How JoJo Whilden became a go-to photographer for your favorite TV shows.
Being the fly whose job it is to perch on the wall of a tele- vision set is inherently cool. But when you’re the fly who’s photographing stills for Netflix, SHOWTIME and HBO for shows like Orange Is the New Black, Homeland and Girls, it’s pretty much a photographer’s dream job.
JoJo Whilden is a photographer in a small, much-coveted circle in New York City who is called on to shoot promotional and behind-the-scenes photos on film and television sets. But before joining that circle, she was trained in varying fields: She got her start as a photojournalist at local newspapers in her hometown of San Francisco; then earned an MFA in photography and new media from International Center of Photography and New York University while working as a photo editor at SABA (now Redux).
In 1998, her friend, director Lisa Cholodenko—then a film studies graduate student at Columbia—asked Whilden to document the making of her small, independent film High Art, starring Ally Sheedy. “The film did really well and went to Cannes, and they used my photos for publicity,” Whilden says. “I started getting calls [to do other films].”
Whilden resisted at first, citing an unease in giving big studios the rights to her images. “You have to give up a certain level of control,” she says. But film work paid the bills, and as Whilden said yes to more jobs—and became more comfortable on sets—she found she liked the work, a mix of photojournalism, commercial and fine-art photography.
Plus, unlike many photography gigs, positions in the film and televi- sion industry are unionized—a huge benefit for those with families to support. “We’re independent contractors, but covered by the union, so we get healthcare and a pension plan that the producers pay into,” says Whilden, who has two children. That being said, “I still have to hustle for my own jobs and build a reputation; the union doesn’t help find us work and it’s competitive like any other photography job.”
Another component of film sets is the physical work, which isn’t easy. Whilden, who manages her own schedule, sometimes has a night shoot on one show, and a day shoot on the next. “We work 12-to-14- hour days on sets, so the work can be rough,” she says. Whilden’s go- to cameras are a Nikon D810 and DF, and she switches between her AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED and AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II lenses. She also affixes a sound blimp to silence the shutter, adding 6-8 pounds to her equipment.
On set, Whilden says her biggest challenge is being aware—and not getting in the way—of crew members while still getting the shots she needs to publicize the show. “It requires people skills with the cast, directors and camera department,” Whilden says. “You can only really get that from experience, not school. You just have to be there and do it.”
Whilden’s advice to emerging photographers wanting to break into a similar line of work? “Say yes to everything and don’t be afraid,” she says. “Don’t get too myopic in what you want to do, and don’t be uppity when you’re starting out about how much you think you deserve to get paid. I always loved photography and would do stu for free, which led to contacts and opportunities, which led me where I am now. Be open to opportunities.”
Frances McDormand in the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge. Photo © JoJo Whilden.