CatchLight: Revitalizing visual storytelling in local newsrooms and media

The company aims to support visual artists and newsrooms as they cast a brighter light on their communities


In photography, film and video, a catchlight directs viewers’ attention to the subject’s eyes, which are primary sources of nonverbal communication between humans. CatchLight is a fitting symbol for the company, as it wanted to return the sparkle to visual storytelling. It was founded in 2015 as a “visual-first media organization that leverages the power of visual storytelling to inform, connect and transform communities.”

Jenny Stratton, executive editor of CatchLight Local (Photo by Felix Uribe Jr.)

Considering more than half of all visual journalists’ jobs have been lost during the 21st century, founder Nancy Farese and CatchLight’s founding team, including Abby Connolly, Erica Garber and Jenny Stratton, had a very challenging mission. However, all of them, plus newer CatchLight staff members, have substantial experience in the visual storyteller profession. They knew the power of visual storytelling, and they knew it needed a renaissance so local newsrooms and media could improve engagement with readers and their communities.

“The paradox we’re solving is that the world has never been more visual, and there have never been more visual communicators, and yet there’s been a massive disinvestment in the visual journalism space,” said Stratton, executive editor of CatchLight Local.

Today, the CatchLight staff has grown to 11 and is supported by a distinguished group of photojournalists, media executives, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs on its board of directors. Its advisory council includes leaders in media, photography and academics, as well as many influencers of the visual arts worldwide.

Elodie Mailliet Storm, CEO of CatchLight (Photo by Christopher Michel)

After a long career with Getty Images, including senior director of strategic development, Elodie Mailliet Storm became a John S. Knight (JSK) fellow in media innovation at Stanford University in 2016 and was invited to join CatchLight’s advisory board. She became the organization’s CEO in 2019.

“As a JSK fellow, I started to understand that the world of visual journalism, the world of media more broadly, especially the nonprofit media world and the world of tech, where many of those decisions were being made both from a capture perspective and a distribution perspective, were completely disconnected. I felt it was very important to start creating bridges between those three worlds. I thought we, at CatchLight, were uniquely placed to do that because of our location and connections,” Mailliet Storm said.

Generously supported to advance visual storytelling globally and locally

To promote more visual storytelling in local newsrooms and media, Stratton, Mailliet Storm and their CatchLight colleagues knew a holistic approach was required, one that supported both newsrooms in bringing value to local reporting and creating jobs for the many talented visual storytellers.

Generating support from funding sources and partners, including the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Enlight Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Report for America, Arnold Ventures, the MacArthur Foundation, Press Forward and PhotoWings, its education partner, was critical to CatchLight’s mission.

“Much of the work we do is building a sustainable model. We are diversifying our sources of revenue, and many of the grants we’ve received are based on our showing a path to sustainability. We also have a series of events and corporate sponsors for those events and a fairly large audience of people following us who are interested in photography, visual storytelling and media,” Mailliet Storm said.

The CatchLight Global Fellowship was its first initiative, launching in 2017, with the first group of three Global fellows. They and subsequent global fellows receive a $30,000 grant, personal development opportunities and networking support from CatchLight and can participate in a community of global visual storytellers. All global fellows also receive paid travel and accommodations for the 2024 CatchLight Visual Storytelling Summit in April in San Francisco.

According to Adriana Garcia, Global Fellowship coordinator, the annual cohort of three global fellows typically do not work as staff photojournalists. They are likelier to be freelance visual storytellers working on long-form, photographic passion projects and promoting photography in their communities and countries.

“We’re looking for innovative global fellows with expertise and experience they can share with more emerging photographers. Our support allows global fellows to create an environment where photography is part of an impactful storytelling process and includes communities,” Garcia said.

Catchlight’s 2024 global fellows are:

  • Johanna Alarcón uses photography and education to amplify the voices of indigenous women defending their land in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
  • Harlan Bozeman is pursuing long-term, community-engaged photography projects to stop the loss of Black legacies and identities in the American South.
  • Anastasia Taylor-Lind is telling the stories of civilians living through the war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Pictured (l to r): Johanna Alarcón, Harlan Bozeman and Anastasia Taylor-Lind

CatchLight Local is the organization’s other major initiative. It was launched in 2019 to support community newsrooms in California, many of which have been serving communities for decades but don’t have a photojournalist on staff.

Mabel Jiménez, visual desk editor of CatchLight Local California (Photo by Felix Uribe Jr.)

The CatchLight Local Visual Desk launched in 2021 is one of those bridges Mailliet Storm wanted to build at CatchLight — to create an active interface with and support for its newsroom partners and local fellows. Mabel Jiménez is the visual desk editor of CatchLight Local California.

“I work with our local fellows and communicate with the editors in their newsrooms because most don't have a photo editor. I help them with photo editing, selection, sequencing and how to plan and approach a story, as well as any legal issues that may arise. I also guide them in improving captions and workflow,” Jiménez said.

India Currents is one of six CatchLight newsroom partners, including CalMatters, El Tecolote, Black Voice News and others. Founded in 1987 as a for-profit print magazine, India Currents serves its core audience, the first-generation immigrant community of Indian Americans in the Bay Area.

Vandana Kumar, publisher, India Currents (Photo by Sree Sripathy)

Vandana Kumar, publisher of India Currents, said ad revenues drove its profitability because the publication reached a targeted demographic that was attractive to advertisers and many small businesses looking to serve the Indian American community. As social media became a powerful advertising channel, India Currents’ ad revenues suffered, and Kumar wondered if the community still wanted and needed the publication.

“The pandemic made the answer very clear to us. We received a deluge of messages from the community and discovered a recurring theme. People were writing to us at a time of uncertainty in their lives. When they first came to this country as immigrants, India Currents was a place they called home and where they found community and connected with others like themselves to learn about local resources,” Kumar said.

She added that was the moment India Currents had to become more intentional about serving the community and creating and publishing more useful information, even in its digital avatar. It became a nonprofit publication and joined the Institute for Nonprofit News. Jonathan Kealing, the chief network officer, introduced Kumar to Mailliet Storm and Stratton at CatchLight.

Although Kumar recognized the value of improving the visual representation of Indian Americans in the publication, she didn’t have the financial resources for a photojournalist. CatchLight, however, was able to provide that financial support so Kumar could add Sree Sripathy, a local photographer she knew, to the staff.

“Sree was photographing all the time and had taken many courses, but she worked in technology to pay the bills, as many are wont to do. I encouraged her to apply for a CatchLight Local fellowship, and we are hosting her as our first full-time photographer. Because of her fellowship, Sree can work on a special project I’ve wanted to do for a long time that we call ‘We Belong,’ creating portraits of our incredibly diverse community,” Kumar said.

A young man’s journey to becoming a CatchLight Local fellow

Pablo Unzueta, a full-time photojournalist at El Tecolote

Pablo Unzueta is a first-generation Chilean American whose grandmother, a wedding photographer in the 1980s, influenced his interest in photography. When he obtained his first camera at 17, he started walking through downtown Los Angeles, honing his skills and cultivating an interest in visual storytelling.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Cal State Long Beach, he started an internship at CalMatters. On his second application for a Catchlight Local fellowship, he was accepted. He is now a full-time photojournalist at El Tecolote, which has served the Bay Area Latino community since 1970.

“I love the CatchLight workshops and the great amount of information they provide. The CatchLight Summit is another great networking opportunity. Because the CatchLight framework has grown so much, there are pathways to other opportunities. The quality of work and the standards are high. Having the CatchLight name on your résumé speaks volumes,” Unzueta said.

In early 2024, CatchLight announced it had received a combined investment of $7.5 million to expand its support of more fellows like Unzueta and newsrooms like India Currents with the CatchLight Local Visual Journalism Initiative. It plans to serve as many as 90 U.S. newsrooms and add at least 10 staff visual journalists by 2027, all with access to a shared Visual Desk for editorial support and training and to establish strategic partnerships.

Bob Sillick has held many senior positions and served a myriad of clients during his 47 years in marketing and advertising. He has been a freelance/contract content researcher, writer, editor and manager since 2010.  He can be reached at


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