Photo Editor Sara Morosi on the art of photographic matchmaking

Credit  Sarah Wagner Miller
Portrait by Sarah Wagner Miller

What, to a Photo Editor, does ‘editing’ mean? The role requires a delicate alchemy, bringing the right story to the right photographer. Implicit are the practicalities of bringing a shoot from conception to completion, and the emotional, artistic and logistical support needed along the way. There remains a misunderstood and underappreciated art and science to the job. Starting out as an editorial assistant for The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Sara Morosi quickly became interested in the visual language of the publication and would spend nine years making sure its pages were carefully curated before recently going freelance. Under her care, Morosi oversaw beautiful pairings as varied as early-career Maya Lin by Ethan James Green and artist Cecily Brown by Victoria Hely-Hutchinson or McArthur Binion by Gioncarlo Valentine. Now, as she  embarks on a new chapter as the Photo Director of everyone’s new favourite magazine, Family Style, she talks to us about her trajectory and the beauty of photographic matchmaking.


James Wright: Prior to working at the Wall Street Journal Magazine you’d been doing a course at the Columbia School of Journalism. What prompted the shift away from writing towards working primarily with images and image-makers?

Sara Morosi: I initially went to Columbia University to enroll in a short course in publishing. There, I serendipitously met the Executive Editor of WSJ Magazine, who was looking for an assistant. I was initially on a writing and editing track, but after becoming the assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of WSJ, I was exposed to all aspects of the editorial process – from photography to writing, even down to production and managing editors. Part of my role as an assistant was to write the contributors' page, which consisted of interviews with the writers, photographers, and stylists behind the featured stories. I loved writing it. I loved interviewing photographers and speaking to them about how their stories came to be, getting details from sets and the different environments in which they worked. Whether a travel story or a documentary fashion piece, it broadened my understanding of photography by having these conversations. I started writing longer articles for the magazine, including book reviews and interviews – like interviewing Paul Graham when A Shimmer of Possibility was re-editioned and Jamie Hawkesworth about his upcoming show, ‘A Blue Painted Fence’. Eventually, I transitioned to the photography department.

Being a photo editor means having a broader understanding of the industry—who's making work, what type of work it is, where their interests lie, and how it plays into magazine publishing

JW: The job of a ‘Photo Editor’ or even ‘Photographic Director’ is poorly understood. Why do you think that is?

SM: Oftentimes, when people ask me what I do and I respond, "I am a Photo Editor," they begin talking about Photoshop. My Photoshop skills are limited. The use of the description ‘Editor’ in this case is really more about the commissioning process. Being a photo editor means having a broader understanding of the industry—who's making work, what type of work it is, where their interests lie, and how it plays into magazine publishing. 

I need to have a strong understanding of the commissioning process, determining which photographer may be the right fit for a specific story. Then, I make a selection from dozens of incredible images down to twelve, so it all tells the right narrative.


JW: When commissioning, how do you weigh the individuality of a photographer in terms of their cultural background, values, interests etc. and, in turn, how does that influence your approach to commissioning versus simply evaluating their aesthetic and sensibility?

SM: One of the last shoots I did before leaving WSJ was with Campbell Addy and Jess Willis in Ghana, and Campbell is British-Ghanaian. We worked with a local production crew led by Ekow Barnes. That shoot reminded me how some experiences are not just photo shoots, you’re creating a collaboration and it can’t always be easily replicated. The pieces just come together. 


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Laira Alhassan photographed in Ghana by Campbell Addy, styled by Jessica Willis for WSJ Magazine

JW: I look at publications like M Le Monde, the Wall Street Journal Magazine, or T Magazine, and I think that some of the most interesting photography commissioning emerges from style and magazine supplements...

SM: Working for a supplement, you're part of the fold, both figuratively and literally, of the newspaper. There's also a timeless association with a news publication. Even though I'm one step removed from the immediate news cycle, I still feel connected to it. The magazine comes bundled with the newspaper, reaching subscribers and anyone picking up the Wall Street Journal weekend edition from a bodega or market. This setup allows for more creative freedom beyond what strictly sells.


JW: Given how you've worked across documentary, fashion, portraiture, and still life, I'm curious: when do you decide that something can be interdisciplinary? For example, bringing in a documentarian for still life or commissioning a portrait photographer for a travel piece—how do you assess the risk of taking someone from one world and putting them into another?

SM: It comes down to perceptiveness and picking up on underlying potentials. I believe the best photo editors have the ability to stretch their own thinking, avoiding pigeonholing photographers into specific types of work. Beautiful images often emerge from pushing the boundaries of photographic experience.

Some of my favourite works by photographers known for their fashion work, like Zoë Ghertner or Jamie Hawkesworth, are travel photographs. That’s where it becomes really compelling and fun – when they're taken out of their environment to apply their use of colour or printing to something like a travel story simply because it feels all the more special because you're not used to seeing it as much from them. I recall a WSJ story Jamie shot in Laos, and another memorable cover shot in Antarctica.  It was a significant moment when Kristina O'Neil, the Editor-in-Chief, chose Jamie's photograph of a penguin for the cover. WSJ had featured many types of covers over the years, but few had focused on animals, making Jamie's penguin cover a standout for me. This is where a photographer's visual language comes into play. Whether it's couture or a penguin, it's still unmistakably a Jamie Hawkesworth photograph.

Some experiences are not just photo shoots, you’re creating a collaboration that can’t easily be replicated. The pieces just come together

JW: Could you break down what an average day looked like?

SM: WSJ was a monthly publication, with double issues running for the Fall and Spring style issues. The stories would come through the edit department first and, more often than not, they were led by the text. Shoot requests would come from what would be paired with the article or feature. What I loved about my work at the WSJ is that we were never really pigeonholed into sections. Over time, you earned your stripes and were able to work on bigger features, but it was very democratic. Even if you didn’t work on a specific shoot, as a department, we discussed which photographers we knew and wanted to consider for each story. When you were assigned to a story, you were responsible for all the elements that go into it. Whether it was in-house or working alongside an outside production company, you were responsible for everything.

When are we shooting? Where are we shooting? What’s the call time? Once you have the photographer on board, you have to have the creative conversations about how they envision the story coming to life. Is it a portrait? What references are they thinking? When you’re working as a photo editor, you are as logistical as you are creative.


JW: I think that’s why I asked the second question: “Why is the  job of a ‘Photo Editor’ poorly understood”? It’s such an odd mix of nouns that don’t align with what the public perceives the role to be. You’re an amalgam of a creative director, producer, and commissioning editor. I’ve noticed that at the New York Times and WSJ Mag, many of the photo editing teams are led by women and almost exclusively made up of women. Why do you think that is? 

SM: I think it’s a great question. I’ve only worked for female photography directors, like Jennifer Pastore and Dana Kien. I will forever be indebted to both Jennifer and Dana for what I learned from them. This isn’t to say that I don’t believe a male photo editor would not share the same qualities, but I think to be a good Photo Editor, you have to have a lot of empathy, be perceptive, and be a good listener with a lot of patience. 


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Artist Cecily Brown photographed at her Manhattan Studio by Victoria Hely-Hutchinson for WSJ Magazine

JW: It’s interesting re: emotional intelligence, because you do have to gauge character, ego and style of communication as well as talent and aesthetic. The resulting image is a product of that alchemy.

What do you think are the key ingredients when considering a ‘photographic match’? What elements need to come together when thinking about the subject of the work and the photographer you choose?

SM: There are some practical elements to consider: where is the shoot taking place? Where does the photographer live? Can we make it work geographically: a New York-based shoot with a NY-based photographer for a NY based publication? Sometimes there's flexibility, but often shooting locally is necessary. Beyond location, you also consider that not every photographer excels in every genre like portraiture, still life, fashion, or design. It's essential to deeply understand the story and match it with a photographer's strengths.

As an editor, I take the time to understand each photographer's work and visual language. One of my favorite aspects of the job has always been meeting with photographers in person. Through these conversations, you don't just review their portfolio; you engage with them as humans, uncovering insights that may reveal a niche. Months later, when a relevant shoot arises, you remember those conversations. This, again, demonstrates the importance of having emotional intelligence, being perceptive, and a good listener.

A good editor maintains a mental rolodex of these details, fostering human relationships that enhance artistic collaboration. Matching the right individuals with specific interests is a truly special aspect of the job. 

A good editor maintains a mental rolodex of details, fostering human relationships that enhance artistic collaboration

JW: And stylistically?

SM: Yes, needless to say, we have to ask ourselves: are we wanting to capture the subject with a hard flash that's a bit more raw? Are we wanting to be sure that there's film used to ensure a warm, filmic-quality? What is the photographer in question's actual visual language...


JW: Right.

SM: I don’t have technical training in photography, but I have immense respect for photographers in this industry. In whatever small way I can help orchestrate things – understanding the pieces, getting to know people not just as artists but as individuals – it contributes to creating something more beautiful. These underlying connections do come through in the photos. 

Martien Mulder Jeanne Gang
Architect Jeanne Gang at the American Museum of Natural History photographed by Martien Mulder for WSJ Magazine


JW: When has the chemistry felt pitch perfect? What are some of the more memorable examples where you felt really fulfilled by the photographer-subject pairing?

SM: A standout moment for me was at the 2022 WSJ Innovators Awards. We were producing an annual innovators issue featuring an interview with Jeanne Gang, an incredible female architect known for her work on the American Museum of Natural History Museum in NYC. We commissioned Martien Mulder, an exceptional design and portrait photographer, for the shoot. On that day, we were on location at the Natural History Museum, in the midst of a  construction site  with hard hats and high-vis vests. Being present at that shoot was unforgettable. Everyone involved played their part perfectly, and we watched the vision come to life.

The connection between Martien and Jeanne, both behind and in front of the camera, was truly special and created something remarkable.


JW: Presumably you have had instances in the past where there hasn’t been the right chemistry?

SM: A photographer might be asked to shoot a subject who isn't comfortable being photographed. While they may have agreed to be photographed for press purposes, it doesn't necessarily mean they're at ease in front of the camera. It's wonderful when the photographer and the subject can build rapport, but that doesn’t always happen, and it's no one's fault.


JW: You’re now working freelance. What does your day-to-day look like without an imposed structure?

SM: It’s far less predictable. I was at a magazine for almost nine years, so it’s been interesting to step into the photo industry with a freedom to take on new projects that I hadn't been able to accept before. Sometimes it is a photo production for commercial shoots, sometimes it is photo editing for various publications. Sometimes it is photo research for campaigns. I’m more aware of the different corners of photography now.

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Paloma Elsesser photographed by Cruz Valdez for the cover of Family Style

But recently, I’ve started photo directing at Family Style magazine with Joshua Glass because I missed the editorial process. It was one of those things that happened at the right time, under the right circumstances. It’s been a really exciting time.


JW: What did the landscape look like when you first left WSJ? How have you found the vulnerability of not being part of an established brand? 

SM: I was fortunate over my nine years with WSJ. I met so many amazing people, and my relationships at the magazine began from the moment I started working for the editor-in-chief, Kristina O’Neill. She really championed my growth and gave me responsibilities that extended beyond my initial job title. This continued when I joined the photography department, where I connected with more photographers, agencies, subjects, and galleries. 

As I prepared to leave WSJ, I took time to sit with myself and reflect on the shoots I had done, the production companies I had worked with, and the agencies I collaborated with. Those nine years at WSJ truly changed the trajectory of my career. So, when I became freelance and started having conversations with the people I had connected with over the years, those relationships allowed me to continue those conversations.

Every photo editor fulfills the role differently. We each have our own sensibilities and approaches, which shape how we perceive photographers and their work

JW: Were there aspects of the role that led to new, unexpected skills that you took away from your nine years at WSJ? What felt surprising upon leaving that made you realise something about the role or about yourself?

SM: Over the years, I learned and grew more than I gave myself credit for. Given that I had not come from a technical background in photography, I often questioned if I was approaching things correctly. Leaving WSJ, I reflected on my contributions and the unique perspective I brought to the role.

Every photo editor fulfills the role differently. We each have our own sensibilities and approaches, which shape how we perceive photographers and their work. It took time for me to recognise and appreciate the diversity of approaches. Even without a technical foundation, I had come to work with my own toolbox and ways of navigating challenges.


JW: It sounds like you’re saying you came away with more self-confidence. Looking back, you had the chance to see how capable you always were – from understanding the industry's rhythms to navigating different personalities and cultivating relationships. With all that in mind, how do you define your role in relation to the photographers you’ve collaborated with?

SM: I learned more and developed more than maybe I gave myself credit for – how to build trust and foster relationships. Because I didn't study photography technically – I didn't go to school for it – there have been times in my career where I've felt an inferiority complex, thinking: ‘I'm doing this, but am I doing this correctly?’ Leaving WSJ provided me with a moment to just reflect on what I contributed over those years. Seeing my teeny tiny little corner I’d carved out felt special; that’s what it’s all about. It took me time to recognise that.

Gioncarlo Valentine McArthur Binion
Artist McArthur Binion photographed in Detroit by Gioncarlo Valentine for WSJ Magazine


JW:  Do you believe photo editors should bring their own personal viewpoint, even when working for an established or new publication, or should they primarily conform to the publication's existing tastes? 

SM: I think there's a definite balance there. My foundation as a photo editor was heavily influenced by my time at WSJ, where I learned a lot. However, when I began my own research and development, I gained a clearer understanding of what types of photography I'm drawn to. This process helped shape me as both a photo editor and a director.

It's also true that publications often have a distinct DNA, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Different publications naturally offer different perspectives. Yet, ideally, there should be ample space for editors and directors to bring their personal perspectives. This openness allows for opportunities to work with new names and showcase new work and fresh perspectives from photographers, contributing to the evolving landscape of photography.


JW: Where do you think photo editing will be, not in five years time but in ten years time?

SM: If I'm being totally transparent, I do think the job will look different. I think that the job is going to continue to face pressure to become more. I don't want to be pessimistic, I just think it's going to take effort by the people who have the power to confront the problem and continue to respect the value of human-led commissioning.


Follow Sara via @sarmorosi

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