Photographer and New York Times photo editor Alana Celii discusses her expansive career and how editing and sequencing are essential to visualizing a story.
“My dream at seventeen was to work as a photo editor at a lifestyle magazine like Nylon.” Alana Celii gravitated to photography early on – not only through backyard explorations with a 110 Kodak camera, but with an eye towards photo editing. Her studies at Parsons School for Design helped shape how she envisioned telling stories with her own images as well as with other photographers.
More than a decade later, Celii’s CV includes photographing, producing and editing for publications including Time and The Wall Street Journal. In her current role at The New York Times, she advocates commissioning work from emerging photographers for their spark and storytelling voice.
We speak with Celii to learn more about her path as a photographer and producer plus insights into shaping visual culture in a rapidly changing world
The Luupe: You have a dynamic career as a photographer and editor spanning commercial, editorial and art/personal work. Tell us a bit about what got you started/ your journey.
Alana Celii: I became interested in photography at a very young age. My parents bought me my first camera when I was 3 or 4. It was a 110 camera, and I would explore our suburban neighborhood taking photos of what I lovingly called the “front field” and “back field.” The back field was essentially a construction site—mounds of dirt and plots that were waiting to become homes.
It was in high school, though, that I started to consider photography as a potential career. I created a darkroom in my parent’s garage, and received a fellowship from the now defunct Look Look magazine to attend pre-college at the School of Visual Arts. Even back then I wanted to be a photo editor—my dream at seventeen was to work at a lifestyle magazine like Nylon.
The Luupe: You were also pretty active in the photo world, and in magazines early on, right?
Celii: I attended Parsons for undergrad, and throughout school I was very involved in the online photo community. I graduated during the recession, and took the first job that I was offered as a registrar at an online auction company. I wore many hats—one of them was as a photographer shooting products for their website. When my college thesis teacher contacted me about a paid internship at TIME, I applied immediately.
After working on the magazine and TIME.com, I started working at The Wall Street Journal on their newly launched real estate section, and eventually landed at The New York Times. In the last seven years, I’ve covered a few different beats, but my current role is covering tech on the Business desk.
The Luupe: Beyond shaping your own photography, do you see your experience studying photo at Parsons School of Design influencing your role as a photo editor?
Celii: Definitely. I’ve always been interested in curation and production. In school, I helped organize Photo Feast, which curated exhibitions at Parsons as well as put together a yearly, one night only pin-up show with schools from across New York City. I also spent the summers working as a TA for Parsons’ pre-college program.
I think teaching and being able to give constructive criticism is a small, but important role in my current job. Outside of school, my friend Grant Willing and I created an online only gallery in our apartment called The Rotating Gallery. Artists could send in their works or even random objects via the mail. We would scan and exhibit online everything we “showed” on our living room wall.
We also started the collective, Fjord Photo, which showcased the work of photographers, and later housed a blog curated by Veronica Rafael Pavan where she would interview emerging photographers. I also collaborated with Grant and others at Humble Arts Foundation, and in 2008, we published The Collector’s Guide to Emerging Art Photography.
The Luupe: Has working as a photo editor changed how you think about your own work?
Celii: As someone who went to art school, I never thought I would end up as a journalist. I’ve learned so much in terms of reporting and producing, but more importantly I’ve learned a different way of seeing.
As a photographer, I now know what editors are looking for in terms of editorial shoots. My personal work up until this point has been from a more artistic lens where I blend landscapes, still life, and portraiture together in a narrative format. That imagery is from an emotional and personal perspective.
The new project I’m now researching and will begin to shoot next month relies on what I’ve learned from a decade of producing photojournalism. I want to push myself to blend my artistic lens with a documentary based project. Funnily, I still have imposter syndrome when shooting out on the street. I’m really hoping to change that. In general, I’ve been carrying a camera with me, and each year I try to do a 100 days project where I take a photo every day.
The Luupe: On the flip side – and to your point about the narrative mix in your work – one thing that stands out in your personal work is a kind of poetic meandering. You avoid typology and each image feels like an interconnected footnote to an open ended story. Do you see this approach to “seeing” coming out in how you edit, sequence, work with other people’s images?
Celii: Editing is so integral to my personal practice that my editing style definitely comes through when I work with other photographer’s imagery. What I love about editing is the surprise and tension you can create by pairing contrasting or echoing images together. I also use movement, color, and shape as guiding principles in my sequencing.
Editing for a book or a sequence online is very different from editing for an online story or a print spread. With the former, you’ve removed any context, and the edit creates the narrative; with the latter, you want to work within and elevate the text.
Symbolism is integral to my personal editing process. For example, one of my favorite pairings from my book Paradise Falling is the image of the Joshua tree juxtaposed with the black and white photograph of an arm reaching. The images are from different years, different places, and yet they mirror each other.
The Joshua tree was named by Mormon settlers wandering in the Mojave. The tree’s outstretched branches reminded the Mormons of the prophet Joshua reaching his arms to heaven. Joshua trees are a symbol of hope amongst scarcity. Their beauty is in their slow growth and struggle to survive in the most dire of conditions. The black and white photographs within my book signify the Zodiac—each sign rules a part of the body.
This particular photograph, Gemini, represents the nervous system including the arms, hands, and fingers. Gemini is a mutable sign in a constant state of flux. It represents duality. We go through seasons, and I definitely went through mine while photographing this series. I was of two minds, and I was in flux. Gemini is also known as “the light of interplay,” and isn’t that what photography kind of is, too?
The Luupe: Do you have an all time favorite assignment that you produced?
Celii: One of my favorite stories I’ve worked on this year was pitched to me by Alana Paterson on the booming psychedelic mushroom industry in British Columbia. We produced it together, working to get access to labs and farms across the province. Not only are the images beautiful and otherworldly, but I think it’s an important topic in terms of its potential beneficial use for PTSD and depression.
The Luupe: As we come (fingers crossed) out of quarantine, can you talk a bit about how the past year-plus has influenced how you assign, produce, etc stories?
Celii: In terms of the pandemic, the most important factor in assigning was to keep photographers safe. I think the biggest shift for me was a lack of access to indoor facilities that I normally would be able to photograph in, and a necessary shift toward a lot of outdoor, environmental portraits. I don’t see access sticking post-pandemic, and I’m hopeful that we’re slowly getting back to “normal.”
The Luupe: Building on that, how has the mainstream reckoning on racial and cultural inequity shifted how you work with photographers and assign stories?
Celii: Last summer reinforced for me that this is a position of power, and it is so important to assign a range of voices for coverage. Learning is critical. Diversity is critical. Not only to tell stories about one’s own community or perspective, but to also apply that perspective to a variety of reporting and features.
One of the best parts of this job is the ability to work with emerging photographers who may not have the most experience or a large portfolio of editorial work yet, sometimes due to limited access or opportunities.
The Times has a lot of eyes on it, and therefore a lot of influence in elevating an emerging photographer’s work. When I hire photographers, I want them to shoot as if they are shooting personal work both stylistically and contextually, and to give them the space for their creativity and voice to make an impact.
Photography is an important tool in combating racial and social inequity, and as gatekeepers, we have the responsibility to be equitable in who we assign to tell stories.
The Luupe: What advice do you have to photographers looking to break into editorial and get their work in front of those gatekeepers?
Celii: Portfolio reviews! The Times does a free, yearly review with editors and producers from across the industry. Also do your research and email editors. Even if they don’t always respond, they’re usually looking. While I think that social media is a powerful tool in gaining exposure and connecting, I do not think that the number of followers you have correlates to the amount of success you have or how good of a photographer you are.
Though it is important to use these tools, I would implore any emerging photographer to submit their work to various platforms. I’m constantly looking at online publications for new photographers. The majority of my shoots are not in New York. For a past lecture I gave to graduating seniors, I created an ongoing photographer’s resource guide with links to some online platforms, communities, open calls, etc., which you can view here.
The Luupe: How about for folks looking to get into photo editing?
Celii: I think becoming involved in online communities, emailing folks you admire, or starting your own publication is an excellent way to make connections. My path is fairly straightforward as I had a paid internship that helped launch my career. I know that’s not always the case for some – access can be incredibly difficult, especially since my college connections helped me land an interview.
I still would recommend applying to a paid internship or fellowship at a place that you’re interested in, or to start out by freelancing as an editor at a publication. The Times offers a yearly fellowship program, and we’re currently looking for freelance and staff editors.
The Luupe: You’ve worked at TIME, Wall Street Journal and NYT. Has your role and approach to producing and editing differed at each publication?
Celii: I think the only difference is that at each publication I gained more experience and thus gained more responsibility. My initial role at TIME was essentially as a junior editor where I did a lot of photo research for front of book content. Now, a decade into my career, I’m pitching visual first stories where I concept ideas, and work to get a reporter and editor on board to help bring it to life.
The Luupe: That’s amazing! Have you had any mentors along the way who have been really supportive or influential in your career and how you think about photography and image culture?
Celii: I’ve had a few teachers over the years who have helped push my practice, gave me inspiration whether that be through artists or writers, recommended me for jobs, and my high school art teacher even sold me her enlarger. While I graduated with a lot of student loan debt, I do not regret my decision to attend Parsons because of their impact. I don’t think I would be as successful in my photo editing career if it wasn’t for them.
The Luupe: What was the best piece of advice you hold with you to this day?
Celii: Don’t get dissuaded by rejection. I would apply that to both my career as a photo editor and as a photographer. As a photographer, I get rejected a lot, but I keep making new work and applying.
In terms of editing, I’ve followed Jason Fulford’s suggestion of cutting up your contact sheets like playing cards. I think as we become more and more digital, editing with tangible photos becomes more important and shifts your way of seeing when you’re not staring at a screen, clicking and dragging.
The Luupe: As the world shifts, technology shifts….everything shifts, what are you most excited about in your role as an editor and in your own work? What are you most anxious about?
Celii: I think the Internet has made photography a more democratic space. It’s easier for emerging photographers to gain exposure and make connections without the traditional art school pipeline.
On the flip side, someone needs to make a new photo sharing app! Something I think a lot about is access, and having an Internet or platform that doesn’t restrict whose work gets to be seen and whose story gets to be told is important. As Instagram seemingly shifts to become more of a TikTok competitor, I see there being a real need for someone to create a photo first app that is more community oriented.
I miss the sense of community that online spaces from the late nineties or early aughts brought about that I think Instagram has commodified.