Emma Bowkett is a busy woman. As the acclaimed London-based Director of Photography at The Financial Times, photography is on her mind and eyes all the time. She is highly active in the photography community, is a university visiting lecturer and regularly takes part in portfolio reviews, art fairs, and awards.
Bowkett, whose background is deep in the art photography world frequently faces and tackles an interesting challenge: how to segue that knowledge and experience into the world of business and editorial photography.
Pauline Magnenat: You graduated from Goldsmiths with an MA in Image & Communications. How did you start freelance picture editing at the Financial Times?
Emma Bowkett: After graduation, I began teaching in an undergraduate photography program at Goldsmiths. My contract was term-time and one of my colleagues had taken a position at the FT so she asked me to freelance with her during the holidays. I started working on the magazine and connected well with the art director. She kept inviting me back to work on the magazine.
Magnenat: Coming from a fine-art background, were there unexpected challenges you ran into upon entering the editorial world, especially while working at a business-oriented publication?
Bowkett: It was a steep learning curve. I’d done some work on the world news desk so I was familiar with the photo libraries and agencies. FT is a business and economic-focused news publication but it is much more.
Magnenat: What were some of the great moments of your career at the FT so far?
Bowkett: We relaunched the FT Weekend Magazine in 2010 with a more ambitious focus on design and photography and I commissioned Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin for the relaunch cover and Pieter Hugo for the second feature. We run an art story every week and publish three photography special issues per year as well as curating a day of events at Photo London.
We have interviewed some of the artists I admire the most; Lorna Simpson, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Sophie Calle, Jeff Wall, Kerry James Marshall… We work with graduates alongside established artists, always trying to push the boundaries of what photography can be in an editorial context.
Magnenat: Did you have any mentors along the way? Are there people in the photo world you specifically go to for advice?
Bowkett: Liz Jobey, the former associate editor at the FT Weekend Magazine who recently went freelance, continues to be my mentor. We have worked together for 9 years and she’s an incredibly intelligent and generous person as well as a great friend. I am fortunate to have several people advising me globally – people who offer a diverse vision integral to my role at FT and beyond.
Magnenat: Aside from your work at the FT, you often judge photography competitions, participate in portfolio reviews, take part in panels and mentor up-and-coming photographers. Could you briefly describe what each of these activities brings to your practice as a photo editor?
Bowkett: Photo editing is one of a number of elements in my career to date. I am curating and teaching and these external activities inform my practice broadly. I am able to meet and converse with artists in the industry on an international level and this allows me to think and engage more deeply and think globally. I realize one is not expected to know everything, but to know who to ask.
Magnenat: I’m curious how you assign stories to photographers and work with some who might not have a lot of experience shooting business stories or well-known subjects. Do you tend to give a lot of directions to the photographers you commission?
Bowkett: I feel some things happen serendipitously. While cruising through Instagram recently, I discovered the work of Tania Franco Klein, so I reached out to her. A few days later, in an unconnected conversation to Rose Shoshana, founder of the wonderful Rose Gallery in San Francisco, she happened to mention a new artist she was about to show, Tania Franco Klein. A week ago, I was given an assignment in LA to commission a photographer to shoot John Malkovich. I asked Tania if she would be interested to make a portrait for us. Turns out she is a fan and made the most beautiful pictures.
I’m in a privileged position as the magazine has a strong reputation for working with artists in a respectful way. I consider the work I produce to be collaborative, I like to give the photographs as much creative freedom as possible so that they can create something unique and in their own vision.
Magnenat: Can you recall one or two specific commissions when you were really impressed by the images the photographer sent?
Bowkett: William Kentridge’s portrait photographed by Zanele Muholi which I commissioned for FT. Muholi doesn’t shoot assignment work so I feel especially proud that they made this picture for us. Sometimes, you just need to ask.
John Edmonds’ portrait of Lorna Simpson also comes to mind. They are friends and I feel this intimacy comes through beautifully in this portrait of her.
And Gillian Wearing retracing her steps and making a self-portrait in the Aylesham shopping center, where 24 years prior, she made her video work ‘Dancing in Peckham’.
Magnenat: How important is it to you to discover and commission new visual voices, especially when assigning stories at the FT when the subjects might often be male and white?
Bowkett: I am focused on diversity within my role at the FT Weekend Magazine and when curating. Historically, the photography industry has been dominated by white men, with very few alternative voices. And yes, of course, some of the subjects covered across FT will inevitably be white and male-focused. I strive to commission more women and people of color and pitch ideas to my editor that reflect diversity. It can mean digging deeper and researching further, but it’s our responsibility to broaden the discourse and engage readers universally.
I am curating an exhibition this month, called Creativity Works, with Magnum Photos and a charity called Create Jobs. They work with underrepresented young Londoners to enable them to get jobs in the creative industries. They are a wonderful example of where we should be focussing our energy – and I feel proud to be supporting this endeavor.
Magnenat: What is something you wish you had been told at the beginning of your career that you could tell an aspiring photographer starting out today?
Bowkett: Be curious, work hard and be kind. Trust your instincts and support your peers.
Magnenat: What are you hoping to see more of, in the photo world, in 2020?
Bowkett: I want to see more inclusivity and diversity in the photo world in 2020. We are living through challenging political and environmental times and I would like to see artists respond to this, bringing these complex concepts into sharp focus, towards clarity.