Sports Illustrated Photo Editor Focuses on Visceral Power of Photography
“For a photo to be effective, it has to be affective. A picture has to move you in some way. It must evoke a visceral reaction in the viewer – crying, laughing, thinking.”
Internationally renowned photo editor Jim Colton, recently retired after a distinguished career at Sports Illustrated (SI), Newsweek, and Associated Press (AP), spent an evening with JMC students, faculty and guests last week, reflecting on the power of photography and the digital evolution. During his 15 years at SI, Colton edited the popular “Leading Off: Pictures of the Week” section at the front of the magazine – prime real estate reserved for the very best photos and photo essays.
Colton’s appearance was the third in JMC’s Diversity Speakers Series, which began this academic year. The series is designed to expose students to successful minorities who can serve as role models in the professions they are studying.
Colton’s influence as a role model was very much in evidence, as he spoke to a capacity crowd in FirstEnergy Auditorium. His influence on photo journalism was equally evident. “Jim Colton has been places and seen things most of us will never see, and not many can determine what makes a compelling photo better than Jim can,” said JMC photojournalism program coordinator Dave LaBelle, who introduced Colton. “He casts a long shadow on the profession. He is known for being patient, uncompromising, passionate, compassionate, dedicated, articulate and enthusiastic.”
Underscoring the importance of professionals engaging with students, JMC Director Thor Wasbotten told students, “When someone of Jim Colton’s caliber comes to Kent State, listen carefully. He has something to teach you.”
For nearly 90 minutes, Colton engaged the students with iconic photographs and the stories behind them. His multimedia presentation spanned a significant range of world – and photographic -- history, from the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima during World War II through iconic photos of the Vietnam War, the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11. “When you think of any of these historic events, you think of these images,” he said. “The power of photography is hard to gauge, but it builds your visual history, what you remember. The brain is a camera, and the eyes are its lenses. Your brain processes over a million images a day, but retains only what it wants to retain. You assimilate images that equate to history as you know it.”
“What’s happened in the last 10 years has not been seen before in our industry. We are in a photo evolution, not revolution. It’s not finished yet,” Colton told the audience. “The total number of pictures in the last two years equals the total number of photos ever taken in history.” In the 1970s, AP’s Daily Report received about 100 photos a day from all over the world, Colton said. Today, by contrast, AP, Reuters, and Getty receive between 15,000 and 20,000 photos a day. As editor of “Leading Off,” Colton had the responsibility of choosing three photos out of 250,000 available photos every week. “The bar was set really, really high,” Colton told the crowd. “But that’s what floats my boat.”
Quantity should not be confused with quality, Colton cautioned. “We have so much to look at it, and a lot of it is crap. We need photo editors to filter it and make sense of it. Photo editors are treasure hunters who find the gem in the box and get it published,” Colton said, citing a growing need for good photo editors.
He spoke candidly about his background. “I have a passion for photography, but I wasn’t technically as strong. So I put all my soul into photo editing and looking at the world through other people’e eyes.”
While recognizing the power and scope of the digital evolution, Colton said that newspapers and magazines remain healthy. “SI has had 3.1 million subscribers for the last 10 years despite all the changes in technology, while there are only about 3,000 who read SI on the iPads. “Newspapers and magazines are trying to reinvent and re-evaluate the best way to present themselves to core subscribers. But some people still want analog and always will.”
A highlight of Colton’s appearance was a multimedia presentation featuring some of SI’s best photos from the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and the 2012 London Summer Olympics. He spoke of the logistical challenges of covering OIympic Games. “The scope of work is enormous. We must find the best photos for the magazine in print, online, on iPads, and on apps.”
Colton closed his presentation by answering questions from students, faculty and guests. In response to a question, he counseled students “you can’t set out to take an iconic image. You can only set out to take the best photo you possibly can. Some of it comes down to luck.” Colton shared his email with KSU students who feel they’ve taken an iconic photo.
He also shared his passion for his craft and encouraged students to find their own passions. “Have passion for whatever you do, whether or not it’s photography. If you don’t have passion for what you do, don’t do it. You need to satisfy your heart, your soul and your rent.” Colton also encouraged students to “give back to the community. If you take a picture of someone in Kent and you promise them a print, send them a print. Little things mean so much.”
Colton’s counsel to JMC photojournalism students continued the next day, when he spent hours reviewing and critiquing portfolios.
Colton’s visit was arranged by JMC photography instructor Scott Galvin, who first met Jim Colton during his junior year at Kent State. Since that time, Galvin has submitted images to Colton, two of which were successfully published in SI's "Leading Off."