Issue #16 "I like to think of photography as giving another layer of understanding to any narrative"

A conversation with Clare Vander Meersch, Photo Editor at The Globe and Mail and founding board member of The Magenta Foundation.

Every day, millions of Canadians consume newspapers either in print or digitally. Each page contains important stories that keep us connected to what is happening both at home and abroad. And, while those stories are being read, they are also being visualized through the powerful medium of photography. Clare Vander Meersch is the Photo Editor at The Globe and Mail and the founding board member of The Magenta Foundation. She has the extraordinary responsibility of determining what photos ultimately appear on the A1 and B1 covers of every weekend issue that The Globe publishes. She joined Yarden in conversation to detail her process, the power of the still image, how the pandemic changed the way she does her job and why she is so committed to supporting the next generation of photographers and artists.

Yarden: How are you doing, Clare? 

Clare: Good. It’s been a transition, I think, for everybody. I used to work strictly on the Report on Business magazine and COVID-19 has put me in the newsroom. I’ve been going from a monthly to a weekly deadline and I’ve got to work on some interesting historic moments so that’s good [laughs]. 

Yarden: What does your work process look like?  

Clare: I used to work with a really small team of eight people at the magazine and we would do a lot of in-person meetings so that has obviously changed a lot. Everything has become remote and now that I have been added into the newsroom I’m sort of integrating that into my workflow too. On Tuesday I kind of figure out what the lineup is for the weekend newspaper and then I have until Friday to figure out what the images are going to be for those stories. I handle the A1 [or front page] of the newspaper and the front of the business sections too. 

Yarden: Why is having a good photo important for a news story? 

Clare: I like to think of photography as giving another layer of understanding to any narrative. I think increasingly we have, as a population, just become more image-based consumers and how we understand and process information can happen in many tandem forms. Visuals in the newsroom were traditionally a sort of underused tool so my function has been to integrate that more into audience understanding of a narrative and giving another layer of understanding to them.

Yarden: We had [Toronto-based photographer] Kailee Mandel come into our class to speak and she said that you called on her to do an assignment for The Globe because you knew that she was really good with dogs. Can you speak to that a bit? How does the process of selecting a photographer for an assignment work? 

Clare: I like to think of myself —or have even been called—a photo matchmaker. That’s part of my skill-set that comes from years of knowing photographers and the personal projects that they work on, where their vested interests are and how to match that to a story that I see coming down the pipeline. In Kailee’s case, that was a story about how pandemic pooches have really taken off [laughs] and I knew that her mother was a nature photographer and she had grown up with this great access to animals and had this real connection to wildlife photography in a way that is unusual. But she also has a very rigorous approach to lighting and stylizing her subjects which is quite different from what you think of as wildlife photography. I thought it would be interesting to kind of put her into that domain. She just packed it all up in a car and, in one day, did I think like three or four different subjects. It was a pretty grueling and demanding shoot. And this was probably during the second stage of lockdown and in the middle of winter so it was a really incredible effort on her part and it was great to see how that all came together.

Yarden: That is a lot of shoots in one day! 

Clare: Yeah, and [it involved] driving in various parts of Ontario and so it was really a lot and she pulled it all together. She’s like a one-person-band. She had no assistance. Everything was in the trunk of her car and she pulled up to the next location, got a small amount of time to meet the subjects (the dogs), and figured it out, and created this really nice series. It wasn’t originally slated to be a cover story but the pictures were strong enough to carry it. That’s the power of the picture [laughs]. It can bring the story to the front. 

Yarden: Do you find that that happens? Do you have a staff meeting or writers meeting over a series of photos to determine which is the best photo for the cover? Or is there a compromise where the photo is okay but the story might be a bit more important? 

Clare: Yeah, sometimes the story is not as strong as you want it to be and you don’t really want to put it on the cover even though the art’s good. At the end of the day, that’s a very important consideration. The story has to stack up. But then there are other times when it’s a decent story but the expectation wasn’t to have great art and you have great art filed and you determine that it’s a clear no-brainer because it is destined to be a cover. Sometimes all the predicting in the world doesn’t mean there are still happy accidents along the way. You assess the material as it comes in to make the best decision, and it’s not just me deciding that it’s the whole editorial board. You can see whether an image works or not for a story. Occasionally there are times when there are competing stories and then you have to consider what serves the audience better at that moment in time; what is the more important story to convey. So there’s always a bunch of factors to consider when making that decision.

Yarden: You’ve talked about the process of going from shoot to print but could you go a little bit more in-depth? For example, does a photographer go to you with the concept? 

Clare: Sometimes. Stories are generally generated from editors at the newspaper. The editors work with reporters to develop storylines and then they fill in the photo department as to what the needs are going to be for pictures—but I’ve been trying to break that mould. There’s room for photographers who have really strong personal projects that haven’t been published yet, that I have seen, and I think are of interest to our readers and I will pitch them to see if we can get a story generated based on their idea not coming internally from The Globe. So they come from two streams but those are generally for features or Folios that we give some nice photo coverage to. Generally speaking, the cover story ideas are pretty much all coming from editors at The Globe and even reporters. 

Yarden: How might a photographer actually get into the system to do work for The Globe?  

Clare:  You have to get on a photo editor’s radar first and we kind of in our own minds attach a place for you in the roster of people that we use. Let’s say I am doing a story on Tik Tok for the magazine right now. I would go to a young photographer who has a really fun, energetic style that I thought would match well with that and we could be quite experimental with. So photographers need to get on a photo editor’s radar first because we are fed the stories and we assign to those stories. That’s generally how the workflow happens although in other situations I am just aware of a personal project that someone’s done that maybe has a fit for us to choose. Those are more unusual situations; the normal situation is that the stories are generated by the editors, writers, and reporters who work for us and we then assign the visuals to match the story. 

Yarden: And then, of course, there are those times when you don’t hire a photographer for a specific assignment. They just happen to be in a situation at the right moment in time to take a great shot. 

Clare: There’s a lot of that which happens too. Newspapers have agreements with stock photo companies like Getty Images or whatever so we access the files that they are constantly feeding up on the wires and we sort of curate those to match to the stories that we’re telling. Also, we utilize wire content for those harder news hits where obviously we don’t have time or we don’t have people on the ground over there or wherever in the world a story might generate. In terms of Canadian stories, I generally stay away from the stock photo realm. I always see the value more in hiring freelance photographers to create original stories because you can tailor them more specifically to this niche story that we are telling. Stock stories are like a dime a dozen. They don’t hit that same human emotion contact. If you do something that’s well crafted then hopefully you can tell that story in a more impactful way with original content. 

“How do you put the value back into the image when we’re all photographers these days?”

Yarden: I do think there’s so much more work that can be done to make photos more important to people because you know everyone has a camera on them now but what makes it is how you set it up. 

Clare: Yes, how do you put the value back into the image when we’re all photographers these days? It is a bit of an existential question [laughs]. But I think that ultimately communities—people from local communities —have a better way of speaking to things that are typically going to connect with people than with something from somewhere else so there’s that authenticity that people want and there’s a place for that. It’s also just important to promote your local talent and give them a venue and platform to speak from. That’s how I roll. 

Yarden: Do you source mainly from Toronto? Or I guess if something takes place in Vancouver you’ll get it from there? 

Clare: I source nationally and internationally. A lot of my stories generate outside of Canada too. My international connections are pretty strong. But my real knowledge base is in Canada and then, yeah, I’m definitely even more knowledgeable in the Toronto area because that’s where I am located. But my reach is pretty wide. 

Yarden: How has the pandemic changed the way you do your job? 

Clare: Communication has become pretty difficult [laughs]. There’s a lot of back and forth and there’s a lot more guesswork involved now because you’re not having all those in tandem conversations that you would previously have had in a hallway or around a water cooler or wherever other opportunities existed to bump into colleagues to just ask little things. So in some ways, it's benefited things and in other ways, it's to the detriment of all parties being involved [laughs]. It's just harder to maintain that team when we're all remote so that’s going to shift. 

Yarden: I guess you don’t go into the office as much these days?

Clare: I haven’t in a year. One year! How’s it been from your experience of being a student? 

Yarden: I have had a few years on Ryerson already so I’ve gotten used to the campus experience and I got what I wanted out of it but doing Zoom calls and stuff— it’s not the same. And, you know, I am still paying the same amount of tuition but it’s definitely not the same quality of education. I am not interacting with people. You need that interaction with peers. We get a chance sometimes during classes but not often. 

Clare: It’s all that intangible side communication that’s been the stuff to suffer the most and it's the same in my profession too. 

Yarden: We have studio sessions and we have the teacher instruct us on what we should be doing but physically being together means we can learn from each other as well. 

Clare: Yeah, it’s that feedback that’s missing. 

“I am looking for a signature style that defines and distinguishes you from anybody else.”

Yarden: What makes a photographer a valid candidate to work on an assignment for you? 

Clare:  First of all, I am looking for a signature style that defines and distinguishes you from anybody else. I try to fast-track those people because it takes a long time to get to that stage. Once you get to that point—and if you have something to say in a way that I feel is original—then I will try to pair it with a story that comes from that same place as well. And if you can combine someone’s personal passion with a story that has similar synchronicity to it, then I find that that often produces the most powerful kind of results. Exceptional photographers are those who really developed into a place where you can see a signature and define it as being quite different from whatever else you’re seeing. Or, it could be somebody else who has access to something that I might not be able to have access to because of the nature of their background or someone who has a good story to pitch and it’s something I haven’t seen and I think that it’s valuable to our audience. Those are things that will grab my attention right off the bat.

Yarden: I feel that in school we learn what kinds of photos we like to take. Personally, I like architecture and landscaping but creating a unique style and characteristic of the photo is probably the hardest part [laughs]. 

Clare: It usually takes another four years after university to get to that stage. I’ve hired a number of students right out of Ryerson who had hit that level upon graduation but it’s rare; it’s usually exceptional but they do come. 

Yarden: What does the future of the Globe and Mail look like to you? 

Clare: It’s a really challenging time in publishing right now. The business model is how we survive and that’s been really challenged especially during this time. Interestingly, advertising hasn’t been doing great, but readership numbers are way up and subscriber numbers are up because people are interested in the news right now and thankfully they consider us a trusted source. So we have pivoted as an industry to try to change our business model to be less dependent on advertising and more on subscribers and readership. We have to grow those numbers over the next few years and we’re going to need to reach new audiences and I think we’re probably going to have to be more nimble about using different platforms-the ones that younger audiences want to be on. So how we put the news on TikTok, for example, probably will be a question we’ll be looking at down the line [laughs]. If you ask me, I think print will survive because it is the medium that we started in but the digital experience is very important as a part of it. I think we’re sort of developing a language where the print talks to the digital generation of a story and there are different parts of the story depending on where you’re taking it, which I think is really interesting. That shift has happened over the last 3-5 years and there’s a lot more still to be done with how we tell stories on those different platforms and use our assets differently.

“Digital is definitely the future but I don’t think that print will go.”

Yarden: For instance, you would share a video story on The Globe’s website because you can’t show that on print.

Clare: Exactly. Data as well. And then there are lots of sophisticated digital tools that can inform the digital experience too. Digital is definitely the future but I don’t think that print will go. I think it always has its value in being something tangible. Humans like to experience something physical and I think that how that print product looks will change a lot over the next five to ten years. It will likely become more and more of a premium thing and the digital experience will become the wider birth for everything else. 

Yarden: The print is part of the prestige or what sets it apart from just your average blog online. On a separate note, one of the things I really love that The Globe and Mail does is stating the number of days the two Michaels have been jailed in China. 

Clare: Yes, we’re rabid about not taking our eyes off that because it is really one of those unsolved things that we want to hold our leaders accountable to resolve. Don’t forget. It is always there. Hopefully, that won’t be part of the page in another year from now because we will have seen some resolution to that story one could hope. 

Yarden: How did you get your start in journalism?

Clare: I was shooting for a while myself but I was doing sort of my street-style fine arts stuff and kind of experimented to find my own personal style. In fact, I studied art history at university. I was more interested in the process and the backside of it. I want to be on the other side of the fence. I didn’t want to be making the images, I wanted to be part of creating images so then I started thinking about what that would mean; what kind of positions that could lead to. And when I learned of photo editing. I thought that that was a perfect fit and wanted to see if I could get into that field. So I started Shift magazine, which was Canada’s WIRED at the time when we had a healthy publishing industry full of magazines. I was there for a couple of years before it folded but it gave me the training that I needed to get into The Globe. That position leveraged me to get in because my managing editor at the magazine went over to The Globe and she brought me with her. 

Yarden: And you’ve been at the Globe ever since? 

Clare: I just had my 20th anniversary this year. I am also the founding board member of Magenta Foundation. That has been integrated a lot with the work that I do for The Globe and how I’ve targeted emerging photographers in Canada and given them a lot of their first career moves into the wider industry. Identifying that early talent and giving people their first break is often what I am credited for and it’s really been the sole satisfying work of my career. It’s been great to be able to apply some of that to the newspaper rather than just the magazine world, which is where I always had my outlets before. So we’re seeing that 20 years worth of knowledge now sort of play out in the newspaper field. 

Yarden: Is it your way of giving back? 

Clare: Yes, I am part of a community and I feel honoured to have a position where I can empower people to a career path. I am not saying that it’s me putting them on a career path—don’t get me wrong— but I can give someone their first break that they can then convert into something that takes them on another level in their career development. Having shot a magazine cover or a newspaper cover has value in the community and that’s giving people, who I think are worth backing, a shot at that part of their career as being very satisfying work to do. When you know that your image is on the front cover of something that’s being nationally distributed or even internationally distributed then you just kind of—it's a tangible thing. Everybody across Canada is opening the newspaper and seeing your image there. 

Yarden: Yeah, right to their front door. 

Clare: Yes, that's a very valuable experience for a photographer to have that sensation so to be part of that process is wonderful. 

Yarden: Finally, what is your hot take on the media industry?

Clare: I think that Canadians, by our nature, have this inferiority complex that I’ve been trying to break for 20 years and show that we have as much talent here as anywhere else in the world. We need to celebrate our own home-grown talent and support them in telling their stories and bringing their art to the world because we have true, original creativity here that deserves to be noticed and recognized and that’s kind of been my life’s work. Getting it out there to the world is the best that I can do. 

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

About the creators:

Yarden Haddi: Student of the Image Arts Centre at Ryerson University.

Ziv Haddi: Graduate of the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at Western University. A former intern at 680 News at Rogers Media and q on CBC Radio. Currently, he produces a current affairs program on Zoomer Radio.

Made with chutzpah in Toronto.