“The elevator doors opened up, and there he was standing there waiting for me,” recalls Bruce, referring to Furst. “He walked beside me the entire way and didn’t leave my side. It was in a really creepy way.” Furst hovered during an awkward meeting with McNally in which Bruce never addressed the matters she’d come to raise. “I just kept quiet. I shouldn’t have,” says Bruce. “I should have said more.”
Until earlier this year, Furst served as international picture editor at the Times , where he started working in 2010. The position doesn’t carry the fame of a top reporter or columnist, but it does confer extraordinary sway in the competitive and tightknit world of independent overseas photojournalism, a niche in which the Times stands as one of the world’s top platforms.
That near-monopoly gave Furst tremendous leverage over champing-at-the-bit independent photojournalists. According to several sources interviewed for this story, Furst sometimes overstepped in his exercise of that authority, essentially bossing around the freelancers as if they were staffers. The treatment, they say, was manipulative bordering on abusive — a stress factor in an already-stressful occupation. Within the Times’s own corridors, Furst also generated dissatisfaction and resentment, especially among female colleagues who raised their concerns with management. A Times investigation earlier this year into his workplace conduct preceded his departure from the newspaper.
Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the Times, told the Erik Wemple Blog via email in April, “David Furst is no longer with The New York Times. As a general matter of policy, we do not comment on personnel matters.” Pressed further, the Times refused to answer all but the most basic questions and didn’t grant an interview request with a manager to discuss standard practices for assigning and editing photojournalism, inviting emailed questions instead. The institutional reticence may stem from the public tussles of previous months on the personnel front: When it commented on the departures of freelance editor Lauren Wolfe and longtime science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr., the newspaper dug deeper public-relations trenches for itself.
Most of the sources contacted for this piece declined to attach their names to their comments, in many cases because they feared imperiling their prospects in an unpredictable line of work. A carefully reported story by Kristen Chick published Tuesday in the Columbia Journalism Review documented the misery of many freelancers and staffers who worked under Furst, with four of them saying they felt “sick” when his name surfaced on their caller ID.
Such experiences align with the findings of a recent internal report on the newspaper. “The Times is a difficult environment for many of our colleagues, from a wide range of backgrounds. Our current culture and systems are not enabling our workforce to thrive and do its best work,” reads the report. The document also cites staff inquietude over a “star” system — a regime that some of Furst’s former colleagues say he helped perpetuate by establishing a de facto “A team” of freelancers.
One other lesson from Furst’s decade-long career at the Times: Pulitzer Prizes excuse just about everything.
Before assigning freelancers into conflict zones around the world, Furst took those same risks himself. He worked as a photojournalist for Agence France-Presse, compiling a distinguished record of shooting places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Photojournalists under his direction racked up four consecutive years of Pulitzer Prize victories in one of the two photographic categories (breaking news and feature). He also oversaw multiple Polk Award-winning entries and secured other distinctions, including, most recently, Multiplatform Editor of the Year from the National Press Photographers Association.
Journalists who worked with Furst don’t dispute the distinctions. They say he worked hard — one former colleague describes him as a dynamo with his phone glued to his ear, always negotiating the next assignment. His instincts and sensibilities, too, were sharp and attuned to the news cycle. Sergio Peçanha, a former Times graphics editor who worked with Furst, recalls, “I could see sometimes he wasn’t always smooth. He can be cocky or tough, but every time I saw him, he was really fighting for his photographers. He cared a lot about photography.” (Peçanha currently works for The Post’s Opinions section.)
That obsession paid off for freelancers in literal fashion. In 2017, the Times boosted the day rate for its overseas freelance photographers from $250 to $450, a long-overdue move for which Furst lobbied at Times headquarters, according to sources.
Yet freelancers — and some staffers — working with Furst draw a bright line between the work product and the work process. The latter, say many of them, was an anguishing struggle to please an over-controlling boss. Here’s how their concerns break down:
Insistence on exclusivity and control: Freelance photojournalism couples low pay with a professional lifestyle of uncertainty and subordination. An ambitious freelance photojournalist needs to invest more than $10,000 per year just to keep pace with equipment and associated computer technology improvements. With a lot of pitching and some luck on the scheduling front, you might pull down $50,000 to $70,000 over the course of a year — and, mind you, that’s a veteran photojournalist.
The positive consideration is flexibility: You get to work when you want and for whom you want. By many accounts, Furst’s handling of freelancers violated that crucial norm. One freelancer likened collaborating with Furst to a regime of “intermittent reinforcement” — a relationship of steady mistreatment punctuated by occasional rewards. “‘Do you know how lucky you are that I am calling you?’” he once told Bruce, in her recollection. “‘Do you know how many people would give anything to have me call them like I’m calling you?’” Looking back on those displays of hauteur, Bruce says, “The sad thing is that he was right. I knew I just had to put up with it.”
Bruce and others had to put up with it because, by virtue of his position at the Times, Furst was perhaps the most powerful figure in international photojournalism. Decades ago, independent photojournalists seeking overseas assignments could turn to a number of publications, including weekly magazines and even some big-city newspapers with reasonably sized freelance budgets. “Life magazine was the place in the ’60s,” says veteran visual editor Alice Gabriner. “That was where photojournalism was impactful and incredibly important, and then the newsmagazines took that mantle” — outlets such as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report. Thanks to the collapse of the journalistic business model in the 21st century, those opportunities are either gone or negligible, leaving Furst as something of an international photographic gatekeeper. “Interestingly, the New York Times and The Washington Post are what those news magazines once were,” says Gabriner. Photo editors have also taken to seeking local photographers in foreign countries, she adds, further undermining demand for parachuting freelancers.
Furst’s approach, say multiple freelancers, was to keep these content providers in the exclusive orbit not just of the New York Times, but of David Furst. Which is to say that Furst chafed not only when freelancers worked for competing publications, but also when they approached other desks at the Times. One freelancer said the treatment applied even to communications with correspondents: “Any contact with anyone at the New York Times that was not him — you were penalized.”
“When it came to freelancers, Furst could be tender and he could also be a cruel bully,” notes a male photographer who worked frequently with Furst. “But more than anything, he always wanted to be in control of your career. Stepping outside of the framework of personal loyalty that he imposed, which extended well beyond the bounds of the NYT contract, often had negative consequences for freelancers, no matter who you were or how many prizes you had won. It was almost as if he enjoyed reminding us how replaceable we were.”
The point: Don’t cross David Furst. “It was common for him to scream at the top of his lungs at photojournalists,” says a Times journalist.
Allegations of sexism. Lynsey Addario is a famed photographer who first worked for the Times’s foreign desk in 2001, covering conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia and Congo. Twice she has been kidnapped while on assignment for the Times. In her 2015 memoir, “It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War,” Addario praised Furst. When Addario apprised Furst of her pregnancy in 2011, the picture editor told her, “This is going to be great. Don’t worry about your career. It will be fine. I will personally give you as little or as much work as you want,” wrote Addario. The comments “made me think that perhaps the industry was changing a little,” added Addario. “Was it possible I had finally proved myself enough?”
No, as it turns out. In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Addario says of Furst: “His actions after I had my son didn’t reflect what he had said — that he’d be supportive and would give me as much work as I wanted.” After she became a parent, Addario wanted to continue covering wars, but she says that Furst had other ideas. “Basically, he stopped offering me conflict [assignments], and those are the stories I want to do and everyone knows that, including him,” says Addario.
Moreover, she alleges, Furst treated her unfairly, offering assignments on terms that he knew she couldn’t meet. “He set me up to look unprofessional by basically making me look unprepared,” says Addario. International photojournalism is, in large part, logistical: Freelancers must clear time in their schedule and secure visas for wherever news is breaking. In one instance that Addario recalls, she told Furst that she had a few months open on her schedule and proposed getting visas for South Sudan and Iraq. Furst responded, “‘No, we’re not interested in South Sudan right now,’” says Addario. About a week later, he called and asked if she could go to South Sudan. When Addario told him that he’d instructed her not to get a visa, he responded, “‘Oh, that’s okay. I’ll send someone else,’” recalls Addario.
A booze-soaked dinner at Furst’s home in November 2016 offered Addario a chance to confront Furst about her standing. In the presence of several guests, Addario asked Furst why he wasn’t working with more female freelance photographers. As she recalls, he answered that he’d been searching for women “good enough to work for the New York Times, and there are none,” says Addario, who cited her own credentials and expressed incredulity that he’d be saying such a thing to her. “He said, ‘You’re going to make this about you?’ And I said, ‘You bet your ass I am.’”
In a separate conversation that night, Addario says, she pressed Furst to assign her to stories in Mosul, Iraq, which was then the locus of a campaign by Iraqi forces to uproot the Islamic State. “‘I’m not sending you to Mosul — you’re a mother now,’” responded Furst, in Addario’s recollection. “I will never forget that in my life. It confirmed everything that I’d suspected for years.” says Addario, who says the Times ultimately did the “right thing” in parting ways with Furst. Not long after the dinner, Addario got an assignment photographing female hunters in Norway. “There I was in the backcountry in Norway on a story that wasn’t even scheduled,” she says. Andrea Bruce makes a similar allegation, saying that her assignments from Furst dried up after she gave birth in October 2018. “Nothing,” says Bruce.
In fall 2017, the #MeToo movement exploded, prompting conversations across the newspaper about its treatment of women journalists. In December of that year, the Times held a meeting among foreign staffers to discuss just that topic. According to multiple sources, an HR representative as well as high-ranking newsroom figures, including then-International Editor Michael Slackman, participated. As the session was wrapping up, Rukmini Callimachi, who was then covering international terrorism, brought up Furst, prompting a rebuke from the HR official, who said that this wasn’t the forum to call out specific individuals. Carolyn Ryan, who had been promoted that year to oversee the Times’s talent recruitment, encouraged Callimachi to proceed. And so she did, reciting the story about the dinner remarks that Furst had reportedly made to Addario, and asking how someone with such attitudes could be orchestrating the paper’s coverage. Were women getting a fair number of high-profile assignments? Callimachi’s gesture, which was supported by her female colleagues, stirred more internal discussion of Furst’s behavior.
That meeting set the stage for what took place over the following months: In July 2018, a change of guard took place at the top of the New York Times photography department. Meaghan Looram, a deputy of outgoing director of photography Michele McNally, took the helm of the department amid plans to better merge photo, video, graphics and design into the Times product. As top managers at the paper were conducting the search, a number of people working alongside Furst came forth with complaints about his behavior, worried that he would be chosen for the top photo job.
Three sources told the Erik Wemple Blog that they discussed Furst’s conduct — with a focus on his treatment of women — with Associate Managing Editor Charlotte Behrendt, the paper’s go-to investigator for newsroom personnel crises. Furst’s former colleagues commonly refer to this process as an “investigation,” though it’s not clear how the Times classified it.
Among the objections was that Furst favored high-profile male freelance photojournalists for plum foreign assignments. The five photojournalists who combined to win those four straight Pulitzers for foreign photography were all men, and all but one of them were freelancers. The vast majority of photographs paired with foreign stories come from freelancers.
Following the criticism, the Times and Furst did take steps toward gender parity in photographic assignments. According to Chick’s story in CJR, women got only about 19.5 percent of photo assignments from the foreign desk in 2017. By April 2018, Furst told Nieman Reports, the desk’s foreign photo editors “hit a gender-equal assignment threshold across the whole international report, and haven’t dropped below that standard since.”
Furst, who underwent management training after the investigation, has not replied to multiple email messages and phone calls. Photojournalists who worked with Furst concur on one aspect of his managerial style: He never made his extravagant requests or issued his critical brushbacks via email. He called. Some freelancers came to see that approach as deliberate, making it harder for his colleagues to escalate disputes up the chain of command and facilitated the dismissal of concerns as simple misunderstandings. “He was incredibly intelligent about how he dealt with freelancers. He put nothing that might be incriminating for him in writing,” says Addario.
The Times hasn’t been forthcoming about the reasons behind its split with Furst. Two sources, however, indicate that a possible precipitating circumstance stemmed from a complaint that Furst had frozen someone out of the Times. When the paper’s investigators started looking into the matter, they found evidence that Furst had attempted to get his colleagues to coordinate their stories — essentially covering up his misdeeds. That helped seal Furst’s fate.
The Furst saga merges with a history of bullies in American newsrooms. Their antics — yelling, screaming, shouting, being jerks — no longer enjoy amnesty from an industry that once viewed such behavior as the mark of a pulsing, energetic journalistic operation. And their abuses tend to fall disproportionately on women. “That kind of old-school, tough-love … have-to-work-your-ass-off-for-nothing mentality of journalism: I hope people realize that doesn’t work,” says Bruce.
Since Chick’s story for CJR appeared on Tuesday, other people who’d worked with Furst have come forward to tell their stories. Juan Arredondo, a visiting professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, wrote a Facebook post charging that Furst bullied him over an assignment in Colombia. Another person tweeted about the “number of times I gritted my teeth as I heard Furst hurl the abuse described here at my spouse — an award-winning freelancer for the NYT in India.” Photographer Olga Kravets attested that her experience with Furst was a “copy-paste” of Bruce’s.
That’s a lot of anguish — enough to warrant a more forceful response from the Times. Thus far, it has clung to its shopworn statement about “personnel matters,” as if this were all just some internal controversy. It’s not; the Times has harmed a community of professionals. It’s time that it acknowledged as much. “The fact that so many other photographers went through similar abuse — it’s sad,” says Addario.