Lessons Learned From Michele McNally

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Michele McNally, who served as The New York Times‘s director of photography and then as a top newsroom manager, died on Feb. 18 at age 66. When she started at the newspaper in 2004, her mission was clear: to enhance The Times’s photojournalism and to show the newsroom just how powerful visual storytelling could be. She achieved both. Under her leadership, The Times won six Pulitzer Prizes for photography. But she also left a mark on the lives of those she worked with. Here, two Times photographers, Josh Haner and João Silva, share how Ms. McNally shaped The Times and their careers.

When Michele saw something in you, that was it — she would encourage you, challenge you, allow you to reinvent yourself and then keep pushing you.

When I first met Michele in 1995, I’d never seen someone as passionate about photography. Her small frame carried her intensity. She was the epitome of the hard-charging New York photo editor who demanded excellence and didn’t put up with excuses.

Years later, I had graduated and moved into my parents’ basement in San Francisco when I crossed paths with Michele again. I put together a portfolio of my photographs and found a way to get it in front of her at Fortune magazine. A few months later, she called and asked if I had any upcoming plans to be in New York; she wanted to interview me for a job. I lied and said I was planning to be there later that week. She laughed, seeing through my invented story, and told me to come to her office on Thursday. She offered me the job on the spot.

She wanted to teach me photo editing to better inform my photography. For months, we met at 7 am to look through 75 years of Fortune magazine photography at what is now called the Life Picture Collection. She’d explain to me her vision of a successful frame, what she looked for in a photographic composition and why some images had become icons. We’d sift through the hundreds of folders each morning before the workday began.

Michele brought me with her when she moved to The Times. There, she established an environment where photographers and photo editors existed on equal footing with the writing side of the newsroom. That is something that pushed our society’s visual discourse forward. Eleven years after she hired me, she called me into her office to say, “It isn’t often that you meet someone who has achieved their life’s goal at the age of 34. Congratulations Josh, you won the Pulitzer Prize.” Michele was my mentor and friend who left us far too early but who leaves behind a legacy that will be felt for generations.

Mr. Haner is the photo futurist at The Times, a role that explores technology and new tools for visual storytelling.

I owe much to Michele — my career and, probably, my life.

Michele was forever burdened by the responsibility of the safety of the photographers on her watch. When I was embedded with insurgents during the siege of Najaf in Iraq, there was a huge concern for my safety. I believed that what we were doing was worth the risk. She had the foresight to see the outcome beyond the obvious risks that come with journalism. Michele understood that truth comes at a cost. It took a toll on her, physically and psychologically.

When I lost both my legs while on assignment in Afghanistan in 2010, Michele and her team, with the full backing of The Times, moved heaven and earth to ensure that I received the best medical care possible. When I arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, Michele’s was one of the first faces I saw. She would spend weeks at my bedside. I loved her before, but it is impossible not to love someone who stood by your bedside while you clung to life.

I have many memories of our friendship — she was great company and fun to be with. My fondest is one in France while attending a photo festival. We were in a rental car driving along a beach road.

“You trust me, right?” I said. This had become code between us. It meant I was about to do something stupid or about to broach a subject of utmost seriousness.

Michele nodded, and I proceeded to do donuts with the car on the beach. For that brief moment, as the car was engulfed in a cloud of sand, Michele got to forget about the responsibility, the burden and the stress that goes with the sleepless nights worrying about those who have placed in dangerous areas.

As I parked the car in front of the seaside restaurant where our event was about to take place, I said to her, “Let’s keep this one to ourselves, shall we?”

Mr. Silva is a staff photographer at The Times.

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