One of the Guest Experts in our course Photography for journalism, Marc Zakian is editor of the Blue Badge Guide magazine The Guide. He is also a Blue Badge Guide, photographer and journalist who has contributed to a diverse range of national media including The Telegraph, Guardian and The Times. I talked to him about how he came to work with the magazine and how photographic images work within it.
Q: How did you get to edit The Guide?
A: I’ve been interested in photography since I was a teenager. When I started doing travel writing in 2000 I took photographs to illustrate any article I was working on. Then I became a guide and by coincidence the organisation wanted someone to create a magazine. They had a small budget. I had the right set of skills. I knew from the start, conceptually, how I wanted it. The magazine came together as I combined my journalist’s point of view of what people might want to read with my trained understanding of history and culture.
Q: Any hints?
A: If you work in a nice or smaller magazine the budgets are tiny, so the more skills you have the better.
Q: What other experiences do you have that contributed most to the work?
A: I’ve illustrated other magazines. I’ve done several travel guides for which I provided a lot of imagery, particularly when they were particular images people were looking to source. Obviously anyone can send a photographer but if they don’t have a budget it’s not going to happen.
Demonstrating that you’re a good photographer is part of making sure you’re a useful candidate. For these other magazines, I was essentially the journalist. But I also provided the photos. Whether or not they would have sent a photographer had I not been able to contribute my images is debatable.
Q: What do you think has most helped your photography develop?
A: I was doing photography as a teenager, but taking people to look at art as a job has improved it enormously. You see the same rules. Composition, line, colour… The more I talk people through art, the more aware I am. Composition rules weren’t invented with photography, they can be traced all the way back through the development of western European and international art.
Q: Can you tell me a little about the magazine design with regards to its imagery
A: Over the years I’ve become more and more aware of what the project will look like in its entirety.
The front cover will make people read it or it won’t. We initially started with a different concept, it worked for a couple of issues but should have been changed earlier. You’re always thinking about what the front cover – with fewer words and more images – will make people do. It has to make people want to open that magazine.
Think of the magazines lined up against each other pin supermarket. People make very quick decisions. Many magazines – say travel magazines – are pretty generic. They usually have a compelling travel image. For me that idea is pretty tired.
For every photograph, not just the front cover, it’s about understanding what purpose it serves, what it’s doing, where it will sit and why it will be picked above other images.
I’ve had really good graphic designers who understand what we do. They come up with a design but I’ve sent it back because it wasn’t right. On the other side, I’ve been out-argued. For example I didn’t think one of my pictures was right but the designers did. The opposite has happened too. It’s not all about you, it’s about gathering people around you that have the same vision or view as you. You need to calibrate your views alongside other professionals. If they’re not compatible it will never work, but if you work together and come to some understanding it gets easier because they know what is in your mind as well.
Q: How do you choose pictures for the guide?
A: I am looking for pictures that will tell the story. Because of the nature of the magazine, I am often looking for a very specific thing that is mentioned in the body of the article. At the moment I’m working on a story about Romans in Britain, so I will look for images that illustrate something specific mentioned in the story.
Q: Do you ever drop features because you can’t find the right image?
The picture I have in my head – what I want the magazine to look like – has been arrived at over five years, and with the desiners. I start from a concept and set of ideas, so my job is to source material to make that work. If I didn’t have the right material the visuals would be poor, but this doesn’t happen. I don’t have to drop features because I won’t commission something if I know I can’t illustrate it. I’ve learned this over time. There’s no point in having an interview when you know you can’t get a photo. You’re just wasting your time.
Q: How do you source the difficult images then?
A: The first thing to say here is that we don’t have much money for photography. It’s a tiny budget. I either have to take the photographs myself or source them for little or nothing from the people who are writing the features or take them from a low-cost agency. So when I need very specific images the only way to overcome this is to take them myself.
When I do that, I make sure there are two main portraits. Always environmental portraits because the images have to convey the theme. Because of this I’ll talk to the subject about a potential venue, choose a place and we’ll shoot the portrait there. The images must convey that person. I’m not shooting for an arts magazine. The portrait is there to back up the story.
Q: What about image formats?
A: I know how the images will be laid out by the design and print team, and that I need to give them different formats to support whichever layout options they choose.
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A prize winning photographer and recovering journalist turned social entrepreneur, I am regularly published and enjoy teaching people. As DanceGRiST grows I'm trying to reduce my contributions to dance and popular press, but even now it's hard to let a story go. You'll find my work in specialist dance, travel and cycling press, international broadsheets, commercial work and more. I relish difficult commissions in photography, project and programme management or writing. My images have been used in adverts, on exhibition stands, as magazine front covers, in academic publications, the popular press and in a film short by Mike Figgis, who singled my work out as exceptional over the winners of a 26-nation photography competition. I was the first (and probably the only) person to be invited into a G20 conference as photo blogger and the first European and first woman ever to be invited to photograph the largest Aboriginal Australian dance festival in the world.
They might seem disparate, but my work, passions and hobbies are united by an underlying fascination with the perceptions and management of risk and extremes because there's risk in extreme creativity, in running a business, growing a social enterprise and becoming the best.
A strong sense of empathy, surviving the Asian Tsunami, having run a successful risk management consultancy which had clients in the Twin Towers and surviving aggressive breast cancer all inform my work. I strive to stay authentic and can't imagine doing anything else.