Mo: What encouraged you to get into photo editing?
Joanna: My last job in movies was in Australia, where I worked for Fox Studios for two years. I came back to New York and I was trying to figure out what to do next. A magazine writer that I knew, who covers the movie business, she thought I would enjoy working in magazines. She helped me arrange informational interviews with editors. I knew very little about journalism and had never worked in magazines before. By the time I left the movie business, I was an executive and I was at a certain level professionally, but I was completely willing to start over.
Joanna: Terry McDonell, who was then the editor-in-chief of Us Weekly, offered me a job as an assistant editor—an entry level position. I'm very grateful to Terry because I was, at that point, not like the other assistant editors. They were much younger than I was! [laughing] I was so happy to be there. I wasn't on the photo side, but I learned about how a weekly magazine is put together: the reporting, writing, editing, art, and production process. It was like a crash-course graduate school.
Joanna: Then I freelanced for a while as an editor and researcher, and I took any magazine project I could. One day, I got home to my studio apartment in Boerum Hill and there was a message on my answering machine. Mo, this is back when people had answering machines. [both laughing] The light was blinking and there was this woman's voice on the machine—a very lovely voice. She said, "Hello, Joanna. This is Kathy Ryan from The New York Times Magazine." She was reaching out to ask me to do research and production for a photo project.
Mo: Did you know about Kathy before she contacted you?
Joanna: I did. I mean, Kathy is a legendary person, but I’d never met her. So I researched and produced a photo essay about thoroughbred racehorses for her. It was my first time working on the photo side of magazines. I worked with Eugene Richards, an incredible documentary photographer. I was already in love with magazine work and the pace, so that project—being on the visual side of things—brought everything together for me.
Joanna: Doing the background research on racehorses was something I found fascinating because I was learning about a subject that was new to me. And producing the project reminded me of the movie business—the wrangling, the logistics, working with a creative and thoughtful person like Gene. Eventually, I became a full-time freelancer for The Times Magazine, and then I went on staff, and then I became the deputy photo editor. I was there for eleven years.
Mo: What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started there?
Joanna: Good question. It's a legendary photo department—Kathy is a visionary. She's my mentor, so that's how I feel about her. And the standards are very high, but it’s a weekly magazine so the pace is very rapid. You have to work quickly, but well. I loved the challenge of it, though. It's anxiety-producing, but I think my personality thrives on anxiety in some way. It was a wonderful experience.
Mo: Do you think working through that anxiousness kind of correlates to not being patient? I was recently telling a friend that I can't stand silence. Things always need to be active, including myself.
Joanna: Yes! Even in the moments of stress, when all I want to do is go home and watch a basketball game, I think I thrive on the activity. And sometimes it's hard for me to articulate the way I feel. I'm not a writer so I have a hard time speaking eloquently about photography, to be completely honest. I react in a very visceral way to images. At Northwestern, I didn't major in art history; I didn't major in journalism. So sometimes, I feel that I don’t have the words to explain why I like one image over another, which perhaps might be a deficit for a photo director. [both laughing]
Mo: It's interesting that you went from an industry that involves a very narrative driven medium to another industry that is also story driven.
Joanna: Narrative is very important. Working in script development, we would talk about: Where's the drama? What is the main character feeling? What's the action that actually shows this moment? We don't want the character to just sit there and explain the way they feel. When I’m looking for photo projects and good images, I still think about those questions. You're asking yourself: Is there something here that's unexpected? Is this an image that draws you in emotionally?