, students who think they want to make photography into a career have to ask themselves why they're doing it. Is it because they love to share stories, or because they think it looks cool and glamorous? If it's the latter—well, a photography career certainly can be glamorous and fun, but it can also be frustrating, hard, and sometimes underappreciated. There should be some real talk and soul-searching before they get into this to make sure it's a love of photography that's really the driving factor.