16 minutes with Elizabeth Renstrom
& Mo Mfinanga
How do we express ourselves in different ways amongst the ubiquity that the internet breeds? It’s a revolving question everyone has, including Elizabeth Renstrom, a New York City-based photographer and photo editor at VICE Magazine. Elizabeth and her team answers this burning question through the latest VICE Magazine issue: Privacy and Perception, while championing the work of emerging artists.
Mo: How's your week been?
Elizabeth: It's good! It's been a little chaotic here. [laughing] But everything's been great. I just went to see some spaces for the photo issue launch party so I'm excited about that. I really like doing pop-up shows because the artists get to invite their friends and family to a physical space where they can actually pick up the magazine and see their work printed. I really love organising it because it’s such a DIY effort on my part with our Editor-in-Chief, Ellis Jones, and publisher, Arto Barragán. [laughing] Other than that, I've just been working on photo interviews—probably similar to your day! [Mo laughing]
Mo: Is it always chaotic after an issue drops?
Elizabeth: The online translation of the magazine is really important to me, especially with the photo issue, so when we are done with the physical issue, the next week consists of us preparing it for online. So it’s crazy in that way and just making sure that we do enough promotion but its super fun seeing it live on all these different platforms.
Mo: How many photo issues have you worked on?
Elizabeth: This is my third one! It's always a hectic part of the year! [laughing] But its so fun. This issue, to me, is really important in the community as a way to showcase new and up-and-coming talent which I don't take lightly!
Mo: Because of the time in between issues, do you find yourself re-learning how to make a photo issue?
Elizabeth: Oh definitely! My first issue was the all female photo issue, which was easier to put together since it was all female identifying people, but we just included such a great number of artists so that was a hurdle in and of itself—just learning the process of curating that many people in an issue and the text components were a learning curve for me. Last year we did our mentors edition which was a lot of collaboration and communication between younger artists and their mentor of choice, and making it happen. So, I feel like because of the themes, every year is sort of a different structure of how we organise and get photos in. But its fun! I love it!
Mo: Do you already have an idea of what next years theme would be?
Elizabeth: I don't know! The magazine itself has gone quarterly so we kind of choose our themes for the year kind of at the begging. So whatever theme is the most appropriate, that sort of becomes the photo issue. So this year was the Privacy and Perception issue. The two themes are surrounding identity and I thought that would be a really good topic specifically for photo stories because I see so many artists working with themes of identity right now. But I don't know, man. Do you have any ideas for us?
Mo: Come out to LA, we can talk about it! [both laughing] Have you been to LA recently?
Elizabeth: Yeah, I participated in the portfolio reviews that Lucy Foundation organised! It was the first time I went for a photo specific event besides the LA Art Book Fair. It was a lot of fun, but I want to go out there with no trajectory. I want to go just to enjoy LA! Have you always been out there?
Mo: I first tried to move here two years ago for a couple months, but went back to Detroit for two years and just moved back here in February.
Elizabeth: Sweet! Do you love it?
Mo: Kind of, sort of. [both laughing] The past two months have been extremely challenging so it's a love and hate relationship, but I wouldn't be anywhere else right now. I joke that it's a pretty place to be miserable in! [laughing]
Elizabeth: As a northeastern person, I wonder how I would adjust to the constant pressure to be happy in the sunshine. [laughing]
Mo: Swinging back to what you mentioned about photographers and identity, what identity struggles, if any, have you observed within the photographers you've talked with?
Elizabeth: This theme has come up more so now in the past two years because I feel like we're all forced to live and be present with the news even more so. I think that makes people think about and really engage with their identity. Working out and figuring out who photographers are through their images [is important]. For me, the most common theme I see photographers struggling with is the ubiquity of images; how do they express their identity in unique ways?
Mo: What did this issue reveal about identity that you weren't aware of beforehand?
Elizabeth: Because it's engaging a lot with online and how we craft our identity, I think it was a learning curb for me to understand more work that's engaged with those digital representations and how it informs more setup, artful photography. A lot of this issue is using examples of social media and displaying it alongside fabricated interpretations that use photography, if that makes sense. It's interesting to see the change in photography in general because people are so aware of their brand and how they're crafting their own image every day. Being a photographer just adds a whole other layer, and I think a lot of the portfolios deal with that. I think Glenda Lissette is sort of an interesting case because she kind of grew up labelled as an influencer just through her self portraits that she took on Instagram that got her a massive following. Her work now is sort of dealing with that and being critical of it and making self portraits with themes we see on Instagram, like the Coachella girl or group selfies with your girlfriends at a karaoke bar. So its weird to see these meta themes about things like Instagram and how we develop portraiture on Instagram in art projects—I love it.
Mo: How do you balance the visual identity of a magazine while retaining your personality behind it?
Elizabeth: I think it works differently for different magazines. I think now more than ever photo editors are making more conscious decisions about who they hire, and trying to pair the correct people with stories that serve the photographer and their personal work. I'd say for me as a photographer in my career, I think taking assignments that align with the sort of subject matter that you're dealing with in your own work.
Elizabeth: With this issue in particular, its more of a platform. I'm not trying to have people compromise beyond how they express their work in words in the blurb leading into their portfolio. It's more of a platform for people to put their personal projects and the truest form of their work. But if I was assigning someone for an editorial shoot, say a portrait or feature, I'd want them to engage with the perfect artist or event that would fit with their voice. To add to that point, that's why I think it’s so important for photographers—if they want editorial or commercial work to fall within the themes they want to be working in—its important to establish and set up your own kind of editorial projects. It's all so you can work on how you visually deal with projects. I, as a photo editor, take that work that you've made and hopefully give you stuff that you're excited to shoot. I'm working in a very editorial capacity, though, so maybe for a commercial brand, it would be a bigger compromise.
Mo: It makes sense because in a commercial landscape you have a product to sell. Obviously magazines have a priority to sell but within that, I'd assume the biggest priority is propelling a narrative.
Elizabeth: Our magazine is free [laughing] so it’s never made the company any money! It’s a very exciting thing for me because that's why I don't have a huge approval process of who I put in it. And I feel like I get a lot of freedom to figure out who's exciting me right now and what projects I want to elevate over others in the print edition.
Mo: How did the opportunity to work at VICE come about?
Elizabeth: I have been working as a photo editor and as a freelance photographer since the beginning of my career. I had been bouncing around at bunch of different places. I was at TIME Magazine then went to Marie Claire, which taught me a lot about, as you said, adjusting your vision to fit within a brand. And then I was freelancing for a little bit. I had worked with Matthew Leifheit at TIME as an intern and we had both kept in touch with each others projects over the years. When he was leaving for grad school, VICE asked him to suggest anyone who could take his role. I also had a relationship with the editor and chief from the photo issue I was in. When I saw the job posting, I thought I was super green for it and was really terrified because it is a one person photo department here—and it always has been. Similar to Emily at FADER Magazine, you do the job on your own. [laughing] When I got it, I was so humbled because it meant so much to me to be in that issue and I think that's been my motivating factor for all the photo issues. Just having my focus be on people who are right at the beginning of their careers and students looking for their first opportunity out of school.
Photo Editor Advice
Mo: Do you have any advice for anyone trying to get into the photo editing world right now?
Elizabeth: I definitely think part of the reason why I also was considered for this job was because at that point, and still, I was making a magazine [TAG TAG TAG] with my friend and collaborator, Alex Thebez. I think honestly having my own platform and way of photo editing to experiment with my own themes and curations was really helpful when I started at VICE. I would say that if you're really wanting to break into photo editing, outside of working in other photo departments, which as you know are shrinking rapidly [laughing], then you should provide a platform for people if you can and if you're passionate about it. It was so influential to create that own space and do call-outs as an excuse to meet artists on my own. And I think that's something Matthew has done through Matte magazine. If you can't intern then make your own platform and do something that you don't see being done at bigger brands that don't have the same freedoms you get to have. That's my number one piece of advice because that's also something you can have even if you are a photo editor—that's something you can build upon for the people who don't fit in the magazine you're working at. Maybe there's ways to do interviews or more experimental stuff on your own site.
Mo: It's interesting because if you're working for a brand then you have all the resources to execute something, but not the freedom to. Whereas working for yourself is where you have all the freedom but maybe not all the resources.
Elizabeth: Yeah, and I think that there's so many ways you can do reverse research. So you can see where there are sort of holes in media and create that space yourself. I think that's why things like Rookie magazine resonated so much because that was somebody creating something they didn't see and creating what is now a pretty big platform for young writers and artists. Sometimes photo editing can seem super nebulous and a weird industry to break into but I think people are really open to how you build community in your own way. I think there's so many more tools to do that via Instagram and other platforms.
Mo: But now because of the influx of tools and accessibility, it becomes harder to do your own thing or stand out.
Elizabeth: Yeah, and I totally understand the saturation and feeling of hopelessness when making a new thing, or putting a project that you've worked on for so long into the ether of the internet. I think because people are making all these new platforms, it's also given photographers a big opportunity for exposure way beyond the National Geographic-TIME Magazine type of publications. There's things like The Outline now and Topic stories. I honestly think that's the future of where digital media and photo representation is happening. That really excites me because that was not around five years ago. I see who I shoot for now, too, and it’s really changed.
Elizabeth: I just had my first term teaching and my students are obviously terrified [laughing] to enter this market, but I encourage them to find those newer platforms that will really work with them on their projects!
The Privacy and Perception issue
Mo: Are you hopeful for the future of photo editing?
Elizabeth: Yes! But I do think it's going to take on different forms. I think it probably won't be called photo editing for that much longer. I feel like it'll be more general, you know?
Mo: In what way?
Elizabeth: Because I feel like photo editing used to be pretty straight forward. You'd find the right photographer for the feature and figure out the best way to tell that feature story through visuals. Of course it's that still, but that's just a small part of what photo editors do. I have to figure out how that story is going to translate to all these things while also being a part of the community and making sure people know that they can participate and share their work on my platform. And also engaging with the community on social media—like doing video and finding ways to push photo stories along. Those are all things that weren't a part of the equation ten or five years ago, and now they are.
Mo: That makes sense. I remember Emily [Keegin] and I talking about how photo editing was ubiquitous within publications, but now that title has infiltrated brands and the commercial landscape.
Elizabeth: I'm excited about that transition because I think it takes away the limitations of my job and I can dip my toes into different creative outlets here at VICE and beyond. There are so many places that are trying to create a visual community around their brand that have the money, and they want artist engagement. That's another side of photo editing that's super exciting, too. What would we call it? Visual strategist? [both laughing]
Mo: In ten years we'll look back at this interview and we'll hopefully have the answer by then. [both laughing]
Elizabeth: I'm curious. You've done photo editing before, yes?
Mo: Yeah, but in a traditional sense of being a photo editor. I haven't had the opportunity to absorb that role at a publication yet. Emmazed has serendipitously taught me how to become a photo editor the past four years without me even realising it. It's funny because I started to prioritise pursuing that part of my career because when I'd reach out to possible clients, I'd think to myself, I know 12 other photographers that should be shooting for x that I feel more passionate about than my own work.
Elizabeth: That's so funny because I feel the same way, too! [both laughing] Don't get me wrong, I still love shooting! I love figuring out and doing creative solves on photos for clients, but I work in a very specific way and I think I just knew that I didn't want to only work as my own business with my own photography when I care so much about the medium. Like you, I want to see how other people approach things. Photo editing in general has also taught me so much about how to be a better photographer! [laughing] I'm curious about where would you want to be in-house at this point? Would it be more at a brand like WeTransfer or would you want to be working at a specific publication.
Mo: I think it would be really interesting to be within a company. Though publications involve more frequency because some are monthly, quarterly, or weekly, I've been more interested in the slow, linear structure of brands. I haven't worked at a publication as a photo editor yet, and I think that's an important position to fulfill soon because I'd probably be more comfortable at a brand if I worked at a publication. Publications have quick turnarounds and crazy deadlines—it's like a bootcamp. [Elizabeth laughing] So if I was offered a photo editing position at a tech company right now I'd probably be scared shitless.
Elizabeth: Oh my god, no. You'd kill it! I think the most important part about being a photo editor is having a community when you enter the place, and also knowing your privilege as a gatekeeper for that brand and who you're showing. I don't know if everybody thinks about it like that, but for me, just because I'm working with tones of new artists, that's huge for me. You've already spent time building your community so [whispers] I think you're ready.
Thanks for reading
Where can we follow you?
- Website and Instagram
Last thing you googled?
- Chip’s Ahoy ... don’t ask me why.
What's your unwritten rule?
- Be humble, not a jerk. No one likes to work with jerks.
What question do you hate getting?
It’s not a specific question more one that begins with, “As a woman, what do you think of ____?”
What happened in the last dream you had?
I never write them down and I really should because I frequently wake up and go back to bed for an hour and that’s when shit goes down. I know my last dream I remember was me on the run from a flesh-eating virus or something similarly ominous. They tend to be nightmares about getting dumped, zombies, etc.
What does working with you feel like?
- I hope working with me feels fun and easy like a cool deodorant commercial or something. But really, I want artists to feel empowered, but also feel like they’re getting the support they need on projects.
What would you like your tombstone to say?
If I’m not cremated and I choose to give myself a tombstone I would definitely want their to be something useful I don’t want to take to the grave with me. Directions, recipes, a joke? WHO CAN SAY.
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