Susan Wetherby, Photography Manager/Producer, Discovery Communications
Susan Wetherby is a Photo Manager/Producer at Discovery Communications. The home of Discovery Channel, TLC, Investigation Discovery, Animal Planet, Science, OWN, Destination America, Military Channel, Velocity, Discovery Fit and Health, 3Net and Hub. In this role she supervises a team of photo producers to commission and acquire still photography and illustration for use in everything from marketing, communications, and the web. Susan is also responsible for finding and maintaining relationships with creative vendors– including photographers– for assignments relating to Discovery’s many channels and various other needs.
Interview by Matthew Rakola
Photo by Beth Caldwell
Matthew : Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Tell me a little about your career path. How did you end up as a photography manager at Discovery Communications in DC?
Susan : I went to film school at Boston University at the wrong time. It was strictly film. Don’t get me wrong. It was awesome and fun – but I was literally cutting film and taping it together – not realizing how everything would be changing. I’m sure if you went to school now there’s a class on making movies on the iPhone.
I feel like I personally fell into a technology gap– I’m a film native but by our junior year of college we were scanning into Photoshop 2.0. So I never used a digital camera until after I became a working professional, but I don’t have the in-depth film knowledge that I might have had if I went to school five years earlier. I know that other photographers my age feel like we’re part of a lost generation.
Yes, it’s like we have to start all over again as an adult. You don’t want to have to go back to school but there’s all of this new software and technology to learn.
So when you started college at BU what did you think you’d be doing at this point in your life?
I thought I’d be in working film. I had worked on an independent feature film in Vermont. I was on the swing crew. I was propping sets, wrapping sets after shooting and hauling rented furniture and props all over Vermont. After the film wrapped, I asked if I could be an editing apprentice and so I started cutting film, which was at least applying skills that I learned in college.
In photography it sounds like that would be the assisting route.
Yes. After finishing the editing apprenticeship, they called me back because they needed some second unit footage. I can’t remember my title– I think I was a Production Coordinator. So I booked travel and lodging for actors and crew, things like that. I guess it showed how versatile I could be. Looking back now, I’m flattered they called me back. It was a really great experience. My sister ran into the director recently and he said to say hi. Nice to know he remembered me.
Then I did my New York stint – everyone should experience it. I had good contacts from the film but I’m such a practical person – I needed to pay my rent. So I got a job temping at Goldman Sachs. I went the office route, which still has good skills you can apply to anything. My husband and I were getting sick of NY and in his job search, he landed a position at NIH. I grew up in Maryland and remembered hearing Discovery Communications was here so we jumped ship. I was determined to get my foot in the door.
You make it sound so easy.
I just called their main number, asked which temp company they used and went to them and said ‘get me in’. Then a job came up.
In the photo department?
It was actually in the online department. In 2000 I got laid off when the dot-com bubble burst. I was a contractor and worked as an administrative assistant doing invoicing. They ended up keeping me on because there was a lot of paperwork to do. Since they laid off Multimedia Editors and needed help, they started training me. So I essentially learned photo editing– finding images, cropping them and was eventually hired. In 2003, I got laid off again. The Director of Photo Services found out I got laid off – bless her heart – Pam Huling. Thank you Pam Huling! She picked me up and I became an Art Buyer. I learned on the job how to set up photo shoots, and luckily, had the stock research experience in my previous position.
And I imagine that if you could handle an indie film and all that work that goes into that, a still shoot is probably cake.
And a lot of it applies – obviously a smaller crew than a motion shoot but it’s the same kind of situation. So I stumbled upon this job and I feel very fortunate that people picked me up and trained me.
I can’t remember if it was a professor who told me once but the line is something like, “luck begins when you put your feet in the right place and you remember to put film in the camera”. It sounds like you put yourself in the right position in each of these situations.
I didn’t piss anyone off. That’s the key, do not piss anyone off and you can go far. Be kind and respectful to everyone and you should do pretty well.
So when you have a photography project, what sort of steps do you go through to find the photographer? Do you usually already have a photographer in mind?
It depends on the project and the concept. If my Creative Director /Art Director wants a specific style, I go through my lists. I used to use del.icio.us but we’ve switched over to Evernote. It’s great because we can share the account with our group. I enter notes for photographers that I find in mailings, postcards, magazines, etc. I assign them by style – as keywords or tags. I might use keywords such as “moody” or “dark”, for example. So depending on what style parameters I’ve been given I’ll start there. I also look through the mailings on my desk or photographer reps websites and see who they have. I basically start a search and go wherever it takes me.
I’m sure the budget for a project helps to cull down the list.
Our internal clients don’t necessarily give us the budget up front. So, when I tell a rep or a photographer ‘I don’t know the budget’, I’m really not lying– it’s not some weird ploy. Sometimes I find a photographer because I think that the client (the channel) is going in a certain direction and then when the budget becomes clear, I may have to change gears to adjust. I may have to go back to the beginning and find someone else. I’ll get as long a list as I think is appropriate and show it to the creative and have them narrow it down or have me look for other styles, if necessary. And then we’ll recommend that final list to the client.
Have you ever found a photographer via social media?
I’ve definitely “liked” photographer’s pages on Facebook. I had a last minute shoot in New York and I hired Kimberly Butler because I remembered her page on Facebook. I’m not really sure how I originally met her. It worked out really well and she was able to work within our modest budget. I’m not really a twitter person though.
Do you hire local photographers or do you send shooters to locations?
Usually we try to keep it local but sometimes we do send photographers on location. Especially if it’s a location where we don’t have a lot of options. In the grand scheme of things, you’re only adding a few hundred dollars. Most photographers aren’t living it up– they’re not taking advantage of the situation.
Sometimes I find that photographers forget that photo editors and art buyers are actually on their side. If they could afford to hire someone and produce a six-figure shoot, of course they’d want to do it.
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m very upfront about this. I completely respect what photographers do and how they should be compensated. But I have to do my job and work under the parameters that I’ve been given. I’ve found that most photographers are pretty willing to go as low as they can to get the job. Do I want them to go low? No, I mean I want them to be compensated properly. But sometimes it is what it is.
So how many assignments will you give during the course of a month? How much will you use stock?
It really varies. Some networks don’t have large budgets so not many photo shoots come up or even stock searches– we have a lot of royalty-free images that we’ve purchased so we use those quite a bit – in addition to the production deliverables we receive from the production companies. It depends on what the networks are promoting and if a show is doing well they’ll get the budget to do more shoots to help promote the show.
So what kinds of shoots do you assign?
They’re actually all over the board. Event shoots, production shoots and marketing shoots.
So is that hourly or day rate?
It’s a day rate– usually one day shoots.
I guess I should mention that a couple of years ago we changed our titles to Photo Producers because “Art Buying” wasn’t really encompassing all that we were doing. There’s so much more than “buying.” I’m seeing that title come up more and more.
It sounds similar to a few years ago when photographers first started shooting video with their HDSLRs. All of a sudden all of these business names were changed to “First Name Last Name Productions” or “XYZ Still and Motion”. There was this whole move towards opening the umbrella so you didn’t have to say “no” to anything. Are you looking for photographers who do both stills and video?
We are. It’s pretty much a requirement now. If a photographer can’t shoot motion it’s not a deal breaker but if they know someone they can hire and work with that’s really helpful. A lot of our campaigns now have a digital component and we need motion assets. It gives us more options to promote. We might not have a fleshed out idea when we’re looking for photographers but we want to be able to offer it to our internal clients.
So when you go to a photographer’s website are you looking for a reel section? What sort of footage are you looking for? Interviews? Narratives pieces?
We need to know that the photographer has a grasp of cinematography and sound capabilities involved, whether they’re shooting it or having someone else. Just a well-produced video.
Do you do a separate license for the motion versus the stills?
No, I we usually wrap them together into one contract.
When you work with photographers do you get a lot of input from them?
Usually the concept is pretty tight. However, it’s helpful to have the photographer add their personal style and talents – since their style is how we found them. We have an internal group that does our post production and retouching. If we hire a photographer for her/his personal style, we definitely consider their retoucher.
Do you do behind the scenes on shoots?
We’re starting to go there but we haven’t really found the right venue to show it. We’re being asked as Photo Producers to bring a GoPro and try to get footage or interviews so we can get as many assets to the client as possible.
So, the million dollar question, how do like to be approached by photographers?
They might have to bombard me, sadly. I’m buried in emails and mailers. While I try to look at everything, sometimes I just can’t. It really depends on how busy my day is.
Emails are good but it doesn’t help that our system compresses images and I have to click on a button to allow the pictures in an email promo to show. If it’s a busy day, I might not catch it. Oh and our email quota is not helping. I’m always at the cusp of using up all my storage.
Same thing goes for print promos. I like them but they’re stacking up right now and I haven’t had a chance to go through them.
Cold calls are not ideal. You’re probably catching me in the middle of something and I’m already multi-tasking.
Sorry it’s not an easy question for me to answer.
You have to have a really strong image or brand to stand out. Sometimes I’m surprised at the image choice photographers make to promote themselves, especially if they’ve sent a large print. I’m sure that’s not cheap. You need to be sure I’m going to hang it in my cube and remember your name if you’re going to spend the money on it.
I’ve noticed a lot of photographers create logos from their names. I live in a branded world so design is key. Consistent branding is really important. It helps me remember the photographer… Anything that can help get promo get stuck in my head is good.
I can’t speak for every Art Buyer or Photo Producer but in our particular jobs we’re doing everything from contracts and invoicing, researching intellectual property issues, to finding photographers, to brainstorming, to stock research to licensing images. When you’re doing so much, it’s hard to keep focus.
Well, thank you for taking time out of your day to have breakfast here with me this afternoon. One last question: What do you wish photographers would do more of?
Better communication– the more information the better. Ask questions, if something is vague (but we’re probably asking the same questions to our clients). The more clear an estimate is, the better. Be very transparent. And be patient. We’re juggling a lot.