Tips + Techniques

Inside The Hollywood Reporter & Billboard: Q&A with Photo/Video Director Jennifer Laski

July 1, 2020

By Jacqueline Tobin

Earlier this month, we sat down (virtually, that is) for a conversation with Leonor Mamanna, a senior photo editor of Bloomberg Businessweek‘s luxury brand Pursuits, to discuss how she has been assigning photographers portraits, interior shoots, still-life and travel work in the wake of the pandemic.

Next in our Q&A series, we spoke with Jennifer Laski, executive photo and video director of The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard. Chatting from Los Angeles, Laski gave us some intel on what she’s looking for when she hires photographers and filmmakers for the culture and music magazines, plus the do’s and don’ts of getting in touch, the innovative remote shooting techniques she has helped produce, and some of the most memorable photo shoots to date.

[Read what it’s like to be behind the scenes photographing portraits for the Oscars.]

Describe your role at The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard. What kinds of photos and shoots do you typically assign?

As executive photo and video director, I [and the photo team] typically assign portrait shoots of actors, directors, musicians, execs, writers—everyone working in Hollywood and music. Portraits are the majority of what we assign, but we also assign reportage for set visits and behind the scenes at shoots, and some still life. 

How do you find photographers? 

Various ways, including from seeing websites that are emailed to us by photographers, meeting with photographers, seeing photos we like in other publications and on Instagram accounts. 

Which photographer has caught your attention lately, and why? 

Recently, Lia Clay Miller photographed actor Billy Porter at a safe distance for one of our Pride covers, and the pictures were stunning. I look forward to working with her more. 

actor billy porter by lia clay miller for the hollywood reporter fashion portrait wearing dress
Actor Billy Porter. © Lia Clay Miller for The Hollywood Reporter
actor billy porter by lia clay miller for the hollywood reporter fashion portrait hat red dress
Actor Billy Porter. © Lia Clay Miller for The Hollywood Reporter

Before the pandemic, Donté Maurice photographed [hip-hop duo] City Girls for a Billboard cover, and the whole shoot just blew me and [senior photo director] Jenny Sargent and our team from Billboard away! 

hip-hop duo city girls by donté maurice for billboard black and white fashion portrait
Yung Miami and JT, the duo behind hip-hop group City Girls. © Donté Maurice for Billboard
hip-hop duo city girls by donté maurice for billboard spotlight technique
Yung Miami and JT, the duo behind hip-hop group City Girls. © Donté Maurice for Billboard

What has been one of your favorite shoots in the last few months? What made it stand out to you? 

When work from home started in March, I saw that Joe Pugliese was shooting 30-feet-away portraits of his friends and colleagues from Hollywood, and I asked him if we could do a portfolio with Hollywood types for The Hollywood Reporter

Our staff started calling their contacts and we were able to photograph a chairman, actors and actresses, a director, a caterer, a production assistant, a producer, a composer, a studio manager and more. People were recommending their colleagues when we would book them, and Joe would drive by himself to people’s homes and stay 30 feet away and shoot with a long lens. They were quarantined with their families who we wouldn’t normally see in a shoot, like director Jon M. Chu with his wife and children, and producer Deborah Evans with her two children. It is a time capsule now of how people were living at the very beginning of the pandemic when we really didn’t know what was going to happen. The collective spirit of everyone involved with that shoot and the powerful portfolio is a moment that will always stay with me.

[Check out the series in the gallery above.]

How are you working with photographers during the pandemic, with ongoing isolation and social distancing? 

We have been pivoting to safe-distance shoots and remote shoots. Each of THR’s Pride cover subjects were all photographed at a safe distance on their lawns or outdoors with one photographer and maybe one assistant. Our annual Emmy roundtable season’s shoots went virtual both for video and photo. Senior photo producer Kate Pappa and I hired Ramona Rosales to shoot the drama actresses—Jennifer Aniston, Janelle Monáe, Zendaya, Reese Witherspoon, Helena Bonham Carter and Rose Byrne—remotely through FaceTime. It was new terrain for all of us but Ramona, who is always innovative, pulled it off beautifully. 

facetime portraits covid-19 pandemic ramona rosales the hollywood reporter of jennifer aniston janelle monae zendaya reese witherspoon helena bonham carter rose byrne
This collection of portraits was photographed through FaceTime. © Ramona Rosales for The Hollywood Reporter

The incredible Frank Ockenfels, who I have worked with for over 20 years, has always created these cool photo-booth collages of talent—Brad Pitt for THR, for example—and I asked if he could do them remotely, which lent new issues but also new visual reminders that it was shot through a phone and off of a computer. You can see the moiré at times from the computer screen, but we leaned into it and kept it in. 

collage portraits by frank ockenfels of actors black and white shot remotely for the hollywood reporter
A collage of portraits shot remotely, incorporating the occasional fractured nature of technology. © Frank Ockenfels III for The Hollywood Reporter

What’s the best way for photographers to reach out to you and show you work?

Emailing your website [to] with a brief note or even just some recent work with a short description of a project you just shot is the best way.

Do you have any pet peeves related to methods of getting in touch with you? 

No real pet peeves, but emailing us once a month is probably enough, so you don’t have to send more than that. If we see something that catches our eye, we will contact you. 

What key elements do you look for in a photographer and their work before they get hired? 

We prefer to meet with photographers before we hire them to tell them how we work. For example, our turnaround times are very fast. We created an initiative over four years ago striving to hire 50 percent women photographers and 50 percent diverse photographers, which we have been able to achieve, but we continue to look for and hire more new voices who haven’t had the opportunities.

There are a few important initiatives out there and groups creating lists of women photographers, LGBTQ, people of color and more, and these are resources that can move everyone forward with hiring power to being more inclusive—from the client to the photographers who hire photo assistants and digi techs, set designers, etc. This new awareness should not be a fad but be the future norm, which we are all committed to being aware and being better. 

What kinds of shoots are you going to be looking to produce in the future? 

With the pandemic, we are pivoting all the time on how to create in these times, so innovation is important. But the thing that won’t change for me is working with photo editors, producers, videographers, photographers, stylists, glam and all crew who really love what they do, who really care about the final product and the collaboration it takes to achieve that. 

What’s something few people in the industry know about you? 

I don’t think this is a surprise to anyone, but I love visual storytelling. I can remember the feeling of the visuals of a movie like 9½ Weeks and ’80s Manhattan and Kim Basinger’s bowler hat and trench coat, or George Michael’s “Freedom! ‘90” music video with the ’90s supermodels, or a Weegee photo of a couple dancing. My home is filled with framed art, and a relaxing way to spend a morning is a visceral combination of flipping through a photo book by Georgia O’Keefe or Roy DeCarava with a cup of coffee, and Nat King Cole or Chopin playing in the background.