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Features / International Women's Day

Learning to trust journalistic and humanistic instinct with New York magazine’s Jody Quon

While on the phone with Jody Quon, the legendary photo director of New York Magazine, the first thing she teaches me is how to staple a document correctly. (It has to be horizontal, a quarter of an inch from the top of the page and an eighth of an inch from the left edge). You’re probably wondering how we ended up down this organisational rabbit hole – there are admittedly far more interesting topics to discuss with the woman who sent a helicopter into the sky for a photo after Hurricane Sandy, and gave the women assaulted by Bill Cosby a voice when no one would listen. But as you’ll see with Jody Quon, the devil is always in the detail.

Jody always wanted to pursue a creative path. As a child she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer and she went on to study the discipline at Rhode Island School of Design. She was top of her class and her ego matched her ambition and accolades. But after graduation she moved to Paris where, to her surprise, “my ego was completely deflated,” she recalls. “All of a sudden, being out in the real world, I wasn’t really finding my place.”

Quickly she came to the astute realisation that “I couldn’t be the kind of designer that would stand up to the designers that I actually admired”. Lost in Paris, she was cycling one day, when she spotted a Barney’s New York and figured she could get a job there. She did, and soon met Marion Greenberg, a fashion publicist in charge of managing the store. “It turned out she was the press representative for Japanese fashion designers Comme des Garçons, who I was completely infatuated with and frankly still am today.”

Jody then headed back to New York with Marion to work as a press representative for the label. It was 1989, and even though “I didn’t really even know what press meant”, she jumped into the endless possibilities. While it was Jody’s job to show garments to magazines, she also acted as a researcher for Six, a magazine Rei Kawakubo (the founder of Comme des Garçons) had launched the year before.

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Jody found herself “researching anything you could imagine” for this photography-focused publication, from Mennonite women to Salvador Dalí, or sending Amish clothing to Japan. As well as widening Jody’s creative understanding, the job also taught her how to be a professional, how to speak to artists and gave her a keen eye for detail. Considering it was the late 1980s and the internet was a far-off invention, each night Marion and Jody would type up faxes of their research “with such efficiency and extraordinary detail” that she learned “organisation was key to everything, no matter what discipline you’re in”.

Jody stayed at Comme des Garçons for five years before she was recommended for a job at The New York Times Magazine . Carrie Donovan, then in charge of fashion at the publication, was looking for someone “young and ambitious, who had a knowledge of fashion history and some sort of a background in photography,” to help with the 50th Times fashion issue for six months. On her first day, she recalls Carrie telling her: “Every week you’re going to meet with Kathy Ryan.” Kathy, Jody tells It’s Nice That, “is the best photo editor in the world.”

For these weekly meetings Jody knew that her best asset was her organisation. “I would meet with her once a week, every Friday at 3pm, for one hour,” she explains. “I had to have everything super organised for her to navigate.” The pair developed “an incredible rapport” during these meetings and once the issue was out, Kathy asked Jody to join her team as a photo editor. “I said, ‘I’m very flattered but I don’t want to steer you wrongly. I don’t know anything about what you do. I don’t know photojournalism’.” This honesty was exactly what Kathy admired in Jody, explaining that it was enough that Jody had proven she could work hard. As a compromise, they decided to give it a test for six months to see how they both liked it. “That turned into 11 years,” says Jody.

Her colleagues at The New York Times Magazine were a group she describes as “the dream team”. At the time, Kathy in particular was shaping commissioning trends which now filter into many publications, calling on artistic photographers such as Nan Goldin to shoot editorial pieces. The editorial team too shaped Jody’s growing taste and aesthetic, but it was a new deputy appointed the same year that really changed her path – “this magazine wonderkid”, Adam Moss.

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Over the next 11 years Jody’s experience grew and grew, largely due to The New York Times Magazine’s ability to jump between fascinating stories, from politics to fashion. However, in 2003 another title, New York magazine, experienced a shift in ownership and hired Adam Moss as editor-in-chief. Upon leaving the title, he asked Jody to join him as photo director. “I was so surprised that he would ask me,” she recalls. “I just really didn’t think he knew that much about me. I was really working for Kathy.”

Just as Jody had modestly felt she wasn’t ready to become a photo editor a decade previously, the idea of being “the number one” in the photography department was massively daunting. “Honestly, it was the hardest decision of my life,” she says looking back. “One of the things that I’d always remarked on, while working for Kathy, was that as happy as I was – I mean, I loved it – I always marvelled at Kathy’s enthusiasm as photo editor, just how passionate she was. As I would observe her, I would wonder if I had the same passion in myself. I’d then criticise myself and that bothered me.”

As a result Jody met Adam’s offer with trepidation. “I was terrified, because I felt that he needed somebody who had the passion that Kathy had. I was terrified that I didn’t have that and Adam, being the brilliant editor that he is, deserves nothing less.” Adam, who recently announced he is stepping down from the title, eventually convinced Jody to join him by saying: “The magazine I want to make is going to be the same magazine that you would want to make.”

When Jody started at New York magazine, where she still works as photo director, a personal shift happened. As Adam began to run to her with questions, “a fire in me was ignited, which ended up blossoming into this incredible passion in me,” she explains. “I’m forever grateful to him for giving me that opportunity to find something inside me that I honestly didn’t know I had.”

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Unlike The New York Times Magazine or even The New Yorker, New York magazine has much smaller budgets than its neighbourhood competitors. This has made its team “more nimble”, Jody says, forcing “the kind of creativity that is really healthy”. It also encouraged an approach to storytelling and commissioning that knows no bounds, sharing an unspoken understanding that “there’s no ceiling for greatness. You can’t be static and you’re only as good as your last issue.”

Research has remained a key part of Jody’s practice and she seems to be bewildered by the idea that once you get to a certain point in your career, it falls by the wayside. As she points out, the ability to research today is at its most fruitful too, particularly due to Instagram. “Listen, this is the beauty of the world we live in now. If you know to look for something, you can find it,” she says. “I think if that wasn’t a part of my job, my daily routine, I would not be doing my job justice.”

But research manifests itself in varying ways within New York magazine. On asking Jody what her day-to-day process is, she struggles to answer, explaining how a story can take “anywhere from one day to a week, two weeks, six months, a year”. One example of her knack for commissioning on impulse is The City and the Storm, a cover story for an issue just after Hurricane Sandy hit New York in November 2012. “That’s when I sent the helicopter up in the air,” she says. “You have to be quick sometimes.”

Yet the stories Jody notes as the most important in her career tend to take a little longer. In 2015, New York magazine released a story detailing the accounts of 35 women who were assaulted by comedian Bill Cosby. “I think to this day – no I don’t think, I know – the turning point in my career and the most moving piece I’ve ever worked on is the Cosby women,” she says. “Its evolution and its impact was a lesson for me in trusting my journalistic and humanistic instinct.”

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In 2014 accounts began to surface around Bill Cosby’s alleged assaults, but no reputable news source or publication had published an account. At the beginning of 2015, the New York magazine team were having a meeting, discussing features for the coming year. Towards the end of the meeting Jody suggested speaking to these women, providing a place for their story. “Adam’s immediate reaction was that he didn’t think there was a story if you didn’t get Bill Cosby himself. I gently said I disagreed.”

Jody went back to her office – and began organising. She pulled every article and each woman had their own folder “organised in chronological order from the year they were allegedly assaulted, their name, where they were from and their age”. What emerged was a story far more expansive than she’d imagined. The women’s ages ranged from 20 to 72, they were from all different parts of America and accounts went back to the 1960s.

Still with his editor hat on, Adam remained unsure. Jody suggested calling six women, just to see if they were willing to talk. “I called six, and six from six were dying to tell their story.” After that, the team began to work on it for months, with Jody even hiring an intern specifically for the project – it was also her first job at a publication.

Six months later the team had 25 women and everyone in agreement it could go ahead. Shoots began to take place, first in Los Angeles and then New York, with each of the women photographed by Amanda Demme, a photographer chosen as “a woman of a certain age – meaning I think she was 50 at the time – so there was a maturity to her that I felt was important,” Jody explains. “The women had not known each other,” but on shoot day they went through every emotion imaginable, “from crying to elation to laughing.”

The result was 35 portraits – “every picture one after another was more powerful than the next” – and took 14 pages in the magazine, as well as its now-iconic cover. The reaction was overwhelming for readers but also for the team: “It was honestly the most powerful thing I’ve ever done. I just felt so moved by the whole experience. I realised what a position of privilege that I have, that we have, as journalists.”

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Nurturing this power is what Jody and the photo department at the publication have honed ever since. A recent example, The Class of 1946 – 2018, documented 27 school shooting survivors. An incredible project of weight, where each photo editor had two decades to research, for Jody it’s a series that portrays so much more than photography, connecting previous victims of school shootings across decades. Recalling moments like this is what encourages Jody to continue doing the job she’s done for over 25 years now. “It happens to be in the medium of photography, because I’m the photo director here,” she says, “but I feel that in my larger mission in life, this is what moves me most.”

Over the course of her career to date, Jody Quon often hasn’t known what opportunity or story will come next. Yet this isn’t something she’s ever shied away from, always placing herself in environments where she admires the wider work at play. “It’s paramount to align yourself with an institution you admire,” she reflects, as our conversation draws to a close. “That’s the common thread of how my career evolved.”

For instance, she always loved Comme des Garçons so didn’t mind the fact that her first role was one she didn’t fully understand. It was the same at The New York Times, realising no one would turn down the opportunity to work with Carrie Donovan or Kathy Ryan. She knew to trust Adam Moss too, and at New York magazine she’s flourished into one of the most admirable women working in creativity today.

Her final piece of advice, a piece that anyone working in any industry could learn something from, is to find a place in which you can grow, “and eventually you’ll find your niche there,” Jody points out. “That niche might not be what you thought it was initially, but so long as it’s a place that you really look up to, then I think one will be happy. I just think that’s the most important thing.” But if you still remain unsure about where on earth that place may be, “identify the place that is intellectually in line with what you believe in, or what moves you, and set yourself there.”

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