The Photos You Have to Leave Behind

There is always a favorite photo that gets cut—and this is the one that was left out of the TIME project.

Jessica Valencia, 36, a hostess and cocktail server at Virgin Hotels in nearby Las Vegas, poses during her own photoshoot near Lake Mead in Nevada on June 4, 2021.

When editing projects with colleagues, there are always successful images that don't make the final cut—whether it's for an exhibition, a magazine layout, or a book. 

I chatted briefly about this in my post earlier this week discussing editing a feature story for TIME on climate change in America. There are a lot of reasons a photo doesn't make an edit. It might be strong as a single image, but the visual language might not fit the tone of the rest of the work. The composition could be too similar to another photo in the edit, or the content might be redundant in the narrative you're crafting. Early in my career, my mentors would tell me to "kill your darlings." It's a lesson that's become steeped in my photographic lexicon.

It was day two of my assignment for TIME, and I was in Nevada. It was so fucking hot that evening; the purple desert dusk was lost on me. Two sugary margaritas made with cheap tequila tingled through me after disembarking from a cruise on Lake Mead. I had sailed looking for a photo to illustrate the historically low water levels. While on the boat, I photographed the "bathtub ring" of the lake, a bleached 20-foot strip of rock that marked a water line from earlier times and gave a sharp edge to the emerald water. Despite catastrophic predictions for the crucial body of water—the water level had dropped to the lowest point in its 90-year history—the lake felt serene, almost abundant.

As my rental car meandered up a tar road headed back to Las Vegas, a flash of light caught my eye. In the near darkness, a studio strobe illuminated a woman in a bikini, posing like a swimsuit model. The moment was surreal and unexpected, so I pulled over. After watching the scene for another minute, I could see a person was photographing the woman with a flash on a stand mounted with a softbox. Should I grab my camera, I wondered, or should I get back to Vegas?

I turned off car and wandered over. With the broadest Australian accent I could muster, I explained that I was a photographer too, working on a story for TIME. Would they mind if I made some photos of them making photos? The model, Jessica Valencia, was directing the photographer, and it quickly became clear she was running the shoot. As the flash hit her, she explained she was a hostess and cocktail server at Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas and that she was taking photos for her socials. She pouted at the camera, crossed her legs, and lifted her hair. The flash went off.

I started photographing too. After trying to make a photo of a water line for hours, this scene excited me. There was action, there was light, and there were two characters. Jessica explained it was too hot to shoot during the day, so they had waited until dusk to shoot. "This is climate change," I thought, mentally stretching to fit this scene into my narrative.

I had caught Jessica toward the end of her shoot, and she put on a bathrobe when she was done. The photographer packed up, and I thanked them both for letting me crash. When I got back to my hotel I looked Jessica up and found that she had 35K followers on her Instagram account, which linked to a "Babes in Toyland" charity event.

There were more flattering photos of Jessica than this one I selected, photos she would probably be happy to use on her social channels. But this image is an off-the-cuff moment: her eyes are closed, her pose in between the deliberate gestures at a camera. I liked the imperfect nature of this scene. 

I thought it was a successful photo, one that I "had in the can" and would make the final cut. However, when I laid out the images with my editor, we couldn't find a spot for it. The photograph felt more cinematic and candid than the other images, and it didn't fit the tone of the story. It was also slightly redundant, as there was another photo from Portland with a young woman in a bikini in the final selection. Two women in bikinis in a twenty-five image edit didn't feel like an accurate representation within the narrative. 

Sure enough, this photo, one of my favorites, got killed in the edit.