Lessons from a Portfolio Review

Earlier this fall, way back in October, we offered one photographer the chance to attend NYC Fotoworks portfolio review in NY. This two-day event brought together some of the top editors and photo buyers in the industry with photographers from around the world. It was a great opportunity to get face time with a lot of editors in one place and we were happy to award the pass to Meridith Kohut, a photojournalist and PhotoShelter member based in Caracas Venezuela.

A few weeks after the event we received a lovely note from Meridith thanking us for the opportunity. We decided to follow up with her to see just what she got out of the event and what advice she could share with other photographers on maximizing your time at a portfolio review.


Q: Where did you grow up?  
Meridith: I grew up in Texas, and am now based in Caracas, Venezuela.

Q: How did you get your start in photography?
Meridith: I went to J-school at University of Texas, Austin and focused my studies in photojournalism, then started out working in the field as an assistant to Magnum photographer, Eli Reed. Working for him was an amazing learning opportunity…he taught me a lot about navigating the industry, but more importantly, about empathy, trust, human connections and how to take photos from your heart.

Q: What drew you to photojournalism? 
Meridith: Eugene Smith, Walker
Evans, Gordon Parks, Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson, Sebasti√£o
Salgado, Lewis Hine and heaps of idealism and desire to pursue a career
where my work could make a positive difference.


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image by Meridith Kohut

Q: How would you describe your photographic style? 
Meridith: A lot of photographers talk about the need to find your niche and develop some signature style…I can appreciate how doing so could be important in fine art, portraiture or commercial photography, but don’t think it’s relevant to photojournalism. When I’m in the field, I’m focused on the message, the content, the emotions people are feeling…and framing the shot that best captures the truth of the moment I’m in. That is the photojournalist’s job, to witness and show an honest depiction of what happened.  Strong composition and aesthetics of course make an image more powerful, but at least for me, they are always secondary. I prefer a simple composition that says something, than a beautifully composed image that tells me nothing…it is more important for an audience to see and feel the person or people in a photo, not the photographer and their photographic style.

Q: What do you shoot with?
Meridith: A Nikon D300. 

Q: What else do you have in your camera bag? 
Meridith: A 30/1.4 and 50/1.8, an extra CF card and battery.  I like to be as agile and unobtrusive as possible in the field, so I keep my bag small and light.

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image by Meridith Kohut

Q: You have shot for a lot of major publications. How has your relationship with Editors changed as the publishing industry has undergone major shifts? 
Meridith: Most notably, my clients are running wire photos or licensing stock from my archive for coverage that in the past, they would give an assignment for. I used to get a lot more daily news, small, one-day assignments. Now, the majority of my assignments are multimedia packages and multi-day features.  I prefer shooting features anyway, though, so it has been a nice change.

Editors also have more freelancers to choose from, with so many staff positions recently eliminated, the freelance market is undeniably more saturated, both with emerging photographers unable to get staff positions, and veteran photographers with decades of experience whose positions have been eliminated. To remain competitive, I’ve found it essential to adapt, add skill sets, learn multimedia, find stories that no one else is doing and diversify my clientele to include more non-editorial clients.

Q: What advice would you give to photographers looking to book work with major news publications?
Meridith: Personal projects are really important, especially when you’re first starting out. Make sure that your portfolio shows that you understand how to construct a photo essay, and tell a story with images. It isn’t enough if you’re an amazing photographer, you also have to be an amazing journalist. Research the publications that you want to shoot for, and only pitch them stories that are fresh, well thought out, and relevant to their audience.

Q: How did you establish strong relationships with editors? And what’s the most important thing you do to maintain those relationships?
Meridith: When I was transitioning from being Eli’s assistant to shooting assignments on my own, Eli told me that the secret to keeping an editor happy is to make great images, make your deadline, and to make it look easy, every single time. Taking a picture is relatively easy…frame a composition and dial in your exposure. Dealing with all of the variables of getting access to the people and place that you need to make that photo is the hard part. Can you get to an indigenous tribe’s camp in the middle of a jungle in another country in the next 48 hours?  Find a family of a homicide victim that will let you photograph the funeral, by tomorrow?  Editors have told me that they like working with me because I’m low maintenance and always come back with photos.  I don’t complain or make excuses, and I’ve never missed a deadline, missed a flight or not responded to an email. There are loads of photographers that make better photos than I do, but being consistently dependable is a huge reason why editors choose me to shoot their assignments.

MKohut_Photoshelter_Blog - 05.jpgimage by Meridith Kohut 

Q: The NYC Fotoworks event was a great opportunity to meet a lot of editors and art buyers in one place. Why is it important to attend portfolio reviews and network with editors?
Meridith: Being a freelancer based in South America, to stay on an editor’s radar, I focus on continually producing new work, pitching stories, and making editor rounds at least once a year to meet face to face. Events like NYC Fotoworks are really valuable, because they allow photographers based outside of New York the opportunity to meet with a lot of editors in a short amount of time. It’s quick, only 15 minutes with each editor, but it gives you the chance to introduce yourself and your work, and if they think you’re a good match for them, the ability to contact them, or send them pitches in the future.

I met with 15 editors during the two day Fotoworks event, then stayed for another week making the rounds with editors I currently work with, and doing follow up meetings with editors that I had met at Fotoworks. In addition to just making human contact with people that I have emailed with for the past year, these meetings are invaluable to get feedback, learn what I need to do to improve, and in what direction the publication is moving. 

Q: How do you display your work at a portfolio review?
Meridith: I made a 62 page Blurb book of the black and white personal project that I’m currently working on, about insecurity in Venezuela. I also brought a laptop with slideshows of color work customized for each editor, and postcards with a photo and my contact information to leave with each reviewer.

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image by Meridith Kohut

Q: What was some of the best advice or connections that you made at the NYC FotoWorks review event?
Meridith: The majority of editors I met with were more interested in my personal project, and spent most of our time discussing what it is missing and how to improve the edit. A founding member of Contact Press completely inspired me by explaining how implementing human truths in photographs bridge compassion between the people we photograph and audiences.  An editor from Time gave me some amazing advice about pairing diptychs, the director of my first choice agency offered me a contract, and a curator hooked me up to visit a master photographer whose work I admire. 

I’d like to add a huge thank you to all of the reviewers and organizers of NYC Fotoworks, and to everyone at Photoshelter for your generosity and for giving me the opportunity to attend! It was a really positive experience, I learned a lot and met so many incredible editors. I’m back in South America inspired and much better connected, thank you for making it happen!!!  

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