The New York Times puts distinctive faces in analogous places


Growing up in a family of artists, I’ve always appreciated visual art’s strong ability to convey ideas and news. I’m one of those people who could spend a single day in just one room of an art museum and still not feel as though I haven’t had adequate time to soak in every piece.

Visual media, especially photography, mesmerizes me. Naturally then, as a journalist, the photo essay is one of my favorite ways to tell a story.

Recently I reviewed some photo essays online. I came across one in particular that I found especially captivating: “The People You Meet at McDonald’s,” photographed by Nolan Conway and written by Julie Bosman for The New York Times. The photo essay, which appeared in The New York Times Magazine in May 2013, is centered around one of Conway’s photo projects, one in which he spent three months photographing the customers frequenting, and employees working in, more than 400 McDonald’s restaurants across 33 U.S. states. He also took pictures of the McDonald’s restaurants themselves.

In my opinion, the biggest strength of Conway and Bosman’s photo essay is Conway’s work, namely, its relevance to readers/viewers. The juxtaposition of faces–old and young, straight and gay, black and white and Asian and Latino, poor and wealthy and in-between–all settled into a backdrop familiar to most Americans, provides readers with a thoughtful slice of American life.

Conway’s human subjects are shot mainly portrait-style, but they are not posed. Some are looking at the camera, but others are not. It’s almost as if Conway just walked up to his subjects and took their pictures–whether or not they were aware of the photographer pointing his camera towards them.

"Gloria Gallagher and her great-grandson, Daniel, Cheney, Wash." Credit: Nolan Conway
“Gloria Gallagher and her great-grandson, Daniel, Cheney, Wash.” Photo by: Nolan Conway
"From left, Maleena Dennison, Maquila Dennison, Myrha Dennison, Sammantha Dennison and María Silva, Nampa, Idaho" Credit: Nolan Conway
“From left, Maleena Dennison, Maquila Dennison, Myrha Dennison, Sammantha Dennison and María Silva, Nampa, Idaho” Photo by: Nolan Conway







Bosman’s reporting was also strong in this piece. I liked how, in just a paragraph, Bosman was able to convey to readers the purpose of Conway’s project, and also reveal McDonald’s historical and modern significance in American culture. She picked a nice kicker, quoting Conway as he contrasts the diversity of faces he photographed with the consistency of the places he visited: “Especially when you go to more of the rural areas, you’ll get the poor, the wealthy and everyone in between. There’s nowhere else to go.” Even if you shun fast food, as I do, you’ll “get” this story.

There were links for readers to share this story via email and social media, which I think is a good idea. In my experience as a journalist, I’ve found that readers/viewers tend to feel more compelled to share stories that are visually appealing or provocative. The New York Times does not, however, provide the opportunity for direct comments to be made on this piece, or on any other pieces like, which appear in The New York Times Magazine’s “Look” section. I think giving readers/viewers the ability to comment on this and other The New York Times “Look” photoessays would enhance readers’ experience.

"Jeff Schacter, Delta, Colo" Credit: Nolan Conway
“Jeff Schacter, Delta, Colo” Photo by: Nolan Conway

I enjoyed reading and viewing Conway and Bosman’s piece, and I think it’s a good example of fine photojournalism at its best. Together, Conway’s photos and Bosman’s writing tell a clear and compelling story about the ability of place to bring people together.


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