Interview with Alan Taylor of In Focus

Editor’s note: Whether you’re a photographer or not, you’ve probably seen the work of Alan Taylor. Not a photographer himself, but programmer turned curator, he made a big splash with his hit photo blog The Big Picture several years ago. Now he’s moved on to In Focus at The Atlantic magazine where he runs the same general format. Both blogs feature a series of big pictures from news stories around the globe. They always generate a lot of interest and discussion, as indicated by the hundreds of comments that come pouring in. We recently posed several questions to Alan and he was nice enough to take some time to answer them. Read on to learn more about the man who gives you the inside visual scoop on not only the most important news stories of our day, but also many aspects of the fascinating world we live in.

Alan Taylor

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a father of two, happily married, living in a sleepy suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up mostly in Washington state, but have also lived in California and Alaska.

Now that you have switched from the Big Picture to In Focus, how does it feel be working on photography full time now, leaving your programming job behind? Is it hard coming up with good photo series every day?

It was a little hard to walk away from programming, since that was my main job for nearly 15 years, but I still keep busy with it, writing scripts for myself to speed up and simplify my daily processes. Finding a good photo story (nearly) every day really is a challenge, I’m surprised I’ve been able to do it for so long, over three years now. But – I’m infinitely lucky to have access to the vast libraries of the wire agencies we subscribe to, and they add thousands of new images every day.

You obviously have an eye for good photos. Are you a photographer yourself? Which camera and lens do you primarily use?

Ha! I am a terrible photographer. I am constantly frustrated by these little boxes with lenses… I see the photo I want to take, in my mind, but cannot make the little box do that thing, get that image. Very frustrating. I primarily use a little Fuji FinePix point-and-shoot.

You’ve seen a lot of photos searching the wires. What kind of photographic approach and style do you appreciate the most?

I love it when a photo feels personal, like you can look right into it, and either feel yourself there, or feel the photo looking back at you. I know that’s vague, so more detail: eyes, the eyes of a subject are so important, what do they see, point to, convey. Focus – both depth of field and framing, where does the photographer guide our eyes to look? I love images with a shallow depth of field, but am not a big fan of HDR or intentional blurring (spinning, zooming, etc.).

Of all the photographers whose work you have curated, who consistently puts out the best images in your eye? Which photographers do you admire the most?

There are so many, it would be hard to name them all. The first few that come to mind are Kevin Frayer – his unique point of view shines through all the time, Finbarr O’Reilly, whose portraiture of African people has always captivated me (and many others), Paula Bronstein, this woman appears to be fearless, courageous, and projects a strong point of view.

Does it ever get tiring searching the web for photos (reading the news) and moderating comments every day?

Yes, sometimes, but – it’s also freshly invigorating each day as well, always the fun of “what will come next?” I still don’t see myself tiring of this any time soon.

We’ve seen plenty of features from you on China (where we are based) Have you been here before? What’s your impression of the country?

I have not been to China, but would love to visit someday. I’m fascinated because I feel like there’s such a vast amount of everything in China (people, culture, history, politics, events, etc), and really felt like I knew almost nothing about it when I was growing up. Now that China is growing so much larger on the world stage, I’m fascinated by the glimpses into Chinese life we get through the photos. The one thing I continually discover is that there is a vast amount of variety in China, in every aspect, physical, environmental, political, religious, cultural and more.

On your homepage, you wrote: “I want to do more with the format. I see many opportunities ahead, and have wanted to do more with the blog for a long time, but have often been constrained by time.” What more exactly do you plan to do and what opportunities await?

I still want to get more involved with readers, get their input both by photo submissions and by story choice. I enjoy posting stories that I think are important or worth viewing, but it’s always nice to know what people are looking for as well. I’m also looking to experiment a bit with the format – some longer-form ‘miniseries’ for lack of a better term, some short-form groups of a few images that have great impact, and I want to hone my presentation of breaking news stories. There are several other things too, but one thing at a time. It’s taken me a while to get on my feet at the new job, and be able to move forward.

Which story of yours generated the most controversy among commenters? The most solidarity?

Any post I’ve ever done regarding Israel and Palestine, I get so much feedback, both direct and indirect. I’ve been accused of siding with both and hating both (in fact I take no particular side in this issue). It seems like such a critical, important issue, but so often any attempt to discuss it devolves into shouting matches without much listening.

The most solidarity – I think it would be the post I did about the Inauguration of Barack Obama. There was such an outpouring of love and pride there, from so many places and people, it was really overwhelming.

Please list 5 of the most interesting/personal favorite photo series that you’ve put together.

Nigeria: The Cost of Oil

“Underreported and important to see.”

Nigeria: The Cost of Oil © Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images

Monthly Afghanistan Entry

“We have over 100,000 men and women over there on our behalf, it’s important to know what’s going on.”

A Memorial Day Look at Afghanistan: May 2011 © AP Photo/Kevin Frayer

Earthquake in Japan

“So shocking, such amazing imagery, so powerful.”

Earthquake in Japan © REUTERS/KYODO

Same Sex Marriage

“I worked for months to gather enough images to strike the right tone with that one.”

Same Sex Marriage © Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Hubble Advent Calendar

“I’m a huge space science fan, such fun to compile this.”

2010 Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar © NASA, ESA, M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team, STScI

Finally, here’s a shot by Alan himself, of the Space Shuttle Atlantis taking off in 2009.

Atlantis © Alan Taylor

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  • http://www.janluursema.nl Jan

    I have a question for Alan. Obviously great work on the In Focus blog. I also really like the keyboard navigation option, is that a custom piece of coding?

  • http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/ alan taylor

    Hi Jan, the keyboard navigation is something I wrote in javascript a long time ago, and I got help improving it from others. I rewrote it for speed and to support arrow keys when I moved to the Atlantic. Other sites like http://ffffound.com/ and google readr use j/k navigation as well.

  • http://www.legalnomads.com Jodi

    Thanks for this interview. As soon as Alan left for In Focus, I switched from the Big Picture to the Atlantic for my photo fix. As much as the photos are incredible (and they are), curation is a huge part of what makes these essays appealing and Alan does a terrific job. It’s been useful as I cobble together my own photoessays too – great to see what works and what doesn’t, the braiding together of portraiture and panorama to make for a balanced essay. Thanks!

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