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For One Photo Editor, The Key to Success is Mentorship
For One Photo Editor, The Key to Success is Mentorship
by The Luupe
Photo editor Allison Retina Stewart is making waves - not only in how she helps brands and photographers tell stories with images but in how she's helping a younger generation of creatives excell thru mentorship.
Allison Retina Stewart is a photo editor, researcher, and photographer who has worked across advertising, sports, media, and editorial industries to create authentic visual stories. Most recently, she was the photo editor at Godfrey Dadich Partners, helping brands create meaningful content that breaks from manipulative strategies to solve real-world problems.
Based in her hometown, Houston, Texas, Stewart has also spent the past few years developing Free Juice, her networking non-profit whose mission is to support BIPOC professionals working in photography every step of the way.
We spoke with Stewart about her creative journey, key tips for photo editors and photographers alike, and the power of networking and mentorship.
▲ Meet Allison Retina Stewart. This and above portrait by Hunter Hyde
The Luupe: You've built an amazing and inspiring career as a photo editor and mentor and founder of Free Juice. What motivated you to go beyond your own photography and work with others?
Allison Retina Stewart: Honestly, living in New York shaped my mind and has impacted that decision, how I appreciate and advocate for the importance of networking and building with your peers. Networking was something introduced to me as a student at Parsons.
My professors would always stress getting to know everyone and their work because who knows what or who you'll need in the future and where you'll end up. That was real and the best advice I'm glad I listened to. A couple of years after graduation, I realized that being behind the camera was not as fulfilling as it once was. I was always more passionate about my work.
Thank goodness I was awarded positions aligned with my most authentic work as an artist. Still, also, in those years, I realized that those opportunities would likely be few and far between — and that if I wanted the income I desired, I needed to figure out the business of this industry.
That leap into photo editing allowed me to have broader conversations about this industry and learn things I didn't know (or learn in school).
I've become fascinated by learning how to best advocate for the industry I love, which is understanding it through and through—the best of both worlds. I get to create the overlying vision of a project rather than physically making it. That, for me, is my newfound joy.
▲ Photo editing for Microsoft
▲ Visual Identity for Tanium. Photo edited by Allison Retina Stewart
The Luupe: You recently left Godfrey Dadich Partners - I was reading more about their "The New Editorial" philosophy around creating more meaningful, resonant, non-manipulative content. Can you talk a bit about how this shaped your work there as a photo editor?
Stewart: The New Editorial is a genius concept formulated by co-founder Patrick Godfrey and Scott Dadich. Patrick has a background as a strategist, marketer, and entrepreneur. Scott comes from an editorial experience; previously the EIC of Wired Magazine and the Creative Director at Texas Monthly.
So, when you bring together two genius minds, you get progressive principles and ideas. The New Editorial is a concept designed to help organizations tell better stories—from documentary films and long-form journalism to corporate strategies and brand marketing campaigns. Together, Godfrey Dadich collaborations include Nike, The Obama Foundation, IBM, Google, Palo Alto Networks, Adyen, Lyft, and Apple, among others.
▲ Photo research by Allison Retina Stewart for Glossier
The Luupe: What did your day-to-day look like at Godfrey Dadich?
Stewart: Daily, I was doing everything from photo research collaborating with the director of photography, Rosey Lakos, establishing or refining a client's photo direction, purchasing and packaging assets, commissioning photographers, or retouching — every day was different.
The Luupe: What are you looking for in photographers you commission or collaborate with?
Stewart: I'm typically looking for photographers with a distinct perspective on their work. I love meeting with artists who are great storytellers and can contribute to the story I'm working on.
▲ Photo editing for Ayden. Photo credit: Jake Stangel
The Luupe: From your experience working with Godfrey Dadich and other brands and platforms, do you have any advice for photographers looking to get in touch with editors?
Stewart: I always encourage photographers to reach out with new work and request a portfolio review, so I can see what they're up to. I love subscription lists and staying up to date.
I tell photographers, though — when reaching out to a photo editor without a prior relationship, to be professional and present a mutually beneficial purpose upfront. I don't respond to pitches or resumes sent on social media. What I find is that a lot of people reach out and are only concerned with taking. Give me, give me & take, take. Quality is everything.
My advice: You'll have much more success with one intentional email to a director or photo editor you've researched instead of a bunch of aimless, unsolicited emails.
▲ Personal work by Allison Retina Stewart
The Luupe: Has working as a photo editor influenced your own photography?
Stewart: Being a photo editor has made me aware and intentional about everything. Not only my work but about my brand as well.
Photo Editors essentially dictate what is cool and how to interact with interpreting an idea or purpose. That responsibility forces you to be intentional; about diversity, inclusion, perspective, thoughts, and everything. Because, most of the time, your decisions as the photo editor represent and reflect all people.
▲ Personal work by Allison Retina Stewart
The Luupe: In a feature for Format Magazine, you talk about the importance of inclusive representation, of Black photo editors shaping the narrative and so much more. What positive shifts have you seen lately that inspire you?
Stewart: The acknowledgment of the facts is the most positive shift. Acceptance is the essential step before evolution. I've always been a person who has brought people together, so before Free Juice was a nonprofit for mentorship, it was a collective of creatives and entrepreneurs helping to attain success through relationships, shared knowledge, and resources.
When I shifted the mission in December and took the leap to register as a nonprofit, I was humbled by the number of people rallying behind our missions and how our mission inspired people from all walks of life to act. That is the most moving part. People see the lack of diversity and find importance in leveling the playing field.
The Luupe: What areas do you think have a way to come?
Stewart: What's left is doing the work. To truly impact change, those same people (the gatekeepers) will have to relinquish their power to a certain extent—that's where the shift happens.
The Luupe: You also talk in-depth about the importance of networking and how it helped you when you were a recent grad in 2015. Do you have any advice for photographers and other creative professionals who are shy or have less experience or comfort networking?
Stewart: I was shy too and still am in specific environments. I'm naturally an introvert. But I quickly realized that success is on the other side of fear, and I was pushed by urgency simply by being in New York. You have to face your fears fast because your survival depends on them.
If you're shy like I was, find your power in another way, whatever is most beneficial to your process. That may mean virtual events, a lot of emails, or finding meetup groups.
Whatever it is, I encourage you to find it sooner rather than later because life is short. My professor always stressed that no one could see your magic if you kept it hidden inside your home.
▲ On set. Photo by Rosey Lakos
The Luupe: Mentorship is such a big part of your practice. Did you have any mentors early in your career who really shaped how you work, what you do, and how you think about photography?
Stewart: Absolutely — and I'm forever indebted to them. I have a few now, and I encourage everyone to find a mentor. One of the beautiful things about life is that at every stage of our journey, we're navigating an experience that someone else has likely endured.
Hence, I humbly seek mentors to help me navigate challenges, expectations, and responsibilities. I've found the insight to be invaluable. My previous mentors instilled professional practices in me, how to move as a businessperson and negotiate — principles emphasized as we develop the core curriculum for Free Juice.
▲ On the job. Photo by Hunter Hyde
The Luupe: Let's talk about Free Juice - we understand the organization wasn't originally photo-focused - what was your inspiration to start the organization and how did it evolve to be photo-focused?
Stewart: Free Juice started as Brunch N' Build: A Young POC Entrepreneurship network. Each brunch was intended to connect people and lean on each other knowledge or resources to level up.
After a few meetups, I decided to branch off from Meetup.com and create an independent entity. Free Juice was born under the same promise. Our last event was in 2019 in Brooklyn, Where TF Do We Start featuring panels from corporate leaders and independent entrepreneurs.
Because I moved from NY in 2019 to be back in Houston and most of my network was there, a pause was necessary. Then the pandemic. Then the trauma of Summer 2020 opened my eyes – not only to the world's injustices but to creatives as well. POC creatives weren't getting hired even still.
▲ Selfies at a recent Free Juice event
The Luupe: What are some of Free Juice's biggest success stories so far? What's excited you, wow'd, or humbled you about the org?
Stewart: Well, we are just getting started, and keep in mind; that no one on our current board had any prior nonprofit experience.
With that said, since our launch in March, we've raised over $3,000 for our launch campaign on iFundWomen. We've also received a $10k grant from Google through their nonprofit program, and we've had countless people apply for our mentorship program; slated to onboard its inaugural class later this year. We've received submissions from mentors at Wall Street Journal, Meta, and Barrons, to name a few.
That both humbled and excited me. Humbled because, naively, we set our initial goal at $200k, which will fully bring our programming to life at the best of its ability using the equipment we desire, but exciting because… we raised $3,000!!! We're incredibly motivated by and grateful for each of our 24 donors.
The Luupe: That's amazing - congrats! Do you have any long-term goals?
Stewart: I have many goals to reach within 5-10 years. I hope by achieving the overlying goal of getting more BIPOC candidates into these roles, advertisements, magazines, photography sets, decision-making meetings, and stock photography will look a bit more colorful.
The Luupe: As we head into the next member cycle, what makes a good Free Juice mentor??
Stewart: The ideal mentor is currently working in the photography industry in the following roles: Photography, Photo Editor, Director of Photography, Rep, Producer, Creative, or Art Director. They've worked within the industry for more than five years.
Not only do they understand the educational, regional, and environmental disparities of creatives currently in the industry, but they're actively working to combat those inequalities through work of their own, whether that be by using their hiring power or advocating within their place of employment.
We want our mentees to feel their mentor is there to help them grow, not only as artists but as professionals. Our team will individually interview each applicant carefully to understand how they respond to sensitive and vulnerable topics.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Luupe is a one-stop production company that is raising the bar for professional brand imagery on a global scale. With a highly curated and diverse network of professional women and non-binary photo and video creators across 80+ countries around the world, we are reinventing how brands produce original, local, and authentic visual stories that connect with a global audience. Our mission is to champion and amplify diverse perspectives from around the world — in front of and behind the lens.