Not many of us have our pictures viewed by over a million people a day – unless your photo happens to be selected for publication in a newspaper. Paul Sanders was Picture Editor for The Times till 2011. Every day he would have to review upwards of 20,000 pictures, for 14 to 16 hours a day, to identify the best photos for that day’s edition. In his presentation to Photocraft he let us into some of the secrets of newspaper photography.

For instance, if you want an image selected for the front page, the trick is to hide your best picture in the middle of the pile that’s being reviewed by the editorial meeting, skip over it, poker-faced, and let the Editor claw it back as ‘their own idea’! Photoshopping or pixelating out any part of a news image is a sackable offence – readers have to be able to trust the honesty and integrity of the newspaper. Getting unique images and stealing a march on competitors depends on building contacts with ordinary people – including sometimes scheming to get sole access to their family photo album! 

Paul recounted how one of his photographers had handled a severely truncated photo shoot with President G W Bush. 48 frames were shot in just five minutes, thanks to the photographer knowing what he wanted and how to get it: ‘powerful people respect decisive people’, he said, so it was important to be ‘respectful, but forceful’.

Many of Paul’s stories and images were hauntingly tragic. He showed a 2008 image of a young female AIDS victim from Zimbabwe, Sarudzai Gumbo, who was suffering from a number of different AIDS-related illnesses. Her face was disfigured by open sores and she was very frail, in a country that, thanks to Mugabe, had next to no remaining health care. Apparently, after Times photographer, Richard Mills, working undercover, took her picture, readers of The Times donated enough money to move her to a properly equipped hospital, but sadly she died shortly afterwards. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story: Richard Millstook his own life later that year, depressed that his pictures were not changing the world – and probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Paul confessed that he was still haunted by this and would never have sent him back to Zimbabwe, had he known his state of mind.

The Royal Wedding cover ©The Times

The last royal wedding, in 2011, was a source of much happier stories. Paul described the challenge, on that occasion, of identifying the right photo for The Times front page. The image was to wrap around the front and back pages. The most obvious picture would have William and Kate kissing on the balcony of the palace, in a deliberate echo of the iconic Charles and Diana wedding photo, but this image would have been hard to wrap around. Paul told how he’d had a huge row with his Editor as to which photo should be used, but had stood his ground, and ultimately had got his way. Instead of the kiss, The Times featured an image of the happy couple driving from Buckingham Palace to Clarence House in a vintage Aston Martin. Paul’s judgement was proved absolutely right when this souvenir edition of The Times not only uniquely stood out from competitors, but completely sold out and boosted sales for some time. Ironically, though, Paul revealed that the photographer of this shot only ever earned £175 from the picture!

If you ever take a really good photo of breaking news, Paul advised that you should send it in to a news desk straightaway: ‘news doesn’t wait for you… if you get something good, move it!’ Ultimately, Paul lost faith in newspaper picture editing, left The Times and has started to rediscover himself in landscape photography. However, that’s another story, for another day. You can read about it here.

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