Career Insight - Greg Whitmore, Observer Newspaper Picture Editor

portrait of greg whitmore, picture editor of the Observer newspaper UK Where did your interest in photography begin?
I was a late bloomer. I don't have a formal photography education. My father paints and my early interest was in fine art and art history. I learned to appreciate composition and form through that. I dicked around at school, did a few office jobs then decided to do a degree in literature and philosophy as a mature student, During that time I got a job at the Hulton Archive and it was there that my interest in photography began.

Did you start in newspapers by doing an internship?
I don't think internships existed way back in 1992 when I joined the Observer. While I was at the Hulton a mate told me about the job, which was as the picture desk secretary/dogsbody. The then picture editor, Tony McGrath, was notoriously foul tempered and I was given a two week trial. If I pissed him off, I was out.

Getting to work on a picture desk of a major publication is hard. Why do you think you made it?
I didn't piss him off. Seriously, I worked hard and did long hours. Most of my time was spent running. Ferrying film and prints between the desk and the dark room, the wire room (where we received CMYK separations from agencies on what were basically massive fax machines), the drum scanner and the stone (where pages were laid out).

How did you develop an eye for a great image?
I immersed myself in the subject and learned by osmosis. At the Hulton I loved looking at the Picture Post images of Thurston Hopkins, Bert Hardy and Kurt Hutton which led me to David Hurn, John Bulmer and Roger Mayne. I have a penchant for british photojournalism so when I joined the Obs I was like a pig in shit. Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths cut their teeth on the paper and when I joined I learned by talking to and looking at the contact sheets of the superb photojournalists employed there; Roger Hutchings, John Reardon, Neil Libbert and of course, Jane Bown.

observer food monthly cover may 2001 How did you become an editor?
Unlike anyone else on the desk, I had an interest in sport and sports photography (the sports photographers that have worked for the Observer is a who's who of the genre; Ray Green, Gerry Cranham, Chris Smith, Eamonn McCabe, Mike King and today Tom Jenkins) so I quickly found my niche helping with those pages. We had a change of editor when the Guardian took us over and subsequently the picture editor quit. Then people shuffle around and you begin to move up the ladder. I am a fairly diplomatic, calm and steady chap by nature and these qualities along with, I hope, a modicum of talent opened doors for me as we went through several editors in quick succession 'I became picture editor in 1995.

Does it help to be a photographer as well as an editor?
Not necessarily. I have known both photographer and non-photographer picture editors. I think it used to be more important. I don't mean to harp on, but back in the day the majority of the images that appeared in the paper (there were far fewer) were commissioned and having a relationship of equals with the photographers helped. Having said that egos would clash and some could find the transition, from what is basically a solitary profession as a photographer to having to work in a team and compromise, difficult.

Do you shoot photography in your spare time?
Only with my phone like everyone else.

What qualities does a picture editor bring to a publication?
Nowadays all those that work for the picture department at Guardian News & Media, about 25 full-time, are picture editors. The vast amount of material we have to sift through on a daily basis (about 30,000 photos come onto the system each day) means that we all have to be able to research and edit at speed. The website has infinite capacity for photography, so we need to know when to say no, because we try and ensure quality over quantity. Picture editors bring knowledge and know-how to the operation.

back street in batley copyright jane bown What aspect of being a picture editor gives you the most satisfaction?
I have had some very rewarding times as picture editor. My creative relationship with a former art director Gary Phillips springs to mind. During our time working together, we launched Observer Sport Monthly and Observer Food Monthly and would commission photojournalists to cover subjects out of their comfort zones. We would have prints on the floor and shuffle them around and come up with concepts. We did brilliant special editions of the paper for Diana's funeral, 9/11 and others. But I think what has given me most personal satisfaction is that the job has allowed me, in some small way, to help a small group of creative people earn a steady living over the years.

What are the parts of the job that are the most difficult?
Like any job there are irritating aspects; the boss choosing the wrong photo, colleagues choosing pictures from google images, but these woes are quite mundane. There are two things that do bug me. Firstly, the downside of creating a sustained relationship with a core of freelance photographers has meant that it has been hard to encourage new talent by giving them regular work. Secondly, that following endless budget cuts there is no money to fund photo stories. We used to go out on a limb and give upfront financial guarantees to help photojournalists go out and shoot stories that were important to them and of interest to us. That ended a long time ago.

How do you see picture desks evolving?
Tracing paper, rulers, chinographs, loupes, lightboxes, motorcycle couriers, Red Star Parcels, Tri-X, C41, E6, digital cameras, computers, dial-up modems, photoshop, mobile phones, the world wide web, ISDN, cameraphones, FTP, smartphones, social media. I have no idea how things will pan out but always embrace change and try and keep on top of it.

migration crisis by antonio olmos What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career on a picture desk?
I can only really speak as someone who has only ever worked on one newspaper and it's magazines, and a Sunday at that. Don't expect glory. Despite commissioning photography on subjects as diverse as the migration crisis in Hungary or a portrait of Katy B, newspaper picture editors never get invited to judge the World Press .That is for colour supplement people. However, working on a busy picture desk is a great job. Working in a creative environment with (nearly all) good people, the job and topics changing and challenging continually. And there is work out there. Picture desks have been losing staff while their paper's internet output has gone through the roof. This means that we at GNM (Guardian News & Media) are always firefighting by employing freelance picture researchers, many of whom end up with contracts. So, if this is what you fancy:

1.Try for some agency experience. Easier said than done these days as there are fewer and fewer. In the 90s, smoking men in shabby suits with briefcases full of transparencies would come to the office from Sygma, Frank Spooners, Katz and Network selling photo essays. All long gone. Now Corbis has been swallowed by Getty.

2.Try and get work experience with a paper. Dailies are easier as there are more of them.

3.Always do your homework. I have answered the phone to people and they say “can you give me the name of the picture editor?”. They receive short shrift. Find out who does what before contacting them. If you want to work on, say, Observer Food Monthly because you love food photography, make sure you contact the correct picture editor.

What was the best career advice you were ever given?
When I first became picture editor I asked Ray Wells of the Sunday Times that question. “Survive”.

How do careers progress beyond the job of picture editor?
There is no career progression beyond picture editor.

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