The New York Times quietly parted ways with international picture editor David Furst in April after an investigation into his treatment of colleagues and freelancers, leaving many at the paper asking why his departure had taken so long.
During his tenure, Furst led the Times’ international photo department to increased prominence, and he seemed to have star status inside the world’s most prestigious newspaper. But he was also known to undermine coworkers and abuse his position of power over freelancers. His conduct was no secret to top editors at the Times: in 2017, multiple employees complained about him to human resources, and by 2018, he was the subject of a probe by Charlotte Behrendt, an associate managing editor and a lawyer who handles discipline in the newsroom and has investigated recent high-profile controversies at the paper, including the Donald G. McNeil Jr. case. Behrendt’s probe concluded in mid-2018, and little happened as a result; Furst kept his job, though he did not receive a promotion he was seeking. Months later, another colleague complained about Furst to a supervisor.
The reasons for Furst’s departure this spring have been a mystery, even for many Times staffers. Behrendt began a second probe, reaching out to at least two freelance photographers about Furst in February, and by late March he was abruptly absent, his Slack and email accounts deactivated. On April 6, Meaghan Looram, the Times’ director of photography, announced in a staff meeting conducted over Google Hangouts that Furst was no longer working for the Times following an investigation into how he treated people he managed, including freelancers. On a call with the international desk, assistant managing editor for international Michael Slackman made a similar announcement and apologized to photo editors for being unaware of the strains they were working under.
Some Times employees welcomed the news. But for many, the relief was tempered by concern over a lack of transparency, and anger that the paper took so long to take action on a problem that had long been visible to them. Current and former Times employees say they believe managers tolerated Furst’s behavior because of the prestige he brought to the paper, an assertion that is itself evidence of a deeper cultural problem at the Times.
“He is not alone in the bad behavior,” says one former Times employee who had complained about Furst to human resources. “The message that it sent to the rest of the company is bad behavior is accepted here. There are all these other people who operate very much like him.”
Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha declined to answer specific questions about Furst’s departure and the Times’ investigations into him. “As a general policy, we do not comment on personnel matters,” she wrote in an email, but added: “I can tell you that The New York Times thoroughly reviews all complaints and takes appropriate corrective action.” Rhoades Ha declined to answer whether Furst was fired, and the Times has made no public statement about his departure. Furst did not respond to interview requests sent via email, text message, and voicemail.
FURST CAME TO THE TIMES IN 2010, after working for about a decade as a photographer in the Middle East. He quickly distinguished himself, overseeing coverage that won Pulitzer Prizes four years in a row, as well as five George Polk awards and numerous other prizes, at a time when the Times was increasing its emphasis on visual journalism.
He also developed a reputation for being controlling and verbally abusive. Conversations with nearly forty people, including Times staffers, former employees, and freelancers, revealed consistent complaints about Furst, including that he yelled at and belittled people and made unreasonable demands of freelancers, telling some that they could not work for other publications if they wanted to keep working for the New York Times. Many of the complaints about Furst came from women, some of whom say they felt he discriminated against them. Most of those interviewed for this story did not want to be named for fear of damaging their prospects with the industry’s most powerful publication.
Many photojournalists say Furst’s behavior was unlike that of any other editor they’d ever worked with.
For many freelance photographers, Furst was more than a demanding editor. The photojournalists who spoke to CJR are accustomed to working in high-pressure environments, and many say they appreciate being pushed to do their best. But they also say Furst’s behavior was unlike that of any other editor they’d ever worked with. Four experienced, successful photographers who worked regularly with Furst described feeling sick when they saw his name or number pop up on their phones’ caller ID. “I would have to take a deep breath and just think, ‘Okay, I can do this again,’ ” says Andrea Bruce, a member of the NOOR photo agency who worked with Furst for about seven years. “Because you never knew what you were going to get.”
Sometimes he was warm and friendly, she says, but then, unexpectedly, he could turn hostile. Furst blamed her for anything that went wrong, she says, including his own mistakes. She recalled that in the middle of the 2014 December holidays, Furst called and told her he needed her to go to Guantánamo, Cuba—“tomorrow.” Bruce left her family celebration and scrambled to get to Guantánamo, a journey that included sitting on the floor of a bus for fourteen hours. When she arrived, she found the story had already run. “There was no apology—no even, like, recognition of anything that had happened.” She sent Furst photos she had taken anyway, and though the Times eventually published the photos, she says when he received them, “he was like, ‘Your pictures suck. I don’t know what you’re doing there.’ That was all I got.”
For Bruce, the power Furst held over her career loomed over every interaction. He started conversations “in a very non-sarcastic and threatening way by saying, ‘Do you know how lucky you are to be working for me? And do you know how many people would kill for me to call them like I’m calling you right now?’ ” she says. “It basically felt like he liked the power. He stressed loyalty over everything else.”
Bruce loved working for the Times, and she knew that to continue she would have to put up with Furst’s behavior. “There are not many jobs in this profession. And I loved working with the reporters I got to work with. I believe in journalism wholeheartedly, and I believe in the New York Times. So this is the price I had to pay,” she says, “and that’s, I think, how most people felt.”
Fifteen photographers and seven editors told stories similar to Bruce’s. They say Furst was capricious, frequently reminded them of the power he held over them, and yelled at them, sometimes hanging up mid-call. A former Times photo editor who worked with Furst for several years says he instructed her to yell at photographers. “I would hide in conference rooms so I didn’t have to do that,” she says. When Furst told her to yell at a photographer covering a conflict who Furst said wasn’t filing enough, she says, “I said to him very directly, ‘You don’t mean “yell,” right?’ And he’s like, ‘No, you need to yell at him.’ Which was really shocking, because this person was in a conflict zone.”
A photographer who worked with Furst for about two years says, “You could never win. If you checked in with him too much, he was angry at you for checking in. If you haven’t heard from him in a few days, he was angry he hadn’t heard from you.”
Several photographers contacted for this story said they had no problems working with Furst. “Although he can be a demanding editor, I don’t feel I’ve been mistreated by him,” wrote photojournalist Nadia Shira Cohen in an email, adding that in recent years she had not often worked directly with Furst. Two other photographers who did not want to be identified gave similar accounts; one says Furst was supportive when she expressed concerns about her safety on assignment.
MESSAGES EXCHANGED BETWEEN EDITORS on the international desk that were reviewed by CJR show that they dreaded Furst’s outbursts and were anxious about meetings with him. Three photo editors who worked on the international desk say he made it difficult for them to do their jobs by not communicating effectively with them. One editor Furst was supposed to train says he provided little guidance or feedback, “almost like I’m just operating in a void.” Another former photo editor for the Times who worked with him says Furst berated editors for minor mistakes in meetings, telling them in front of colleagues that they “fucked up,” she says.
This editor says Furst was controlling and discouraged her from developing relationships with colleagues on the desk. He became upset when he saw her getting coffee with someone else and told her not to associate with certain people, she says. “So if he saw me being friendly or, you know, collaborating with people he had directed me not to, he would make comments about how he couldn’t trust me. And I felt my position there was in jeopardy if I didn’t follow his direction.”
Management at the Times seemed to turn a blind eye to Furst’s behavior. Current and former photo editors at the Times say Furst was perceived in the department as a favorite of Michele McNally, the director of photography who had hired him, and that McNally was not receptive to complaints about his behavior. “Once Michele kind of anointed him, he was kind of untouchable,” says a former photo editor who spent more than thirteen years at the Times.
Furst was so angry and aggressive, one former photo editor at the Times says, that she was afraid to talk to him.
In 2017, rumors of McNally’s impending retirement began spreading within the Times. It was clear to his colleagues that Furst, who had been elevated to the management team and given an assistant-editor title, was aiming to replace her. So many of them saw his behavior as harmful or inappropriate that there was widespread dismay within the photo department at the prospect that he might become director of photography, and multiple people threatened to leave if he got the job.
That year, at least three Times staffers brought complaints about Furst’s behavior to a human resources employee. By the spring of 2018, Behrendt was investigating, and spoke to at least five Times employees and freelancers who had worked with Furst about his behavior.
What became of the inquiry was never clear to those who participated. All that was apparent was that Furst did not get the promotion: in July 2018, the Times announced that Looram, a deputy photo editor, would become director of photography. After the announcement, Furst was often absent from the office. He stopped answering calls and emails from photographers he worked with regularly, and many grew anxious, unsure whether they should work for other clients or wait for him, says the former Times photo editor who worked with him for several years. He was so angry and aggressive, she says, that she was afraid to talk to him.
The photo editor made a complaint to Looram, which she says Looram promised to keep confidential. For several weeks after she complained, the angry outbursts stopped, and Furst behaved civilly toward colleagues, she says. But months later, Furst largely refused to speak with her or take meetings with her, making it difficult for her to do her job. In early 2019, Furst gave the editor a formal performance review that was overwhelmingly negative and threatened disciplinary action, she says. “It was counter to every piece of feedback I’d ever had from everyone at the New York Times,” she says. Behrendt was present at the review, which was unusual, according to a Times employee familiar with such reviews. When the editor raised concerns that Furst was retaliating because of her complaint against him, she says Behrendt told her, “There’s no reason to doubt anything [Furst] said.” After the review, Furst took away most of the editor’s work, she says. She told a masthead editor and other senior editors that she felt she was being retaliated against, and eventually left the Times. As she was leaving, she also informed Looram, who had been on maternity leave; Looram indicated that she was aware of how the situation was handled and was satisfied with it. (Looram referred questions from CJR to a Times spokesperson.)
When it became apparent that Furst’s job had survived the investigation, many Times employees concluded he had the backing of senior management. For some who complained about Furst’s behavior in 2017 and 2018, his departure left them feeling dissatisfied and angry. “We can’t imagine what he could have done that led to this, considering everything we told the company that he did and how he behaved and they did nothing,” says one former Times employee. That he lasted so long despite the complaints “really does speak to the culture of the newsroom, and what they value, and whose voice was important.”
BEFORE THE INVESTIGATION, Furst had at times used the power he had over photographers’ careers to demand total loyalty, without offering any guarantees on how much work they would get from the Times. For Bruce, that demand came early on. She became a freelancer in 2010 after leaving a staff photography job so she could live and work in Afghanistan. When Furst approached Bruce at the Visa pour l’image photo festival in Perpignan, France, she says, and told her he wanted her to be part of an “A team” for the Times’ foreign coverage, “I was thrilled,” she says.
But Bruce couldn’t make a living with the Times as her sole client. In 2012, when Furst heard she had an assignment with another publication, she says, he called her and told her: “You can’t work for” that publication. Bruce was surprised, but “I just thought those were the rules of the game,” she says. Bruce says the other publication never hired her again. “David killed one of my possible sources of income.…I realize this is what it takes to be a freelancer: You just keep going and keep your mouth shut. And you stay loyal to David Furst. So I stayed loyal. And that kind of thing happened over and over again.”
Bruce, who was never contacted by Behrendt during the investigation, says she sometimes went for months without a job from Furst. She struggled financially. The only way she survived some years, she says, was with prize money from awards she won. At one point she tried to raise the issue with him again. “I told David, ‘Look, I really need to have some other clients, and it’s not against you, but what if you leave the New York Times? I have no other clients.’ And he said, quote, ‘That’s just a risk you’re going to have to take, and that’s because you get to work for the New York Times.’ ”
The former Times photo editor who worked with Furst says he instructed her to make clear to some photographers that their work with the paper would be in jeopardy if they worked for other publications. “I had explicit conversations with him where he said, you know, ‘You can’t tell her not to shoot for other people. But you need to let her know that she can’t shoot for other people.’ And that was something he asked me to do for multiple photographers.”
A freelance photographer who has worked for the Times for about eight years was on assignment for the paper in 2017 when Furst took him off the story. “He made it pretty clear in phone calls that…I should appreciate the work I was getting, because he knows that I work for other publications frequently, or competitor publications,” he says. “That’s when I sort of realized that if I wanted to get bigger or better assignments and longer assignments, I had to make that decision.” He stopped working for other publications and now works almost exclusively for the Times—without any guarantee of how much work he’ll get.
Tasneem Alsultan, a photojournalist based in Saudi Arabia, began working for the Times in late 2017, when King Salman announced the kingdom would lift its ban on women driving the following year. As one of the few Saudi photographers working for Western media, Alsultan found that her work was in high demand.
When she got a call from Furst, Alsultan was in discussions with Alice Gabriner, who was the international photo editor at Time magazine. Furst wanted to commission her, she says, telling her “This is the beginning of your career” and promising to mentor her. When she told him she was planning to publish previous work in Time, his response was clear. “He said, ‘No fucking way. You’re going to call them and tell them no.…Just so we’re clear, you’re not going to work with anyone else. This is how you’re going to show me that you’re committed,’ ” she says Furst told her.
Gabriner says she was taken aback to learn that Furst was restricting Alsultan from publishing work she had completed before her relationship with the Times began. After Alsultan’s assignment with the Times was over, Gabriner tried again. “When we expressed interest again in publishing the work, he still did not want anyone else publishing that work,” she says.
Alsultan says she called or emailed Furst several times when she received inquiries from other editors, asking him if it would be okay for her to take other assignments—and he always made clear to her that she should not. “I’m not telling you what to do, but this is how you show you’re committed,” she says he would tell her. “Your commitment to me is more important.” She spoke with Behrendt about Furst in May 2018, and says she told her about his exclusivity expectations. Alsultan, Bruce, and other photographers say Furst never communicated these demands in writing, only in phone calls. Rhoades Ha, the Times spokesperson, wrote in an email that “we do not require exclusivity for freelancers.”
“He asked me specifically, ‘So what is your family situation? Do you plan to have kids?’ ”
It wasn’t just other publications Furst didn’t want “his” photographers working for. Sometimes it was also other desks within the Times, say multiple photographers and editors. When Furst saw Bruce talking to photo editors on the Times national desk about a project she wanted to do in the US, he “pulled me aside and reprimanded me,” she says. One photographer who worked for Furst for about two years says Furst made his displeasure apparent when he saw her meeting with a photo editor on another desk at the Times, and never called her again. Four current and former Times photo editors from other desks say that to commission photographers who worked with Furst, they had to go through him or risk Furst “freaking out,” an unwritten code that two editors say did not exist before his tenure.
After about seven years of working almost solely for the Times, Bruce had a baby in the fall of 2018. She took only three weeks off. When she was ready to get back into the field, she emailed Furst to let him know. “And I never heard from him again,” she says. “It was like I didn’t exist anymore. I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m on the blacklist.’ ” Though she reached out to him “tens” of times, he never gave her an explanation, she says. “It was really stunning from a place that I really depended on.”
One photographer who has worked for the Times for a decade says Furst asked her in 2015 whether she planned to have children. “He asked me specifically, ‘So what is your family situation? Do you plan to have kids? Because I really like to work with people who are fully committed to this job.’ ” She told him that she didn’t have children and was therefore “always available.” She still does not have children, and while Furst is not the only reason, he’s a large part of it, she says.
Alsultan didn’t realize the Times was no longer assigning her until late 2019, when Furst assigned another photographer for a story in Saudi Arabia. “I was shocked, because they didn’t tell me,” she says. She had been working for the Times regularly, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, throughout 2018. When the assignments from the international desk slowed and then stopped in 2019, she thought it was because the killing of Jamal Khashoggi had put a damper on stories from the kingdom. Neither Furst nor other editors on the international desk told her that they no longer wanted to work with her, she says, and so she continued turning down work from other publications.
FURST HAD A PATTERN of sidelining women photojournalists. In 2016, he was a mentor at the Transmission workshop at the Visa pour l’image festival, where he presented and discussed images he had commissioned for the Times. It was beautiful work, says Brazilian photojournalist Carolina Arantes, who attended as a participant, but all the photographs he showed were taken by men. Alsultan, who was also a participant, confirmed that account. Both said they asked Furst why he didn’t show photos by women, and why he didn’t publish women more often. Each recalled Furst saying that there were not enough women whose work was good enough for the New York Times.
Four women photographers said that working with Furst felt like being “set up to fail.”
While a lack of gender parity is an issue across the industry, Furst’s approach was particularly noticeable. His “A team” was mostly made up of white men, and until 2018, the majority of international photo assignments at the Times went to men. According to an internal tally reviewed by CJR, in 2017 about 19.5 percent of the international desk’s photo assignments went to women. When Bruce was working with Furst, “I know that I was often the only woman that he wanted to work with,” she says. “I always felt like I was the last on his A-team list. The guys got the sexy stories, and I got the leftover ones, or anything that had to do with women.” Bruce says she is “honored” to do stories about women, but “there’s a boys club.”
In separate interviews, four women photographers said that working with Furst felt like being “set up to fail.” One of them was Bénédicte Kurzen, a French photojournalist based in Nigeria who is a member of NOOR. She had worked regularly for the Times before Furst’s tenure, but after he was hired her assignments slowed. The issues she had with him felt difficult to pinpoint, she says, but she described “a general lack of care,” like “we were not on the same side.” She had a good relationship with the Times editor she worked with before Furst, and acknowledges it is not unusual for a new editor to have different preferences. But with Furst, “it always seemed like I was making a mistake, or doing things not right, when actually I know I’m a good professional. All of this created an atmosphere of uncertainty, eroding my confidence to deliver and work for the Times.” She says she eventually asked Furst if he had any issues with her work. He said no, she says, but never hired her again.
Another photographer who said she felt “set up to fail” was Jane Hahn. In early 2011, Hahn covered the civil war in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, on assignment for the Times. The fighting was intense, bloody, and unpredictable. It was her first time covering conflict, and although she knew Abidjan well and took safety precautions, she says she received almost no support from Furst, who often didn’t even reply to her emails. Hahn was working largely independently from the Times correspondent there, and Furst did not have a conversation with her about security protocols or advice, logistics, or safety check-ins, she says. She felt like she was “working in a void.”
“You’re scared, the adrenaline is going, you’re trying to photograph the horrible devastation that’s happening and get out of there as fast as possible,” she says. “I was just trying to get the story and stay alive, and I asked him repeatedly, even since the first day, for feedback, for advice. It went unanswered.”
On a second assignment to Abidjan for the Times a little over a month later, when the conflict had grown more violent, again, Furst rarely responded to her emails. Five days after she returned home to Ghana, and a week after he last emailed her, she says, she received a frantic call from Furst asking where she was.
Many women felt too intimidated by Furst to question such behavior, or even to tell him they were already booked if he called with an assignment. The photographer who says Furst asked her if she had children lived in so much fear of him that she declined an assignment just twice in a decade. Both times, he erupted in anger, and she felt that he subsequently punished her by not offering her choice assignments. “I’ve built my whole life around saying yes to him,” she says. “I’m always on standby, and that’s because of him. I’m too afraid to say no. So I cancel vacations—I’ve canceled two or three vacations. Because I’m too afraid to just say I can’t do it.”
Three photographers who are non-American women of color say they felt their race or nationality was a factor in the way Furst treated them. An Asian photographer who worked frequently for Furst for about five years says he was fond of telling her how much she’d grown under his tutelage. At one point, she and a reporter came up with an original idea for a yearlong, multipart series, and pitched it to the paper. It was approved, she says, but Furst then reassigned the idea to another photographer based in Europe. When he told her, she says, “it was couched with, ‘Oh, this series might be important, and you need help in shooting it.’ I always felt like the local hire that was not good enough to even shoot a project I had come up with alongside this writer. So I called him out on it.” She eventually shot much of the project, but, she says, “that was the beginning of a lot of problems between me and him.” Like other photographers, she says that Furst could be warm at times—he showed concern for her on an occasion when she was injured. She notes, too, that the bias toward white and Western photographers is an industry-wide issue.
Three editors who worked with Furst say they did not witness any interest from him in making gender parity or racial or ethnic diversity a goal in assignments before 2017. Furst has said publicly that at the end of 2017 he asked his photo editors to work toward gender parity in assigning, and that the desk had achieved parity by the following April. The former Times photo editor attributed the abrupt change to Furst positioning himself for the director of photography job, and says that after he didn’t receive the job, he stopped pressing editors on gender parity. She says she suggested at the time that they push for diversity in race and nationality as well as gender, and was dismissed. “Oh, that’s too difficult,” she says he told her.
This year, Furst’s departure has been a “relief” for some inside the Times. Some photo editors had avoided working on the international desk, a desirable post, because of him. For photographers, though, the unexplained and unpredictable nature of the decision underlines their own lack of recourse when editors behave badly. Kurzen says she decided to speak to CJR not because she felt bitter about her own experience, but because it concerned her that Furst’s behavior had been widely known for a decade, yet no one spoke out.
“I wish there would have been a space to actually express this,” she says. “Culturally, in our industry, there is no room for complaints, especially for freelancers. We are extremely vulnerable.”Kristen Chick is a freelance journalist who covers migration, women's issues, and human rights in Europe and the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @kristenchick.