Photo editor Sara Urbaez discusses the importance of personal projects, making work that speaks to your values, and why there is still room for optimism in the photographic industry.
In her own words, Sara Urbaez is a photo nerd – and a very busy one at that. A photo editor and producer who worked at Departures, Wired and Airbnb, she recently founded LISTO, a new online curatorial platform devoted to dismantling colonial tendencies in photography.
Urbaez won’t sit in meetings and try to pitch BIPOC photographers to gatekeepers anymore. But she’ll never stop amplifying diverse storytellers and making sure the photography industry accurately represents the cultures and individuals in front of the lens.
Pauline Magnenat in Conversation with Sara Urbaez
Pauline Magnenat: How did you first engage with the photographic industry and what keeps you engaged with it today?
Sara Urbaez: The first meaningful professional engagement I had with the industry was directly out of college when I worked as an intern for The Walther Collection with Brendan Embser. There, I was introduced to the photography of Malick Sidibe, Samuel Fosso, and Seydou Keita. I felt deeply inspired by the diverse imagery and being in close proximity with art from all over the world.
Magnenat: You started your career at Art + Auction, and Modern Painters, before moving to Departures, then WIRED, and later, Airbnb. Where did you cut your teeth and learn the most about being a photo editor?
Urbaez: WIRED. It was my first introduction to producing and curating imagery outside of print. I worked across all platforms and navigating how to use photography in a digital space helped me grow immensely. Anna Goldwater is the DP and encouraged everyone to participate in portfolio reviews and cultivated an environment where artists would frequently share their work with us. I learned so much from every person in the WIRED photo department.
Magnenat: What do you look for in a photographer’s portfolio? What are the common mistakes photographers tend to make when they reach out and send their portfolios?
Urbaez: I am often drawn to a photographer’s personal projects. It’s a great way to get to know their work, what inspires them, and how they see the world. I recommend that photographers do research before sending work to editors: what specific images or projects reflect the company you are interested in working for? Tailoring your edit to align with the brand’s interest will set you apart.
Magnenat: Is there a secret trick to save images you’re not happy with and how collaborative is your process with photographers you commission?
Urbaez: Over the years, my process has become much more collaborative. I’m really interested in taking time to talk with photographers and hear how they want to approach an assignment. Early in my career, I felt I had to do exactly what brands asked without considering the input of the photographer. Now, I make it a point to give space for feedback on how things went for both of us. With open communication on either side, I can learn how to better support artists when they are out on assignment.
Magnenat: How has quarantine impacted your work – and your way of working with photographers?
Urbaez: The way work is commissioned in the industry is completely changing. Many more editors have prioritized finding locally based photographers and ways to ensure safety on set. It is inspiring to see the creative ways our industry is continuing to produce imagery in these unprecedented times.
Magnenat: Earlier this year, you founded Listo, an online platform devoted to dismantling colonialism in photography by providing a space that honors artists of color.
Were you inspired to start your own platform after working for companies that were predominantly white? A reckoning seems to be finally happening and editors are actively looking to hire photographers of color. But it was not always the case before and there is a long way to go.
Urbaez: My love of learning about new photographers and the importance of representation in art is what keeps me engaged with photography today and ultimately what inspired me to launch LISTO. I’ve worked at so many different places, all white-dominant, and for a long time, I felt isolated. At the beginning of the pandemic, a major shift happened for me: I lost my job and I lost a family member to COVID.
Experiencing such an intense loss really fueled me. I found my voice and I’m not just going to sit in meetings and try to pitch diverse photographers to gatekeepers anymore. The industry has a long history of preventing cultures from representing themselves, so my mission with LISTO is to dismantle this practice and amplify diverse storytellers. I should also mention that I couldn’t have launched LISTO without the amazing work from designer Tiffany Chan – she’s been wonderful to work with.
I don’t need to spend time and energy convincing gatekeepers to value BIPOC artists, I can spend that time and energy with BIPOC artists instead, curating my own space. I’ve always been interested in diverse storytellers. It’s part of my job and it should be part of everyone’s job, right?
Magnenat: Exactly. And you’ve put so much time and effort into this. Don’t you think you’re making it too easy for photo editors to have this incredible platform they can access directly, without having to go search and look for photographers they’d like to hire themselves?
Urbaez: This is such a great question. Part of me feels concerned that editors are just giving away their work for free. There are so many lists popping up everywhere. At the same time, they are an incredible resource. My intention with LISTO is to curate the work and present it in a thoughtful way. I hope that this inspires more people in the industry to be more curious, to search for artists on their own, and start to build their own relationships.
Magnenat: Who was the last photographer you commissioned? What made you hire them for the job?
Urbaez: Stella Kallina is the last photographer I commissioned. She was so thoughtful and thorough, an absolute pleasure to work with. She spoke Russian and had a connection to Moscow, where the assignment was, which was important to our team. We wanted to make sure the photographer had a deep understanding of the local culture and language.
Magnenat: Who else inspires you these days?
Urbaez: There are artists creating incredible work – Alexis Hunley, Melissa Alcena, Oriana Koren, and Bethany Mollenkof are all top of mind. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with them individually and I’m inspired by the power of their lived experience that comes through in their art.
Magnenat: Do you envision Listo as a way to show their portfolios or do you see it as a long-term project focused on mentoring photographers as their career evolves?
Urbaez: Right now, I focus on having one-on-one conversations with photographers focusing on specific projects or portfolios. I offer them curation help, I provide contacts and connections if they need any – I care deeply about every single person on the platform. We’re going to do open calls and curated exhibitions on the website, but the connection with the photographers is truly the most important aspect of LISTO.
Magnenat: Do you think this period of reckoning will last amongst the creative industries?
Urbaez: I’m going to continue amplifying the voices of BIPOC artists as I’ve always done. This is not a trend. I’m not that interested in worrying about the different types of virtue signaling people/companies are doing. We know what artists you’ve hired, and we’ve heard about the complete lack of support for non-white colleagues that are on your team.
No one is fooled by you hiring a few BIPOC photographers in a moment of high visibility. Brilliant BIPOC creatives will continue to push the industry forward and demand change as we always have. The shortcomings and status quo that exist today come from the people who hold power and I don’t see anyone resigning or giving that power up.
Magnenat: Are you optimistic about younger people who might be in junior positions today – but one day, will have the power to change things?
Urbaez: I’m so inspired by younger people in the industry, specifically, Mai Shotz and Whitney Matewe at the New Yorker; and Phuc Pham and Lauryn Hill, who are both at WIRED. I’m blown away by the work they do and their commitment to pushing the industry forward. It gives me hope. One day they will be the ones making decisions. There is absolutely room for optimism in the photo industry – my advice for emerging photographers is to connect with people who you see commissioning and producing work that really speaks to your values.
Magnenat: Ultimately, what keeps you engaged with the photo industry?
Urbaez: The photographers. The images. Looking at the beautiful images coming from so many different people with such different backgrounds. Ultimately, it’s about the artwork these photographers make. Without their work, none of us would be here. I absolutely love photography!