2019 was a busy year for Toby Kaufmann. A born and bred New Yorker, she started her career in the mid-2000s as director of photography for magazines like GQ, Maxim and Men’s Fitness, and later became the Executive Director of Photography for Refinery29.
Last year, she was hired by Facebook as Creative Director, packed her bags and moved to the West Coast.
Luupe photographer and Rocket Science Magazine founder Pauline Magnenat spoke with Kaufmann to learn more about her career, how she partners with photographers and why you should always bite more than you can chew. We’re including photos from some of Toby’s favorite commissions throughout this interview.
Pauline Magnenat: You studied photography at Parsons and worked as a Director of Photography for Maxim, Men’s Fitness and Fitness) before working as the Executive Director of Photography for Refinery29 and now Creative Director at Facebook. Did you already know, during your studies, that you were more interested in working with photographers than working as a photographer?
Toby Kaufmann: While in college, I thought my life would be more of an artist’s life. Creating bodies of work and showing in galleries, etc. Back then, you really had to make a choice between working as an editor or artist/ photographer. Today, it’s completely acceptable that you would have an art practice and also commission work for a commercial purpose. At this point, I am able to create visions for brands but also work on projects with artists that look more like the bodies of work I hoped to create back in college, which for me is a very satisfying mix.
Magnenat: Did you have any mentors along the way? Are there people in the photo world you specifically go to for advice?
Kaufmann: I definitely have a crew of people I’ve known for a long time. They can call me on my BS or just be an ear to bend about things: Mary Clancey Pace, Krista Prestek, Tara Geraghty and Emily Holland, the list is long! Elisabeth Sinsabaugh, who was the Executive Photography director at NBC, gave me my first job out of college and she has always been really available to me over the years for help.
Magnenat: You’ve been at Facebook for over eight months. While I know you can’t discuss many of the projects you’re working on, can you tell us more about your creative role and how you commission original photography for Facebook?
Kaufmann: I started at Facebook last May after they got in touch with me on LinkedIn, which was a first for me! My role here is to create a vision for photography and video within the Facebook app, and that extends to the various product teams such as MarketPlace or Groups, for example. Before I arrived, there was really no single process in terms of workflow for photography or video to commission. Up to this day, you don’t see original photography on Facebook. The cadence and the thought behind creating something for such a huge audience are much slower, of course than anything else that I’ve ever commissioned but you’ll start to see what we’ve been working on within six months.
Magnenat: How do you figure out the amount of direction you give to a photographer prior to a shoot? Does it vary on the experience of the photographer or the nature of the shoot?
Kaufmann: I create the vision before I know who will shoot it so that I can easily select the perfect person for the job. It sounds simple but many people don’t do that and I’ve seen it over and over again. In a very commercial setting, you need to be able to execute what the brief is exactly so there’s limited flexibility, but in the editorial world, things can shift on set and there’s more room for weird, fun and strange things to happen.
Magnenat: You are very vocal about hiring and empowering women photographers. What would you say are the biggest challenges women still have to face today in the creative industries?
Kaufmann: What I’m hearing now is that there is fatigue around this conversation, which frankly is really sad for me. People don’t want to be ID’ed as a female photographer, which I totally agree with in theory. But there are so many people not thinking about representation…..Still! People like me sit in an echo chamber but there are so many of my colleagues that either view this as a checkmark or don’t consider diversity at all.
Magnenat: Refinery29 does a lot of stories that highlight diversity. You were instrumental in hiring people from different backgrounds as well as conceptualizing shoots and stories that showed women of color or plus-sized women. Is Facebook as conscious as Refinery29 about the importance of it and do you have as much freedom now as you did at Refinery29 to have an impact on these decisions?
Kaufmann: Yes, absolutely. I was lucky to be at Refinery29 during a pivotal time in society and I must say I was skeptical of Facebook, like many because of the news, before I got hired. But upon explaining what I wanted in terms of methodologies and discussing the vision I wanted to bring to the table, it echoed what Facebook wanted in terms of workplace culture. They do want you to bring your authentic self, which is really good for me. They’ve let me develop my own vision and they are very supportive and committed to diversity.
Magnenat: What are your hobbies outside of photography?
Kaufmann: I love to see art and hear artists talk about their work, it really drives my creative spirit. I now live in California, so I spend a tremendous amount of time outdoors as well.
Magnenat: Can you recall one or two specific commissions when you were really impressed by the images the photographer sent?
Kaufmann: I partner with photographers super closely so I almost always know what’s coming back from the shoot since I’m also there. Two projects I really love are The Power of Red Shoes story with Savana Ogburn that we turned into a Wizard of Oz homage. The other is a project I’ve been working on with Naima Green –– Pur·suit is a deck of 54 playing cards featuring queer womxn, trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people.
Magnenat: What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer or creative director starting out? What is something you wish you had been told at the beginning of your career?
Kaufmann: I wish someone had told me at the start of my journey that it is OK to fail. And the sooner you are comfortable with this idea, the sooner you will be able to confidently take risks that might be career-defining or that might end up being massive failures that you’re able to learn from. I always say, become a hustler. Talk to as many people as you can, always evolve and teach yourself something new that is outside your comfort zone.
Magnenat: We’re now in 2020 and there is more content being created than ever, on and offline. What is your recipe to create content that people will not only enjoy for a minute on their phone but remember months or years from now?
Kaufmann: I’d say there are two ingredients. First, you have to be really aware of what is going on in the world in terms of art, photography, painting, culture. You have to absorb as much of that as possible. And having an understanding of where people’s minds are is necessary.
In the beginning, digital was treated like a bastard stepchild and it is unfortunate because it’s such an amazing storytelling device when it is used properly. How can you capture people’s imagination, create an interesting experience while not repeating yourself over and over? I always say I’m not happy unless I’ve bitten more than I can chew and this is what keeps me motivated and interested in continuously making things stronger, better and different.