Whether or not a picture is worth a thousand words, the right one can make a thousand words—or even ten thousand—a lot more interesting to read. That’s why, from its launch fifty years ago, Texas Monthly has published the work of the state’s best photographers, plus a few with Lone Star roots who have been drawn to New York City or Los Angeles and are glad to come home occasionally to shoot for us. Our database of freelance photojournalists numbers more than five hundred, who specialize in everything from interiors to the outdoors, food, and “funky light.” Claire Hogan, our photo editor, observes that “we know what areas each photographer specializes in and enjoys, but I also like to pitch them assignments that stretch them a bit and surprise our readers.”
Claire’s approach regularly wins praise from those readers, and in February it was recognized by the National Magazine Awards, the Oscars of our industry. The image she assigned and directed for last October’s cover, on the state’s most interesting roadside attractions, was named the best service and lifestyle photo published by any U.S. magazine in 2022. That image, shown on this page, was shot by longtime contributor Jeff Wilson as part of a photo essay capturing giant statues of roadrunners, armadillos, and such that he had spotted during long drives around the state. We assigned one of our wittiest wordsmiths, senior editor Emily McCullar, to visit the attractions and interview their creators. “It was,” Claire says, “one of those perfect marriages of story, writer, and photographer.”
Our photo team scored another honor in the National Magazine Awards, as a finalist in the profile-photography category, for a poolside shot of social media “grandfluencer” Irvin Randle, a fit, sharp-dressing sixty-year-old Houston schoolteacher known as “Mr. Steal Your Grandma.” That portrait, also published in our October 2022 issue, was taken by Peter Yang, a University of Texas at Austin graduate now based in Los Angeles.
Claire is herself a UT alum, having earned a degree in journalism with an emphasis on photography. She inherited a passion for the news from her mother, who worked as community-relations coordinator for the late, lamented Dallas Times Herald. Claire got hooked on photography and photo editing as a yearbook editor at her high school in Houston and through a couple of summer expeditions that her school arranged with National Geographic, in Greece, Italy, and Tanzania. “I found I enjoyed not only taking photos,” Claire says, “but also putting all the pieces together”—choosing photographers, making assignments, directing shots, and editing photos.
Like Claire, our colleague J. K. Nickell works mostly behind the scenes, as one of the country’s finest editors of feature stories. He crafts our longer assignments, works with writers to plan their reporting, and helps them organize and hone their writing. For this issue, however, J.K. decided to do some writing of his own, on a topic close to his heart: education reform.
He started his career as a public schoolteacher and coach in Melissa, forty miles northeast of downtown Dallas. There he saw that many kids’ educational attainment was held back by factors beyond the control of their teachers: homelessness, hunger, drug use and violence in the child’s neighborhood or home, parents who worked multiple jobs and were seldom around for homework help. “Too many elected officials expect the public schools to be the panacea for all of society’s problems,” J.K. says, “but they don’t fund the schools for that mission, and they denounce and undermine them when they inevitably fall short.”
J.K.’s story focuses on a small but promising program in Dallas, launched by a Black entrepreneur, that shows what a holistic approach to urban education might look like. I hope you find it as inspiring as I did and that you enjoy the rest of this issue of Texas Monthly.
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Behind the Scenes.” Subscribe today.