On January 1, 2015, ASMP welcomed Tom Kennedy as its new executive director. Kennedy comes to the helm with 40 years of experience in print and online journalism and an international reputation as a visual communicator.
His career background includes posts as deputy graphics editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, director of photography at National Geographic and managing editor, multimedia at the Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, in addition to extensive teaching experience. Kennedy has created, directed and edited projects that have earned Pulitzer Prizes, Emmies, Edward R. Murrow Awards and a Peabody.
As a precursor to our Meet ASMP’s New Executive Director Webinars during the month of January, we asked Tom to respond to a few questions by means of introduction. This is a full transcript of the abbreviated Q&A that appears in the ASMP Bulletin’s print issue.
We also invite you to watch an additional interview with Tom Kennedy produced by ASMP Director John Harrington, and to attend one of our Meet Tom Kennedy online conversations on January 26, 27 or 28, 2015. Visit www.asmp.org/webinars for more details and to register.
ASMP: Tom, please tell us about your early years working as a photographer in Florida. How long did you spend as a newspaper photographer?
Tom Kennedy: I interned as a newspaper photographer at the Palm Beach Post while in college. After graduating with a bachelor of science in journalism from the University of Florida and serving on active duty with the U.S. Army, I began my photo career, working at the Orlando Sentinel Star from 1974 to 1977 and at the Gainesville Sun from 1977 to 1981. In mid-1981, I went to the Philadelphia Inquirer and worked for a month or so on the street as a photographer before switching to being a photo editor.
ASMP: What was your first introduction to ASMP?
TK: I joined ASMP while in Gainesville, as a result of being introduced by a friend, Judith Gefter, who was active in the ASMP at the national and local level. She and several other photographers in that area were mentors at the start of my career. I had started doing some minor editorial freelancing for national news magazines while in Orlando and I did more freelancing outside of the newspaper while in Gainesville. Judy was very valuable in helping me join ASMP and guiding me through the process of making contacts and so on.
ASMP: Your uncle published the ASMP Annual in NYC. When was that, and for how long was he publisher?
TK: My uncle, Gerald McConnell, who was a good friend of Ari Koppleman, ran a small publishing company called Madison Square Press. He published the ASMP Annual in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, beginning about the same time I was starting my own involvement with ASMP. His company did books for the Graphic Artists Guild and ASMP, as well as for individual artists and photographers.
ASMP: Did your uncle and his publishing company have any influence on your decision to pursue photography and your subsequent career in publishing?
TK: My interest in photography was definitely a product of family influences. I grew up in a multi-generational household in Florida, and my grandfather was an ardent amateur photographer who loved to capture Florida’s endlessly interesting weather, beaches and sky. My uncle and aunt were artists in New York City and my mother was a high school journalism teacher. Their collective influence caused me to be very interested in photography, beginning around age 11. My uncle gave me my first real camera, a twin-lens Rolleiflex. That quickly led to starting to work in a wet darkroom and discovering the real magic in capturing and displaying an image. The creative joy to be found in the process of seeing the possibility of an image in the mind’s eye and then capturing it with a still camera in a fraction of second, or seeing how a succession of moments can be blended together to make a piece of video or film, are still creative joys I cherish.
ASMP: Did your transition from capturing images on the street to working with pictures in an office setting result in any changes to your perspective on photography or the activity of making pictures?
TK: I think this strengthened my understanding of good photography and how to work with photographers effectively to ensure their creative energies were being released fully and harnessed in ways that benefit the audience, the publications and their own creative development. I saw the need to represent photographers well in the newsroom and to argue passionately and effectively for the best use of the images. After doing this for a while, I also fell in love with the power that properly sequenced visual images have in telling a full narrative story in visual terms. I recognized how valuable that power could be in enabling people to understand crucial things about the world beyond the boundaries of their own life experience.
ASMP: In your work as a picture editor, what types of feedback or advice did you most frequently find yourself offering photographers?
TK: I often focused on talent development and the full release of creativity, while also clearly expressing the needs of the publication that I was representing as an editor. One of my goals was to fully understand where the photographer’s heart and passion lay and to understand how they intended to define career success for themselves. As an editor, it was also my job to articulate the needs of the publication and to understand if the photographers were up to the task of meeting the demands of any given assignment. I had to ensure they could understand the publication’s goals for an assignment and the definition of success that the magazine would hold as a standard. I also had to help photographers organize his or her approach to the assignment to meet all goals. In that way, it was a bit like a film director helping actors to fully inhabit a role and then enabling them to perform when the pressure of the assignment was fully in play. Another parallel example I would use is that of a sports coach helping athletes to develop skills that will enable them to perform optimally when in the game.
ASMP: When, how and in what capacities did you first get involved with multimedia?
TK: My initial exposure came while I was at National Geographic in the early 1990’s, as I watched the dawn of the digital era. I had the good fortune to participate in an early experiment sponsored by Time-Life at that time, to see how digital technologies could be meshed together end-to-end to produce a print and digital product simultaneously as outcomes. That experience taught me a lot. The next year, the Web was born as we know it today, with the advent of the first effective browser that could display images as well as text. At that point, I had the feeling that a digital world was going to be profoundly consequential for photographers. Later in the decade, I was able to move from National Geographic to washingtonpost.com, the digital arm of the Washington Post, to develop an approach to multimedia storytelling from the ground up. It was a tremendous opportunity and one that I’ll always be profoundly grateful to have had, as it enhanced my passion for narrative storytelling.
ASMP: Based on this background, do you have any particular ideas or strategies in mind for leveraging your experiences in this area for the benefit of ASMP?
TK: I want to ensure that photographers are seen as a crucial part of the creative process for organizations using visual communication. I also want to help professionals navigate the economic impacts driven by technological change in our society. I also think it’s important for companies to recognize the value that professional photographers contribute to an organization. Equally, it’s important for photographers to fully understand clients’ needs, so both parties, working in tandem, can bring full creativity to bear on the visual situations that need solutions. I understand the changing media landscape and how that impacts communication with industry leaders about ASMP’s fundamental value proposition. I see these changes as offering opportunities, even as they create certain challenges, including the need for new learning.
ASMP: What types of information and resources have you accessed to familiarize yourself with ASMP’s current operations and status since your role as ASMP’s new executive director was announced in October?
TK: At the end of October, I spent a lot of time at PhotoPlus talking with members and prospective members. Since then, I’ve been engaging in a number of conversations with ASMP staff, board members, chapter leaders, as well as having conversations with others in our industry and related fields to get their perspective on ASMP and our core activities. I’ve also been talking with others in related organizations and related fields to get a sense of how they are seeing some of the transformations occurring within industries most likely to affect our members directly. In addition, I’m doing a lot of background reading on issues typically addressed in ASMP education and advocacy work. Ultimately, I’m trying to establish a pattern of communication that enables me to maximize the value and impact ASMP offers to our community.
ASMP: What’s the most valuable information or feedback you’d like to hear from ASMP members in your new role as executive director?
TK: It’s important for me to assess the role that ASMP is playing in the lives of members and ensure that I’m helping others in leadership to stay focused on those efforts that will be most valuable to our members moving forward. I think one challenge is to understand what underlying changes in our society may be portending for visual communications in the future. It’s important that we are addressing the future landscape, while also remaining diligent about meeting the needs of the moment. We can’t afford to stay static as an organization, nor be complacent about addressing those situations and realities most likely to affect members’ economic and creative lives today and in the future.
ASMP: During the ASMP members meeting in October, you presented and discussed the diagram pictured above. Please tell us more about this.
TK: This diagram comes from the book The Art of Leadership by Dr. George Manning, a psychology professor at the University of Northern Kentucky. I presented this in my SB3 talk in 2011 and in other talks I’ve given on changing business environments.
I shared it with the ASMP board this fall, explaining that I hope to use this as the basis for laying some groundwork in the year ahead. This blueprint reflects the need to respond to the changing landscape that characterizes all business today. While building on the historic strengths of ASMP and continuing its core activities, I see us needing to continually adapt as an organization to meet the daily changes occurring elsewhere in media and business.
ASMP: What is the first issue you hope or expect to address as ASMP’s new Executive Director?
TK: I’m eager to build on ASMP’s position as an industry leader in education, advocacy and information that supports fair compensation for creators. It’s important for all of us to continue to build community and the capacity to make ASMP’s value proposition clear to all who would hire our members and use their work as essential messaging to reach audiences. We need to clearly see the economic realities that are shaping our world and have our members be seen as key contributors. Without our members’ work, it would be harder for our clients to succeed and for audiences to gain a comprehensive sense of the world we inhabit. Ultimately, we need to engage with brands, publishers, platforms, and government to create an ongoing dialogue that benefits members.
ASMP: What do you feel is the biggest hurdle facing professional photographers and image makers today?
TK: I think too often companies and other types of organizations are seeing professional visual communicators as producers of a commodity product that can be obtained elsewhere now at much less cost, thanks in part to the way technology has enabled amateurs. In addition, they see the images themselves as a potential revenue stream that can be generated without full, fair compensation being returned to photographers as part of the bargain. Both are real threats and, in my opinion, they represent a complete misreading of the value proposition offered by professional visual communicators.
It’s crucial that all likely clients understand how valuable our members are as integral contributors to the communications teams being employed to create, shape and distribute content as core messaging. Our members understand how to cut through the noise of modern life by producing images that command attention. Having the ability to deeply understand client needs and respond in the moment with effective visual solutions is the hallmark of our members’ capabilities, and essential to shaping the messaging that commands attention and generates responses amidst the noise of modern life.
Our members can be immensely valuable to brands and publishers as full service visual communicators, and they need to be respected for the expertise they offer to companies seeking to use visual content to reach an audience with a compelling message.
Both of these major areas of concern can be further subdivided into specific issues reflected in our advocacy work, such as maintaining ownership and possession of key rights associated with the act of creation throughout the publication and distribution processes.
ASMP: What do you view as the most valuable benefit for photographers who are not yet ASMP members but are considering joining the organization?
TK: I believe strongly in the power of community to offer wisdom and knowledge crucial to navigating one’s way in today’s world, from both a creative and career management perspective. While creativity and defining success for oneself are individual actions, both areas can be affected as well by larger forces. I see ASMP as a valuable mechanism for building one’s skills in all professional dimensions and I see the mutual support within our community as a real value when professional photographers face personal challenges individually.
ASMP: What’s the most important reason to encourage current ASMP members to renew their membership for 2015?
TK: We are facing a critical time in our industry where the full weight of a changing world is being felt. To meet the demands of our time successfully, we need to continue to produce information and use education and advocacy as pillars to support the creative community. Through ASMP, members have the opportunity to engage with each other at meetings and Webinars, to share information and obtain support essential to running a small business within the overall larger reality of a changing economy. At both the micro and macro levels, members can use community as a resource to magnify their ability to be creative and make a living.
All of us need to work together to ensure that we can respond effectively to changes occurring in the businesses that are most likely to use the services of professional photographers. Our members are visual solutions providers, offering a service that is critical to any company, organization or governmental entity seeking to reach an audience with a compelling message. Visual images form the basis of a language that is increasingly being spoken and understood by audiences across the world that might otherwise be separated linguistically and culturally. Technology is affording us new capacities to hone our craft skills and to tell those compelling stories that will be critical to audiences’ understanding of the world in the future. I’m excited to see how our organization and individual members can help shape the world of visual information being used to build connections and communicate new understandings of our world.
ASMP: After the New Year, you will be holding a series of Webinars to introduce yourself to ASMP members. When will they be scheduled and what will you cover?
TK: The Webinars are currently scheduled to take place in January and they’re structured to enable me to introduce myself more fully to members and help me with a “listening tour” designed to get members’ perspectives on the state of the industry as it is impacting them, and how ASMP can continue to evolve to best support our profession.
ASMP: Is there one, most essential, piece of advice you’d give to working professional photographers today? Would your advice be the same for aspiring photographers just entering the field (both young novices and second-career shooters)?
TK: Be courageous in the face of change and embrace new possibilities, recognizing that change is the energy that makes new things possible. I think this applies at any stage of a career. Be excited about each day as an opportunity to do something new and learn something new. That’s what provides the water to replenish the wellsprings of passion and commitment. Sometimes, that replenishment can be done alone, but I often find it easier to accomplish when one is working with like-minded people excited about similar things.
I love it when passionate people share information and seek common ground to discover new opportunities. Every moment of life offers that opportunity for growth and renewal of the creative spirit, which is at the root of all that we do.