[Cover Story] New York Magazine photography director on “An Unwelcome Sisterhood”

New York Magazine released its current cover story Sunday, a photo essay accompanying the accounts of 35 Bill Cosby accusers who’ve come forward. The cover features all 35 women seated next to an empty chair and it generated a lot of social and national media attention since its release. The empty chair in particular is generating an online conversation on sexual assault using the hashtag #TheEmptyChair. New York Magazine photography director Jody Quon shares some details of how the project came together.

New York Magazine - An unwelcome sisterhood

How did this cover concept come together?
We had always felt that a very important part of the story we were telling was about the sheer volume of women who had just one thing in common. The numbers were staggering, and we wanted to be able to look at all the women side by side. Our photographer Amanda Demme had the brilliant idea to photograph each woman in a very uniform manner, always dressed in black, seated in a chair, very direct, with eye contact. With these, we were able to line them up on the cover, in chronological order, based on the year that each were allegedly assaulted. We then included the one empty chair to symbolize the women who could not participate in this project, as well as the other women out there who had not yet come forward.

What was the timetable for producing a cover that required photographing 35 women? Who else was involved in the production?
This project began in January, gathering the names and articles of the women that had come forward, and making initial contact with about a half-dozen women to gauge their interest in the project. Our assistant photo editor Tirzah Brott put together the initial dossier of women, and I made the initial calls to the women. Sofia DeGuzman joined the magazine as a freelance photo editor in early March and it became her full-time job to find all the women and connect all the dots. She beautifully navigated the sensitivity surrounding the women, and managed to gain their trust and get them on board. We mapped out the women, and strategized to see how we could group them into different hubs for the photo shoots to take place. Photography took place over nine sessions – mostly in Los Angeles, but also in New York, and Las Vegas. The photography began in late April and continued through to as recent as last week, two days before we went to press. Senior staff writer Noreen Malone and Jen Kirby conducted telephone interviews after we had completed each photo shoot. Design director Thomas Alberty and senior art director Randy Minor designed the cover.

What challenges did you have in producing this cover?
We had the basic challenges of convincing and scheduling each woman, and the graphic challenge of effectively conveying the magnitude of the story – which is power in numbers. We knew that the most effective cover would surface all the women, but it was a challenge to get all of them onto the cover and create impact.

Much of the reaction I’ve seen to the cover is overwhelmingly positive. How difficult was it to get this concept approved by editors?
Not difficult at all. We all knew this could be powerful if we could get it to work. That said, as with all covers we do, we did try other approaches as well. Adam Moss likes us to try different ideas, and we have often surprise ourselves with this kind of experimentation. In this instance however, our initial instincts proved to be right.

Did you expect the huge response the cover has generated?
Of course not…We knew our cover was strong, but it is simply too hard to know how people will respond in general. Needless to say, we are thrilled, overwhelmed, and moved. We are reminded of the power of journalism, and that is a wonderful thing.