Industry Insights: Stella’s Krishna Sheth on building a career as a photo editor

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Sheth is the director of photography at The Sunday Telegraph’s supplement magazine, Stella. Here, she discusses how she got into picture editing, and shares valuable advice for aspiring editorial photographers 

Krishna Sheth never studied photography. “I’d always found it interesting; I always thought it wasn’t as easy as it seemed on the outside,” says the now-director of photography at Stella Magazine, recalling the moment when, working at the Sunday Express during her 20s, she finally decided to accept a role on the picture desk. “I started basically from scratch, not knowing anything.”

Sheth quickly got hooked on the research aspect of the job, which made her feel “like a detective. You really had to think outside the box”.  These were the mid-90s, before stock libraries were digitised; she worked at a typewriter, and sourced images by calling in transparencies. The Express alone employed 10 couriers whose sole job was to collect and deliver transparencies to her desk.

Her earliest assignments involved researching images for a story about an aircraft that had disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle, and landing a then rarely-seen image of Mohamed Al-Fayed through sheer persistence: turning up at another paper’s office and waiting for three days until she was given what she needed. “I felt so alive looking for something, trying to get to the bottom of something,” she says, explaining how she moved between papers, freelancing and researching. “Back then we did serious journalism, so stories weren’t just about celebrities, it was about murder, it was about gangs, it was about war, and that’s what I really enjoyed: every day I learned something that I never knew about,” she says.

In the summer of 1997, while she was freelancing for The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, news came in of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Sheth was asked to work on the story. “We slept at the office,” she says, recalling how they spent 48 hours in the Canary Wharf building, calling in 48,000 transparencies. “We cleared the kitchen cafe and put all the transparencies on the floor, and we got it down to 250. Within two days we created a really glorious issue.” Sheth cites this as the beginning of her career; following the Princess Diana special, she was hired by The Saturday Telegraph Magazine, and stayed there for 18 years. 

“I absolutely loved my job,” says Sheth. “One minute you’re researching the archives of Jackson Pollock; next minute you’re sending Tim Hetherington to Libya; next you’re doing a photoshoot with Beyonce in New York; then you’re photographing the President. It was just phenomenal.” Since then, Sheth has freelanced at numerous publications, taught at universities (she currently teaches at Falmouth University), worked as a photo director at Illustrated London News, and consulted for commercial brands. Sheth has experienced all facets of the industry, inside out, for more than two decades.

“One of the key things for a photo editor is to be a troubleshooter. To be able to be calm and produce a shoot – and to have a really strong work ethic on deadlines”

What does it take to be a photo editor? “You’ve got to have the mindset to research,” Sheth says. “It’s not just about commissioning. I think also you have to have the ability to look beyond the photograph.” In addition to researching, it’s important to remember that photo editing is about matching photographers to assignments, and making sure that shoots and projects run smoothly. “You’ve got to be able to suss the person for the right job,” says Sheth. On a celebrity cover shoot, for example, a photographer might find themselves up against a difficult PR team or a shortened time slot. When assigning this kind of work, Sheth looks for people who are unflappable, and advises that an aspiring editor be unflappable too. “You put the whole team together, so if there is a problem, you have to resolve it,” she says.

“One of the key things for a photo editor is to be a troubleshooter. To be able to be calm and produce a shoot – and to have a really strong work ethic on deadlines.” At Stella, a weekly supplement in The Sunday Telegraph, Sheth works on four or five commissions at once. At the same time, she is researching, managing two interns, thinking about six or seven other stories, and juggling time-zones for shoots happening in New York and Los Angeles. The work is constant, the deadlines keep rolling in; flexibility and strong skills in multitasking are crucial.

Sian Clifford by Phillip Sinden.

Perhaps surprisingly, Sheth doesn’t look first to a photographer’s body of work to make her commissioning decisions: she assigns shoots based on qualities like flexibility and initiative. “First and foremost,” she says, “It’s about personality. I have to know that they’re going to be okay”. Whether it’s a travel story – requiring international research, shooting many kinds of imagery at once, and extra logistics – or a portrait story illustrating a particularly sensitive subject matter, fitting the right person to the job is her top priority. 

“You have to know that the photographer is going to make that job smooth,” she explains. “And if there is a problem, then they are not going to panic, and if they are going to panic they will do it in a way that is not going to upset the whole shoot… I don’t want somebody who needs hand-holding every minute of the day.” Once a relationship has been established, being able to trust the photographer is the most important thing; for her, the quality of the work itself is a given, but it’s the approach to the process that can make the experience of a shoot truly successful. “I’ve never worried so much about the technicality; what I’m worried about is whether they can handle anything that comes their way,” she says. 

Sheth tends to assign smaller shoots to emerging photographers. “My greatest love is the emerging talent, giving somebody a chance to get on the ladder,” she says. Counter to the prevailing email culture, Sheth prefers to phone the photographers she is considering commissioning. “If I don’t know them, I want to hear their voice; I want to know how they sound on the phone; I want to know what their issues are.”

Alexa Chung by Jon Gorrigan.

And how should aspiring photographers go about securing editorial commissions from the likes of Sheth? “Get to know photo editors,” she says. “Do your homework. Make sure you know what their names are. Keep the emails brief, and do not put a link of your work with 50 images; no photo editor is going to download that link.” Instead, she recommends including two or three images in the body of the email, and a link to your website in the footer. 

“If they don’t respond,” she continues, “once a month send an email with a current image that you might’ve taken. It’s just a thought; it’s just saying ‘I’m here’, so that you’re in their mind”. After you’ve made a connection, and had an exchange, you can suggest meeting for a coffee to show some more work. For Sheth, such encounters are a pleasure; nurturing emerging talent is an important part of her role. “I enjoy looking for new photographers and their work,” she says. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction. But also, more importantly, I love good stories. I love journalism.”

Alice Zoo

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London. She is interested in the processes by which people construct meaning for themselves, often focussing on its expression in ritual, celebration, and recounted memory. Her work has been exhibited in public institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Photographic Society, and Royal Albert Hall, and published in British Journal of Photography, FT Weekend Magazine, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.