By Russell Boyce
Being a picture editor for a wire agency at the London 2012 Olympics is like being a referee at a title-deciding football match. If everything goes well no one really notices you; but one big mistake and you are the most hated person in the stadium. If you call it wrong and miss the picture that captures the vivid moment of sporting agony or ecstasy you risk the jeers and frustrations of the whole team. The reward? A good picture editor has the chance to select that defining picture, the shot that the photographer doesn’t even know he or she has taken, or to crop a frame that changes a good picture into a great one.
At the London Games, Reuters has more than 55 photographers, 17 picture editors and 25 processors. My role is to edit the Gymnastics and Athletics. Below is a picture of my screen for the men’s 200m final.
Photographers have to lug pounds of gear in sweltering sunshine or heavy rain, arrive early at the venue, fight for a position or an angle, argue with anyone that they feel is in their way, prepare themselves mentally to capture a fleeting moment and all the while competing alongside the world’s best shooters who are doing the same. A fraction of a second miss and their mistake will stare out at them from papers, websites and books. They must also be technically astute enough to stream their pictures from their cameras or laptops to the editor.
An editor sits in a temporary workspace at the venue and can be bombarded with hundreds of images, often at the same time, of the same moment taken by different photographers, each believing they have shot the iconic image. Managing expectations is one of an editor’s people skills, saying “well your shot wasn’t as good as his or hers…” just doesn’t cut the mustard when thrashing it out in the bar afterwards, even though that might be the ugly truth. At any given moment an editor could be looking at a multitude of images and so needs to understand how the story is unfolding. This same editor could be looking at three different events simultaneously, communicating with photographers who are shooting at different venues at the same time, understanding the context of events that they are shooting.
Once the editor is satisfied the picture is the right one, the image is then sent to a processor. The word “processor” falls short when describing someone who has a skill set that I can only dream of. An uncaptioned picture appears on the processor’s screen, and then another and then another – and this bombardment continues for up to ten hours. The processor identifies the athletes in the image (often using the competitor number if the face is obscured) and writes a caption which answers the questions: Who? What? Why? When? Where? Processors need to add technical details that allow the image to be sent to our global clients. They are also responsible for ensuring the picture is color balanced, and for finessing a crop, for example cutting out unwanted lines from the picture’s edges and spiking slightly unfocussed images. If there is a caption mistake the buck stops with the processor.