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Meet Emerging Photography Juror Jessie Wender, Photo Editor at The New York Times

Jessie Wender (@jmwender) is a photo editor, writer and producer. She has worked in the photo departments of The New York Times, Apple, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Time Inc. and her photographs have been published in The New Yorker and MIT Technology Review. She has also written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, National Geographic, Contact Sheet, and Rose Issa Projects. Wender’s commissions have been recognized by American Photography and the Society of Publication Designers. She loves working with artists and with creative people, and supporting emerging photographers.

Here, Wender shares career highlights along with her thoughts on influential developments in photography and what she wants to see more of in the future.

We would love to begin by introducing your readers to you through your work at The New York Times. Could you kindly provide an overview of your position and the role you play?
“I’m part of a team at The New York Times that has spent the past year telling stories inspired by images we uncover as we digitize the millions of prints in our archive. As a photo editor with this team, I’ve spent a lot of time underground in the archive, or what we familiarly call “the morgue.” I sift through physical prints, pull staff photographers’ old negatives and pitch stories inspired by these photographs. I’ve loved revisiting history and taking a step back into a more analog world – looking both at specific events like the Occupation of Alcatraz for example, as well as broad themes like Dance. A general unexpected joy I found in looking at these pictures, is there’s not a cell phone in sight!”

What are some of the challenges and rewards of your job?
“In telling these archival stories we’re working within the framework of what the Times covered 25, 50, even 100 years ago. Some of what I’d expect to see it turns out we just didn’t cover – certain neighborhoods, cultural genres, or key figures. Representing diversity is especially important, and this often means digging deeper, and looking for unpublished frames. In revisiting this history, we try to bring a contemporary sensibility to our stories and showcase archival photography new ways.”

What have been some of your favorite career highlights, and what stands out to you about them with the passage of time?
“I’ve been lucky to work at a range of publications and companies that truly value photography, and that has really opened the door to working with incredible talents. I’ve been able to work with photographers and artists who I grew up admiring, as well as be a part of emerging photographers career development. These publications have also provided access to inspiring subjects. And, I am especially proud of the portraits I’ve commissioned of prominent literary, artistic, intellectual figures — not to mention compelling subjects who exist outside of the celebrity world.”

Who are some of your favorite photographers, and what makes them extraordinary in your eyes?
“This past year, I’ve loved learning more about the history of Times staff photographers, from Sam Falk’s artistic approach to photojournalism to Sara Krulwich’s dedication to photographing theater and Bill Cunningham’s style obsession. I talked to Joyce Dopkeen about her experience as the first female staff photographer at the Times and I wish I’d had the opportunity to speak with Don Hogan Charles, the paper’s first staff photographer of color. I am in awe of these path breakers.

“I’ve had time to look, not just at their published photographs, or even their edits, but also at their negatives. From that, I’ve been able to see, intimately, how they approached a subject or assignment. The Times staff photographers have documented some of the most important events in history — as well as everyday life —and they have brought an artistic, empathetic, and dedicated approach to photojournalism.”

How can photographers set themselves apart from the group and build their names while they build their experience?
“Having a personal project is a real way for photographers to distinguish themselves. I would describe this as a project that is primarily driven and sustained by the photographer’s passion and interests. For emerging photographers, it is important to give your photography space to develop outside of assignments, and a dedicated personal practice helps build experience and helps develop a deep, considered and unique body of work. I remember photographer’s personal projects, and it’s often what makes me think of them when I’m considering a commission. It is what makes me excited about emerging photographers and sustains my interest in established photographers.”

What types of work and/or what topics do you think need more exposure and support?
“I want to support photographers pursuing projects they are personally interested in, but that are about ideas and issues that expand beyond themselves. When I’m pitching ideas I am considering the questions “Why now?” and “Why this photographer?” What about this work or topic makes it important to explore now, and what insight, aesthetic, or access does the photographer uniquely bring? Editorially, I want to support work where the photographers have carefully considered these questions.”

What are some of the most influential developments you are seeing in photography today and what makes them important to you?
“In my field, there has been a huge push to diversify, and to be more thoughtful about which photographers are assigned to tell which stories. This has always been a discussion in photography, but within the past two years we’ve seen Vogue publish its first cover taken by a African American photographer, the Times publish front pages where all the photographs were taken by women, and National Geographic write a story examining its historic coverage of people of color. This is so important, and there is still a long way to go. There are groups like Women Photograph and Diversify and Girlgaze that are really pushing for diverse representations in media in terms of storytellers and subjects. I think this will continue to shape the stories we are seeing, and it’s incredibly exciting.”

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