Field Notes: Photography (Mother Jones)

Mother Jones is unique when it comes to photography in that, generally, it seems to use illustration more heavily than your average publication. Case in point: I have yet to come across a Mother Jones cover that doesn’t prominently feature an illustration as its focal image. In a way similar to a magazine such as the New Yorker, Mother Jones leans a lot more heavily on illustrated content throughout any given issue, which has become something of a visual signature for the magazine. With that said, however, you can still find plenty of quality photography in any given issue of Mother Jones, even if their photo choices tend to be a bit more understated than your average news magazine.


When it comes to feature stories, Mother Jones tends to opt for larger images, sometimes spanning an entire page, that provide a close-up shot of the subjects of the story. The picture used in “Hearts and Minds” above, for example, uses 50% of the spread to show a rather intimate portrait of a pained wife and child of a soldier with PTSD. These photos of people tend not to be too kinetic: instead, they end up being portraits that serve to illustrate the mindset or personality of the subject themselves in very subtle ways.


The picture on the page above, which features abortion clinic protestor Roy McMillan looking away from the camera while holding up two of the small plastic fetuses he throws at people entering and exiting the clinic, is a perfect example of the technique Mother Jones employs in its portraits. It is most definitely not a candid photo, but with only a few small visual queues, a reader will already be able to figure out key traits regarding the person in the photo. The photo below McMillan’s, in which a doctor casually sits in a chair outside while wearing an alien mask, demonstrates many of the same traits. The doctor wears the mask so he wont be identified, so his efforts to remain anonymous and somewhat indistinct are satisfied in the distance and space the photographer granted their subject.


One unique way Mother Jones uses photography is that it will often incorporate photos deeply into its infographics or diagrams. Two examples below show their use of baseballs and apples, objects that have close associations with the stories their attached to, are being utilized in ways beyond simply showing photographic reinforcement of what’s being said in the story. Also, please note the photo on the bottom left in the baseball spread above: I’ve noticed that smaller photos in the publication tend to get a little more artistic and try to deviate from the portraiture often found more prominently throughout any given issue.

The page below shows three photos unlike the others I presented previously.  Although the top photo definitely qualifies as a portrait, it shows more activity than your average Mother Jones portrait. The two photos below it help color the story with some great photography, but they definitely fall into a slightly more abstract category than the larger, more prominent photos in the publication.MJ-Photography-3Pics

The photo below, showing two children engaged in target practice in a makeshift range, tends to buck the trend I’ve seen in other issues of Mother Jones. Although it’s not exactly a high-action shot, the more candid nature of the photo and choice to shoot from behind would typically be attributes that would end up having the photo run smaller in the magazine. However, considering how shocking a shot like this can be (these kids are survivalists who are training for a possible overthrow of the U.S. government), it’s no surprise that the magazine chose to run this photo larger than usual.

Every story tends to have some level of imagery associated with it, although with Mother Jones’ strong emphasis on illustration, those elements aren’t always necessarily photography. For the most part, the magazine tends to use photos in a simple way, with no overlaps and primarily in square and rectangular orientations. A rare exception is presented below, however, with a photography series being presented in a circular format.


Nick DeSantis