National Geographic Books Illustrations Editor Adrian Coakley talks about the skills that helped him land the job, the process of putting a book together, and the road trip that made him realize he wanted a career in photography.
As a photo editor (or "illustrations editor" in NGS parlance) at the National Geographic Society's Books division, Adrian Coakley is involved in every stage of creating photography books, from the painstaking process of selecting images to the satisfying moment when he holds an advance copy in his hands. Juggling as many as four book projects at a time, he's one of the people who put the work of some of the world's most renowned photographers in context before the public eye. He talked with us about the path that brought him from a BFA in photography to his current position, how his day-to-day goes, and what it's like to make a living as a photo editor.
Aimee Baldridge: What is your educational background?
Adrian Coakley: I have a BFA in photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design. I was always interested in photojournalism and documentary photography, and continued to be while in school, but I felt that having some background in the arts would benefit me down the road and would give me a broader perspective on photography in general.
AB: What did you do between graduation and the work you do now?
Adrian Coakley: I really didn’t have a break in between graduation and my first job at NGS. The year before I graduated, I worked for two and half months as a photo editor intern for the Communications department at NGS. It was a great experience, and I was able to meet some really great people who worked in various departments across the society. About a month before graduation, I received word that my former boss in Communications was leaving his position to move to Germany. I decided to apply for the position as photo editor for Communications, and one week before finishing my final exams I was asked to come up and interview for the position. The interview went well, and two days later they offered me the job but wanted me to start work the following Monday. Long story short, I finished my finals on a Wednesday and packed up my apartment in Savannah on Thursday. I moved my belongings home to South Carolina on Friday, drove up to DC on Saturday, and started work at my new job on Monday. It was a bit of a whirlwind but was really exciting.
AB: What other significant endeavors did you undertake during that time?
I would say that the most significant endeavor that I embarked upon before working for National Geographic was a long-distance motorcycle trip that I took before I started at Savannah, in 2002-3. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I also didn’t want to sit around and figure it out. I had this idea to drive a motorcycle from my hometown in South Carolina, across the States, through Mexico and Central America, and down the west coast of South America along the Pan-American Highway. On top of that, I wanted to photograph as much of it as possible. I worked for two years to save up for the trip and finally left in the summer of 2002 for what turned out to be over a year of riding and photographing through Latin America. To this day, it was probably the most important thing I’ve ever done. Everything I have and do now is related to my decision to take that trip. I truly fell in love with photography while there; I decided that it was a career that I wanted to pursue, and it got me back in school.
AB: Did you have advisors or mentors who helped you get off the ground?
I didn’t have one mentor per se, but I sought lots of advice from professors and professionals alike. I was a bit of a pest in that regard. I can’t tell you how many photographers I would email with questions about how they got this specific shot or what sort of gear or lighting setup they used. These weren’t photographers I knew or had even met. I would scour photography books and magazines, and when I’d see a photographer that I liked I would look them up online. If they had an email contact I’d email them out of the blue and pepper them with questions. I was nervous at first to do such a thing, but I was always surprised at how many of them would write me back and put up with my barrage of questions. Photography is a trade, and most photographers, I’ve found, want to help out young photographers because they remember what it was like struggling to make it when they were first starting out. That being said, you should always be polite and understand that they’re really busy and for them to take the time to respond is really a gracious act.
AB: Tell us about your first big break.
Well, my first big break was definitely the internship that I did at NGS as a student. That put me in contact with a lot of people on the photography side of the Society. Another break I got while still a student was a photography gig with the Genographic Project at NGS. I got to go to Alaska for ten days and photograph the outreach portion of their trip. It was my first real assignment and I was still in school at the time. I really had no idea what I was doing, and I think the photographs reflect that. But it was an amazing experience, and a few of the images ended up in the New York Times
, so it wasn’t a complete wash.
AB: Where do you live and work, and how do you think your location has influenced your career?
I work at National Geographic headquarters in Washington DC. DC is a good town for lots of different reasons. There are great museums and art galleries, as well as a fairly big photographic community, so there is always something to see or someone to talk to if you seek it.
AB: What did you do that ran counter to the conventional wisdom about how to enter or work in your field, but ended up benefiting you?
That’s a good question, and I’m not entirely sure I know the correct answer to it. I think what’s helped me most is that I’ve always tried to put myself out there, and I’ve not been afraid to ask for things. If you want to work in this business, you have to be willing to ask for it, and show that you want it. I knew I wanted to work at National Geographic. I love its mission and I love its connection with photography. When I applied for my first and second jobs there I wasn’t sure, based on the job description, whether or not I had the experience in years to get the job. But I figured I should try and if they said no, then that’s the worst that could happen and that’s not so bad. People tell me no all the time. I’m used to it.
AB: How did financial considerations play into your career choice?
Money is certainly a motivating factor. I’ve got student loans up the wazoo, and so I have to consider that. DC is an expensive town; I still have to be careful about balancing my checkbook, and I still have roommates to help cut down on rent. But that being said, I don’t think many photographers or photo editors—myself included—get into this business to get rich. They do it because they love photography as a medium of communication. There are a few photographers that do quite well, but I bet if you asked them they would tell you that they do well financially because they love what they do, and that their success financially is a by-product of that.
AB: What do you do during a typical day?
At any given point I’ll be working on two to four books, some at the beginning stages and some at the middle and end. Prioritizing what needs to go out and what needs to get done is really important, because it’s a business built upon deadlines within deadlines. Each book, because of the varying subject matter, requires a different approach.
For the Image Collection book [National Geographic's recent book featuring images from the Society's archive], we enlisted Steve St. John, who is a photo editor for the division of the Image Collection/Image Sales, and Bill Bonner, who is the archivist for the Image Collection. I met weekly for about six months with each of them separately, and would go over images that I had requested to see. For instance, I would ask Steve to pull a selection of science images for the section of the book on science, and then the next week he would show me a selection of hundreds of images, all having to do with science. We would comb through them and pull the ones we liked and consider them for later. Additionally, I picked up every National Geographic magazine I could get my hands on, starting from the 1940s, and would go through each issue, month by month, year by year, and place sticky notes in the pages where good contenders were. Then I’d go back through all the ones we selected and cut more until we started to get an edit that we thought worked. There are over 10 million images in the Image Collection, so there are an overwhelming number of images to choose from. As a photo editor, I don’t think it gets any better than that.
AB: What do you do on an extraordinary day?
Adrian Coakley: I think for me the best part of my job is the day when the advance copies of the book I’ve been working on come in, and I can actually hold the book in my hands and know that this is something that I helped create, and it’s forever. Putting a book together is a real team effort and it can be crazy at times, but at the end of the day you’re making something that you can hold, and that’s pretty powerful. Additionally, I get to work with people that I’m still a bit star-struck over—like the photographer whose work I’ve followed for years and years. It's pretty exciting stuff, and I still sometimes feel the need to pinch myself, to be quite honest.
AB: When did you start to feel that you were making a good, sustainable living doing what you do?
Adrian Coakley: I started my current job as photo editor with the Books division a little over a year ago, and that was a really big step for me at the time. I’ve been with National Geographic now going on three years, and my move to the Books division was my first real promotion within the organization. It was the first time that I felt comfortable enough to say with some certainty that this was a career and something I was actually good at. Pursuing a career, especially when you’re young, can be something of an unsettling period in your life. It’s easy to question whether or not you’re doing the right thing. But I think if you like what you’re doing, that’s going to come through in the work you do and will ultimately pay off.
AB: What do you think are the most important qualities and skills for a person to have in your line of work?
You need to have a good eye to do well in this business. That’s first and foremost. If you don’t have that, then it’s going to be pretty tough going. A good understanding of art history and the history of photography is also really helpful. You don’t necessarily have to be a photographer to be a photo editor, but you need to have an understanding of the medium and how a good photograph communicates a certain message to its viewer. I’m certainly a better editor than I am a photographer. Both require a good eye, but it's possible for a person to be better at one trade than the other.
In our Breaking In series, we ask successful young professionals in photo-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.