16 minutes with Eve Lyons
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published February 9, 2019
- Photograph by Mo Mfinanga
Born in Rochester, New York, Eve Lyons was exposed to art at a young age. From her mother being a glassblower to grandparents that are artists, Lyons witnessed the experiences and perspectives that pursuing a creative career would allow, which inspired her to do the same. A graduate of School of Visual Arts, Lyons emmersed herself in the photo editing world which eventually led her to getting her dream job at 25-years-old: working at The New York Times. In this interview, we talk about the years leading up to that, what informs her to hire photographers, and the creative community.
Mo: How did last year treat you?
Eve: I would say overall 2018 was a good year. A lot of artists are channeling creative energy into stories that are actually saying something. We're in a time where people are pulling together their photo journalist side with their artistic side and some really great things are happening from that. I think sometimes when the political climate is more tense, that allows for more voices to come through in interesting ways that you haven't seen before.
Mo: It's interesting to see people have more narrative driven work.
Eve: Yeah, and bringing in their own personal experiences into their work and maybe it can become a bit more vulnerable at the same time.
Mo: As a photo editor, what do you find are you responsible for in that context?
Eve: That's a good question. I think that it's important—in terms of the publication that I work for—to find stories that maybe we haven't heard or seen before that are authentic to what that narrative is. I want to make sure that I'm not putting someone in a situation that they themselves don't have a personal connection to, or at least context to. As photo editors we put people out to tell these stories and it's really important that we're telling them authentically, intimately, and respectfully. So that's sort of something that you always have to think about when you're pairing photographers with stories and if it's something they relate to or if it's something they can tell themselves.
Mo: How many years have you been a photo editor at The New York Times?
Eve: Five years.
Mo: So within those five years, what have you seen change as a prerequisite for the work people show you?
Eve: It's really important for me to see personal work and personal projects because I like to see what the photographer is interested in and what kinds of image-making and storytelling they're doing outside of regular work. Whenever I meet with photographers, I'm always interested to see what their hobbies are and how they got into photography. A lot of people don't start at photo school; a lot of people go to school for something completely different. I think those different qualities inform how people take photographs and also help me assign them to stories that are unexpected.
Mo: What are some of your personal interests that influence decisions you make creatively?
Eve: I like stories where I'm learning something new. At The Times, we kind of have two ways going about assigning. We have the traditional way which is when the writer comes up with a story and they're working on a profile on this person, or working a story on a trend or contemporary culture. And then it's my job to assign photography to that. But something else that we've been doing that allows for strong visual storytelling is a concept called Visual First Stories where the ideas are conceived through the photography and then you figure out the writing aspect after. So that's something that we've been playing with a bit. I always like going into those kind of stories with a question, not an answer, and then you do a visual exploration through the medium of photography. For me, the column I work on, The Look, I usually ask how can we better understand one another? It's important to find stories that are humanising.
Mo: I think you guys—through the columns I'm aware of—cohesively accomplish that, especially with great photographers like Andre Wagner, which is impressive to witness through you guys because of how big of a publication The Times is.
Eve: I think we like photographers that have a really strong and unique point of view. It's not just an aesthetic thing, which I know is a huge part of it, but photography for me is so much more than aesthetics.
Mo: What's one of the most challenges parts of being a photo editor, generally speaking?
Eve: I think one of the most challenging parts is just making sure that you find the right collaborators that are on the same page as you. It's finding those people to collaborate with and also managing and communicating upfront with what you need while keeping everyone happy. [laughing]
Mo: Do you find that its a good or bad time to be a photo editor?
Eve: I don't think it's a bad time but I think people should also think about it more broadly. Maybe it's about thinking of it more as a visualizer. There are many different ways to tell a story; photography is a powerful visual language. What I love about my job is that I can assign stories visual first and see that part manifest on its own. The job of photo editing is evolving quite a bit and that's really exciting. It's important to use your judgment to pick what stories would work in the publication [or company] that you're working under.
Mo: In what ways—through your perspective—is the landscape of photo editing evolving?
Eve: The photo editor is becoming more of an equal player in the landscape of publications. It's not that they weren't, but we're not as much on the back-end in some senses. We get to be more on the front-end; at least at The Times that's what's happening. I don't know about other publications, but at The Times I feel like we're becoming a part of the process of conceiving ideas and stories which feels very exciting for me to be able to do those things. I do like assigning photos to a story afterwards as well, but it's nice to have both going on.
Eve: I think The Times is really good at telling stories in different ways and deciding which way that should be, whether it's through video, images, podcasts, or something else. They're experimenting with all their resources in really interesting ways that’s exciting and very engaging for me. Even though I work there, I'm constantly impressed with what people are doing around the building. It keeps me inspired!
Mo: Sorry if I'm hitting you with these hard questions a couple minutes into the interview. [both laughing]
Eve: No, I think it's good! My brain is on vacation mode so I need to warm up a little.
Mo: Speaking of vacation, how do you disassociate from work? How do you balance between the two?
Eve: Honestly, at The Times we have a really good work and life balance but also I love my job and love what I do so they blend together quite a bit but not in a way that feels obtrusive. I'm very lucky because I love photography and get to do what I love so I'm able to dis-attach when I'm on vacation.
Mo: Do you have any hobbies?
Eve: Photography really is my hobby and job. [laughing] But when I come to LA, I do a lot of eating and relaxation-like Thai massages and going to the Korean spa with friends. Do you have hobbies?
Mo: I think cycling is a hobby for me, but Emmazed takes up nearly 100-percent of my free time so by association it’s kind of a hobby. [laughing] I've been in LA close to a year now and haven't really relaxed, so maybe the answer will change when my personal life becomes steadier.
Eve: What do you do outside of Emmazed? Photography?
Mo: Yeah, I started pursuing it in my last year of middle school with an old friend. As I continuing doing it, I got involved with things I liked such as cars and technology. Eventually they all spoke together which gave me the privilege of having Leica support a conceptual car series I shot right before I graduated high school. So I wanted to follow through with photography being a career since I was so lucky to have a company like them believe in me. Through these interviews, I eventually realized how much work would be needed to be a working photographer. [both laughing] So I knew that, that would make me enjoy photography less, while adding in the fact that when I would reach out to possible clients, I would go, I know 20 people off the top of my head that would visually serve this company better than I could currently. And that thought became more entertaining than being a photographer, enough to the point where I'd rather primarily pursue photo editing, at least right now. All-in-all, Emmazed subconsciously taught me how to become a photo editor the past five years so I'm going to drive down that lane for a bit.
Eve: Photo editing is such a huge part of being a photographer as well. If you're good at editing your own work then that's half of it. [laughing] One informs the other in big ways, but I don't think you should worry too much about if other people can shoot things better than you!
Mo: I don't worry too much because I still send that email. [laughing] I'd like to check off a few proverbial working photographer boxes and then primarily dedicate my career to being a photo editor at a brand—at least that's where my head is at right now.
Eve: I think that's a great idea and it will also make you a stronger photographer if that's something you want to keep doing afterwards. Most photo editors that I've talked to come into photo editing by accident. [laughing]
Mo: Did you fall into it by accident?
Eve: I did! I went to school for photography and I was just looking for work or internships. I talked to my mentor, Paul Moakley, at SVA when he started working at TIME Magazine. He asked if I was interested in interning there and I said Sure! without even knowing really what the extent of photo editing was at the time. I just graduated so that's kind of where I got my start. I kind of knew I didn't want to become a photographer by then so it was the perfect space for me.
Mo: What were the layers of photo editing that appealed to you enough for you to commit to it?
Eve: What I liked about it was being able to work with different styles of photography. I felt like within the realm of photo editing and publications, there was a lot of room to do things that were surprising or unexpected and that was a fun challenge for me.
Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times
“The point was to represent a group of people who were in the same place while an event was happening and show the diversity that exists within that group," says Ryan Pfluger. View the full set here.
Mo: Was there ever a thought in your head where you thought of being somewhere else other than New York City?
Eve: I was actually thinking about grad school at one point. After TIME, I worked at Real Simple Magazine for a few years and I wasn't actually sure if photo editing was the direction I wanted to stay in, so I applied to CCA [California College of the Arts]. They had an MFA in Studio and Social Practice that I was interested in that encompassed integrating art and community, but they were like, "You're accepted! You can borrow $50,000 a year!" And I didn't want to put myself hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in debt! [laughing] So I scratched that idea. But I was really itching for a creative project at the time. Kind of like your experience with shooting and starting Emmazed, I wanted something of my own that I could create. So I decided to start a magazine in Rochester, where I'm from. I did one issue and I raised the money on Kickstarter and it was probably a terrible magazine, but it was a fun thing to put together. I got an email from Michelle McNally [Former NYT photo director] asking me if I'd be interested in working at The Times which was crazy because I was 25 at the time. I didn't think in a million years that was a possibility for me, so five months and six interviews later, I got hired and was like, this is grad school, and it has been. It's really made me fall in love with photo editing in a whole new deeper level than I did before.
Mo: When you were younger, was there anything that indicated that you'd work in a creative field?
Eve: I was always into something creative when I was a kid. I always knew I'd be some type of artist or creative person. My grandma told me that I was always a photo editor. She'd say that when I was a kid, I'd walk into a museum and point out which photos were good or bad. [laughing] I think I was also lucky to have a lot of art around me. My mom was an art teacher and she's a glass blower; my grandparents are artists; my dad's always been into music. So I had a lot of stimulating types of experiences around me as a kid. I never thought I'd be anything else which is weird. [laughing] Not photo editor—but I knew I was going to do something creative.
Mo: I'm curious if your friend circle is mainly composed of creatives.
Eve: I went to school for photography so obviously I have a lot of friends from college who are creatives, but I like different types of people and seeing how they live. It's a mix, though. Since I work with so many photographers, I end up building relationships with them but I still have to be professional so it’s a balance and that is something I think about quite a bit.
Mo: When you started out as a photo editor, what seemed like the ultimate goal? And did you ever achieve that?
Eve: The New York Times is my dream job which is a good problem to have. [laughing] But it's also a problem because you wonder where to go from here. I didn't think I would have it so young. And to be honest with you, I wasn't qualified for the job when I got it.
Mo: In what ways?
Eve: I just wasn't experienced, but I think that was what was special about it. And that's what's special about The Times—they see potential in people and can believe in someone that can grow into the position. Michelle McNally is kind of known for doing that. What's great is that that's also sort what my job is—to see potential in people that maybe haven't gotten a lot street cred yet. There's something special to that.
Eve: Michelle is able to see talent whether it's photographers or photo editors and that's a really good quality to have. It's important in our industry to give people chances. Something I look for in people I want to work with are those who are passionate and excited about photography the way that I feel about photography. When you brought up Andre before, when I met him, obviously his work is incredible but also just his excitement alone was exciting to me. It's something we bonded over and related on.
Mo: It's important to always have that. At the end of the day, we have to be thankful for getting the opportunity to pursue and commit to something we love, such as photography. Something you touched on earlier is that, yes, our voices are much more important now because of the political climate but when things get better—I'm being optimistic here—we can continue to paint our work with our voices.
Eve: It's good for photographers to think about since photography is evolving at such a fast pace now because there's so much accessibility to images. It's really important to think about what your voice is in it all and what space your work is taking up in the photo world. It's not just what you're trying to show; it's what are you trying to say? I want to see work that has something to say. It's special when the editorial, art, and photo journalistic world can all come together in one space.
Mo: Do you feel like there's something you often find that might limit photographers from where they want to be?
Eve: I think it's bad when photographers become too competitive with one another. I've seen photographers feel offended when somebody else gets an assignment that they felt like they should have gotten, and I don't think that's a good way to think because that works against them. A photo editor choosing a photographer for an assignment is not a personal attack on a different photographer that didn't get that assignment. [laughing] There's enough opportunities to go around! Photographers need to be supportive of one another and work together and collaborate. It's not a one-man sport. Obviously a little competition won't hurt anyone, but doing so in an unhealthy way isn't useful for anyone. Talking about photography and having a dialogue about how we make photos is really important. Collaboration and support is what makes our community stronger.
Mo: Exactly. It's about encouraging creativity and seeing where one’s curiosity can guide them towards. For me, it's arguably the most important thing one can do in a creative community. That dialogue is essential regardless if you're "emerging" or "established" because both spectrums usually have the same questions at times.
Eve: I think that also helps us evolve as artists, image-makers or creative thinkers. That encouragement only benefits. A small photo community I loved watching see grow and come out of SVA was Molly Matalon, David Brandon Geeting, Caroline Tompkins and those guys. Their work is different than each others but at the same time very much compliments one other. It's all about finding your community. It's harder to pursue photography by yourself. When I started Yellow Booth, it became a way to show transparency into what I do, but also I hope it's a way that I can connect people and share work.
Mo: I love Yellow Booth. You get to see people's work you love in a different setting. It's cool when you look at the comments section and see friends interact with each other.
Eve: It's a really basic idea [laughing] but sometimes those are the best ones!
Mo: Did you create it by accident?
Eve: The Times recently redid the landscape of our desks and the yellow booths came into The Times to create a more comfortable work environment [item]. I thought it could make a fun series after I photographed a few photographers in there. I didn't know if it was a dumb idea but I thought why not, I’ll just try it out. [laughing] I sometimes think about what this archive of photographers I’ve met with will look like in 50 years later.
Mo: Before we wrap up, I want to ask what you find the purpose of your work to be?
Eve: Helping to better understand one another and hopefully be one of the portals to keep photography well, alive, and apart of the conversation.
Where can we follow you?
Favorite places in NYC?
Ben's Kosher Deli, Chamber Street Wines, Battery Park Cinema (plush seating).
What's your unwritten rule?
Don't follow the leader.
What's the most recent thing you regret buying?
- Mmm, I probably regret most purchases but I like to tell myself that I regret nothing.
What will your memoir say?
"It's All Very Interesting"
What was the last thing you took a photo of?
- Larry David on an episode of Curb.
What's your personal brand™?
- Daniel Arnold
“I don't expect this shit to last.”