Congratulations to the Wallis Annenberg Prize Winner and Finalists
Reading about the burgeoning careers of these 30 photographers, a few themes emerge: Personal, self-assigned work remains vital for photographers; workshops, fellowships, competitions and other opportunities to engage with peers and mentors in the photo community are often pivotal in building knowledge and confidence; and demeanor and creative problem solving ability keep clients calling back.
Many of the 2017 PDN’s 30 gained recognition by pursuing projects that reflect their own experiences and interests. Salwan Georges explored the Iraqi immigrant community of which he’s a part. Xyza Bacani, a one-time domestic worker in Hong Kong, is using her unique background to tell stories of “invisible people” who are living as she once was. Tasneem Alsultan is working to change the way people see Saudi and Arab women. And Clare Benson’s family and upbringing have been important touchstones in her fine-art work.
Several photographers cited workshops, fellowships, mentorships and other opportunities that propelled them. Interning helped Carolyn Van Houten learn about working as a photographer; the Missouri Photo Workshop helped Ronan Donovan expand his storytelling skills; Souvid Datta gained recognition through the IdeasTap/Magnum International Photography Award, and Daniella Zalcman’s grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting altered the course of her career.
In their assignment work, these photographers deliver for their clients without fuss. Benedict Evans, a client says, “set himself apart” because people like to work with him. Ian Bates is known as a hard worker who will figure a story out. And Amanda Ringstad has, a client says, strong views but “very little ego.”
The path to a successful photography career can seem mysterious at times, and there is certainly no one-size-fits-all formula. But as the stories of these photographers suggest, pursuing one’s personal vision, building community and working hard for clients has helped many photographers find their way.
About PDN’s 30
Each year since 1999, the editors of PDN have selected 30 emerging photographers who represent a variety of styles and genres and have demonstrated a distinctive vision, creativity, and versatility. This year, the editors reviewed the work of close to 300 photographers from around the world. To be considered, the photographers must have been shooting on their own professionally for five years or less. Most were nominated by photo editors, art directors, curators, educators and fellow photographers around the world, and some were invited by editors based on work seen in promotions, portfolio reviews or photo contests.
Profiles on each of the 2017 PDN’s 30 photographers are featured in PDN’s April 2017 issue. Thanks to support of the PDN’s 30 sponsors, PDN will also hosts six panel discussions on career strategies for emerging photographers at photo schools, workshops and festivals around the U.S. throughout the year.
PDN thanks the following people for nominating photographers for the 2017 PDN’s 30:
David Alexander Arnold,
Sandra S. Phillips,
Stacey Clarkson James,
Steven B. Smith,
BORN: Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines
RESIDES: “Living out of a suitcase for two years now.”
CLIENTS: The New York Times Lens blog, ChinaFile, South China Morning Post, Fujifilm
EXHIBITIONS: Arrow Factory, Beijing; Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Youth and Arts Gallery, Pittsburgh, PA; Kong Art Space, Hong Kong
AWARDS: Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Travel Grant; Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia; Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship; BBC 100 Women of 2015; Visionaries 2015; Justice Centre Hong Kong Human Rights Arts Prize
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Starting out as a freelancer, I do not have a safety net, so failing is not an option. My family is poor. For me it’s important that we survive first. When I got the Magnum Foundation Fellowship, I was really happy, then reality sinks in: If I go to New York and lose my job, will I be able to support my family? My family and my [former] employer said, ‘Opportunity only comes once. It’s a chance to change your life, so why not?’ It was scary, so I tripled the hard work.”
Xyza Bacani had been a domestic worker in Hong Kong for nearly ten years when photographer Rick Rocamora discovered her street photography on Facebook. Her photographs stood out for their composition, layering, dramatic light and decisive moments. Rocamora brought her to the attention of The New York Times, which debuted her work on Lens blog in 2014. Almost overnight, Bacani’s life changed.
“Because of my sexy background story, I got a lot of media exposure,” she says. Journalists who did stories about her began sending assignments her way. In 2015, she came to New York on a Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship. With mentoring from Susan Meiselas, Bob Sacha and others, she learned storytelling and multimedia skills. Bacani now supports herself primarily through print sales and editorial assignments that make it possible for her to pursue her ongoing project about immigrant labor around the world.
“She organizes often complex photographs really well,” says James Estrin, co-founder of The New York Times Lens blog. “Why I’m so impressed is that she moved into doing this incredibly important work on domestic workers…she has the access, and ability to see it like nobody else can.”
Bacani first tried her hand at painting, then bought a camera. “I was like, ooh…magic!” she recalls. She carried it everywhere. “At night I snuck out from my employer’s home to take pictures.”
She went online to study the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Fan Ho and Pedro Luis Raota. She also studied how Renaissance painters “play with the light and composition.” And she binged on movies, pausing on scenes that caught her eye. “The first thing I learned is that light is everything. Even if your form and content are beautiful, if your light is flat, it’s not going to be visually appealing,” Bacani says.
Lately she has been studying the elements of design, to better understand composition and hone her visual instincts. “My photography is all about instinct and feeling and mood,” she says. Her aspiration is to continue working, “doing shows and telling stories, especially underreported ones about invisible people,” she says.
BORN: Somerset, NJ
RESIDES: San Francisco
EDUCATION: The Art Institute of Boston
CLIENTS: Bloomberg Businessweek, The California Sunday Magazine, The New York Times, Surface, Fast Company, San Francisco Magazine, Airbnb
EXHIBITIONS: Leila Heller Gallery, New York; Book & Job Gallery, San Francisco; Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álavarez Bravo, Oaxaca, Mexico
AWARDS: Magenta Foundation Flash Forward; American Photography 32
BEST ADVICE: “It’s important to have a community of photographers for support, but I think sometimes photographers get stuck inside of that and become insular within the photography community. Make an effort to expand your community beyond photographers to other types of artists.”
“Even if my assignment is one portrait, I’ll go above and beyond and try to put together a story,” says Justin Kaneps. His work ethic and his ability to combine portraits with storytelling have caught the eye of photo editors. “His pictures are suffused with natural light and rich colors and textures that give them a vivid, dreamy quality,” says Bloomberg Businessweek’s Clinton Cargill, who assigned Kaneps to shoot a cover story on Levi’s. “They also fit clearly in the tradition of the early color photographers…. It gives his pictures a sense of nostalgia that worked perfectly to portray an iconic American brand like Levi’s.”
Kaneps breaks down his approach to photography like this: minimal gear, respect for subjects, let the work speak for itself. He balances the meticulously placed and the arbitrarily happened-upon, the thoughtful and the spontaneous. At art school, he was heavily influenced by the New Topographics photographers, but when he started making portraits in 2011, he looked to the work of Walker Evans and Lewis Hine. Moving forward, he hopes eventually to dig into long-term storytelling projects in places as far flung as Alaska, Guatemala, Latvia or Sweden.
Kaneps credits human connection and communication with both peers and editors for the advancement of his career thus far. “I wear my heart on my sleeve, but it’s helped me forge deep connections to my peers, mentors and subjects,” reveals Kaneps. Meeting individually with editors in their offices has been more helpful for earning assignments than attending portfolio reviews or festivals. Speaking about marketing his work, he says there’s a lesson he’s learned: “Keep a fire in your heart and if you really want it you’ll get there with a fine balance of patience and persistence.”
BORN: Dunedin, FL
RESIDES: New York City
EDUCATION: Savannah College of Art and Design
CLIENTS: WWD, W Magazine, Interview Magazine, Dior, Capitol Records, Interscope Records
AWARDS: 2015 PDN Faces
BEST ADVICE: “Pitch your own assignments. It’s better than waiting around. When I first started I thought, ‘Okay, I have a degree. Editors are going to find me and pitch this to me,’ and that didn’t happen right away. Pitch your own ideas.”
After art school, Victoria Stevens moved to New York City in 2007, and explored the commercial photography world by assisting photographers who were shooting still life, fashion and portraits on large-scale studio shoots. She also did jobs in production and retouching.
Then she became a full-time photo editor at City magazine, and it exposed her to a different esthetic. The first time she shot for the magazine, she photographed the band The XX. Instead of using strobes, sets or any of the props she had been accustomed to using as an assistant, she used natural light. “That was it,” she explains. “That made me say, ‘I’m a photographer.’” The pared-down approach eventually became the foundation of her artistic vision.
Stevens began taking photographs more frequently, giving herself assignments to shoot musicians, actors and directors. Breaking out of the studio enabled her to “get the shot quicker, and get what I want without relying on strobes all the time,” she says, an approach ideal for capturing celebrities or directors with limited time.
After City folded in 2012, Stevens joined Anthem Magazine as photo editor/photographer-at-large. She gave herself assignments to travel to music and film festivals, honing her style and building up a portfolio she could show to clients. She pushes herself, even when her time with a celebrity is short. “Never settle for a shot,” she says.
As a former photo editor who now pitches photo editors, Stevens recognizes the importance of constantly promoting yourself. “Treat every situation like a networking opportunity,” she advises. “You never know who you’re going to meet.”
EDUCATION: Ohio University
CLIENTS: GQ, Vogue, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Free Men’s World
EXHIBITIONS: JAM Gallery, Bangkok; Bangkok Art & Culture Center; Miami Street Photography Festival
AWARDS: Magnum 30 Under 30, National Geographic Photo Contest, PDN Emerging Photographer, PDN World in Focus.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “My goal is to have photos that appeal to my mom, to my mentors, to industry professionals, to artists and to guys on the street. I’ve only ever taken two or maybe three that accomplish that. I want more.”
As an undergrad, Adam Birkan studied photojournalism at Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication, a program designed to train “staff newspaper photographers,” says Birkan. For fun, he and his friends would watch documentaries about photographers. One, about William Eggleston, was a revelation to Birkan. “After four years of hardcore photojournalism, watching William Eggleston just blew my mind,” he says. “The next day I was taking pictures of cracks in the street.” While his studies had focused on telling stories, Eggleston was appealing in that “he doesn’t have grand ideas,” says Birkan.
His interest shifted from photojournalism to photography as art, and after he graduated, Birkan moved to Bangkok in search of an interesting place to make pictures. With teaching English as a fall-back plan, he began working on a personal project that eventually became “All That Glitters,” a mix of street life and architecture that comments on economic disparity. Once he had a set of images he liked, he began submitting them to “blogs that are good at getting your name out there into the wild.” His work received some press and awards, and editorial assignments began trickling in from photo editors who had come across his work. (He also emailed dozens of editors directly but says, “I never ever got a single assignment that way.”) Most of his bigger assignments have come in the past two years, he says.
The low cost of living in Thailand allows Birkan to choose assignments that offer the most creative freedom, and to continue his explorations of places that spark his interest, from studies of life on a Thai island during the off-season to a look at the piecemeal modernization of the capital of Vietnam. He’s planning a trip to Israel to look for traces of recent and ancient history in the landscape. Rather than plan an itinerary or shot list for the trip, “I like to think I’ll find interesting things,” he says. “But that’s what Eggleston taught me—everything is interesting.”
RESIDES: New York City
EDUCATION: New York University, Tisch School of the Arts
CLIENTS: The New York Times, Hemispheres, AFAR, Norwegian Air, Make Room USA
EXHIBITIONS: Center for Faith and Work, New York City; Brooklyn Navy Yard; Metropolitan Building, Queens, NY
AWARDS: Passion Passport: Artist Residency with Amtrak; Center for Faith and Work Artist-in-Residence; New York University President’s Service Award; New York University Thomas Drysdale Production Fund
KEY LESSON: “The most important thing I’ve learned is that I need my peers. Being a photographer is a solitary experience, and it’s important to invest time in your peers and the photo community so that you can help each other out when needed. Fostering positivity in the photo community is so important.”
Immigration, opportunity, belonging: in America, these are hot-button issues. For Sasha Arutyunova, they are also deeply personal. Arutyunova was six years old when she left her native Russia for the United States, joining her mother, who had separated from her father a year earlier. Since then, Arutyunova has shuttled between the two countries, keeping a foot in both. “Having such a close connection to two cultures allows me to step back and look at them, both from the inside and the outside,” she says.
In an ongoing, as-yet-untitled personal project, Arutyunova is examining everyday life in Russia through the lens of her family and their surroundings. The work fills what she sees as a gap in coverage of her homeland: “People who aren’t from Russia go in and take pictures, and it’s usually an overview of the country. I’m excited to be able to tell a story that’s personal but also speaks to this larger moment, with issues of travel and immigration.”
At the same time, Arutyunova is shooting portrait assignments for magazines. After college, she produced work for her first portfolio by shooting performances by actor and musician friends. She co-founded artist collective Nomadique, and became a part of another, Mason Jar Music. She continues to shoot stills and video for both. That work led to an assignment for Hemispheres and later for The New York Times daily arts section. “Sasha brings a certain light and sensitivity to her work,” says Alana Celii, photo editor of The New York Times Arts & Leisure section. “She’s extremely dedicated and cares immensely about the work she’s doing.”
In the future, Arutyunova says, she’d like to continue doing both fine-art and editorial photography: She envisages publishing a book on her family project. As for the new state of affairs between Russia and America, she says, “I’m curious and horrified about how everything is going to unfold.” With luck, she’ll be there to capture her perspective on it.
EDUCATION: Oakland Community College, Royal Oak, Michigan; Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan
CLIENTS: Detroit Free Press, Washington Post, The New York Times
EXHIBITIONS: Arab American National Museum, Dearborn, Michigan; A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, Detroit; Detroit Artists Market; The Scarab Club, Detroit; Hatch Art Gallery, Hamtramck, Michigan
AWARDS: Associated Press, Michigan, Best Feature Photo 2016
BEST ADVICE: “I once shared with John Stanmeyer that his work inspires me, and he replied: ‘Inspiration has to come from within. From messages told to us in the wind. Expression from a tree. Felt in our hearts. Eyes. Simply through being. The mistakes will never end, [and] therein rests your potential.’”
Salwan Georges’s family fled Iraq in the ’90s for Syria, then emigrated to the U.S. in 2004, when he was 12 years old. “I went through the hardship of being a refugee twice, and I wanted to express my experience and feelings but I didn’t know how,” he says. He eventually ended up at Oakland Community College, where he signed up for a class taught by Rob Kangas. For his first assignment, Georges took pictures in a coffeehouse that his father frequented with other Iraqi refugees, playing cards and talking about their lives.
Kangas was impressed, Georges says. “He said, ‘I haven’t seen this community in America. We can’t just walk in, but you have access.’ And I thought, ‘This is really cool.’” He began imagining a career as a photojournalist. While he was pursuing a journalism degree, Muslim extremists killed one of his cousins back in Iraq. Georges’s shock and anger inspired him to start photographing the growing Muslim community in Dearborn.
“I wanted to show what it takes to come here” as a refugee, Georges says. “As I photograph refugees, in every photo, I see myself and my family’s story.”
He graduated in May 2015, took an internship at the Detroit Free Press, and started reaching out to photographers and photo editors by email. That led to assignments from The New York Times and Washington Post to photograph stories about Detroit’s failing public schools, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and other topics. It also led to a staff position at the Detroit Free Press, and invitations to the Eddie Adams Workshop and VII Agency workshop.
Last year, he was one of 15 photographers accepted into the three-year Visual Storytelling & Documentary Photography Projects mentorship program organized by James Estrin and Ed Kashi.
“He’s technically really strong,” Kashi says of Georges. “But more than that, he has a real sensitivity to the subject. He’s a natural born storyteller and he yearns to push himself. I’m taken by his aspiration, and his drive and his talent.”
BORN: Farmington, CT
RESIDES: Brooklyn, NY
EDUCATION: University of Wisconsin, Madison; City University of New York
CLIENTS: The New York Times, NPR, Newsweek, VICE, GlobalPost, MasterCard Foundation, Storefront Gallery for Art and Architecture
EXHIBITIONS: Division Gallery, Toronto; Photoville, Brooklyn, NY; Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, Toronto
AWARDS: Blue Earth Alliance sponsorship; New York Foundation for the Arts Emerging Photographer Project Grant; Reporting Grant, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; Immigration Reporting Grant, Beacon Reader
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “The hardest thing has been to unlearn the received ideas about what kind of photographs I can and should be making, what kind of stories I can and should be telling, what kind of voice I can and should have. I feel like my life is a continuous process of unlearning. I think on some level I have had to give myself permission to dream bigger for myself and my photographs, and it was a huge process to get there. I’m still getting there, actually, every day.”
Jake Naughton came to photography as a disillusioned art student. Jesuit high school had instilled in him a passion for social justice that he wasn’t sure how to reconcile with the insularity of the art world. “I liked to travel, I cared about the world and I was interested in esthetics,” he says. A college friend suggested Naughton try photojournalism. He pursued a journalism degree and became the photo editor at the student newspaper.
Naughton then moved to Washington, D.C., to intern at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; he was soon hired as the multimedia projects coordinator. He learned how to produce and fund photography projects, and how to collaborate with editors at major publications. After three years at the Pulitzer Center, Naughton wanted to produce his own work. “I decided the fastest way to build up my chops would be to go to graduate school.”
At the City University of New York, Naughton found a mentor in James Estrin, co-editor of The New York Times Lens blog. Through Estrin he landed an internship at Lens, as well daily assignments for the paper. “Jake does not settle for easy images, no matter how visually arresting they may be,” Estrin says. “He makes great images, but what sets him apart is the depth of his critical thinking and his ability to communicate his ideas and observations in nuanced ways.”
Naughton says he’s strategic about his business, only pursuing stories that he knows he will be able to sell. He’s funded personal projects through grants, and his collaborations with writers have helped him sell stories to major media. He also cofounded the cooperative Black Box with Chris Gregory, Natalie Keyssar and Alejandro Torres Viera. “We are all exploring how esthetic a news photograph can be, and pushing against what a publication can offer.”
Carolyn Van Houten
BORN: Greenville, NC
RESIDES: San Antonio
EDUCATION: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
CLIENTS: National Geographic, The New York Times, TIME, Wall Street Journal
AWARDS: Pictures of the Year International Newspaper Photographer of the Year; College Photographer of the Year; Magnum 30 Under 30; Hearst Journalism Awards National Photojournalism Championship; National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism
KEY LESSON: “Paid internships are crucial because they provide you with an opportunity to work in a community unknown to you for a period of time. You don’t have a lot to lose, so you can experiment and figure out what you want and don’t want for yourself and your career.”
Carolyn Van Houten was a physics major interested in optics and the physics of light when she enrolled in a photojournalism class as a college sophomore. It opened her eyes to a career that would allow her to blend her passion for science with her love of connecting with people.
She took more photo classes before spending the next year zipping through photo internships at the Chicago Tribune; the Tampa Bay Times; The Herald in Jasper, Indiana; and the White House. “There’s only so much you can learn in a classroom when the work you really need to do is out in the field,” she says.
Van Houten joined the staff of San Antonio Express-News in January 2015, a month after graduating with a photojournalism degree. She wasn’t done interning, though. After winning College Photographer of the Year, Van Houten was invited to intern with National Geographic for four months, and got a leave of absence from her staff job.
Today she has what she calls a “dream situation” at the Express-News. “Occasionally I do daily stories, but basically it’s all long-term projects, so I pitch and work on pretty much whatever I want to at the paper,” she says.
Many of those stories humanize issues, like how the downturn in oil prices is affecting a South Texas community. “Economics are always hard to visualize,” she says. “As long as you can find the people [who are affected], then you can find visuals and important things to cover surrounding that issue.”
Working at the newspaper has taught her to be a better journalist, which in turn is making her a better photographer. “The best photography for me has come after I’ve done a lot of reporting and a lot of research on an issue,” she says, “and when you understand the subtleties of an issue, then your pictures can be a lot more nuanced.”
BORN: Guerrero, Mexico
RESIDES: Guerrero, Mexico
EDUCATION: Seminario de Fotografía Contemporánea, Centro de la Imagen, Mexico
EXHIBITIONS: Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez, Oaxaca, Mexico
AWARDS: FONCA’s Jóvenes Creadores Grant; Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund Grant
BEST ADVICE: “Mary Ellen Mark always told me to pursue the projects that I love the most and feel most connected to. ‘Be true to yourself,’ she said. That’s the best advice I’ve received.”
The danger and violence in his home state of Guerrero, Mexico, has fueled Yael Martinez’s artistic growth. In 2013, after two of his brothers-in-law went missing, an agonized Martinez did what came naturally: he picked up his camera. His family was grief-stricken and, slowly, Martinez tried to capture moments that would convey the turmoil at home. “It was a way to understand what we were going through,” he says.
Caused by drug wars and an often-complicit government, the problem of disappearances in Mexico continues to escalate. Martinez’s raw, personal images have an intense intimacy and, at the same time, express an experience common to many families in his country. “There are 70,000 cases of missing people in Mexico—and those are only the ones that are reported,” Martinez says. His work, which straddles a line between documentary and fine-art photography, is intended “to keep a memory alive,” he says.
Previously, Martinez had captured another difficult period for his family: the last years of a beloved grandmother who suffered from Alzheimers. In 2012, that work caught the attention of Mary Ellen Mark, who was teaching a workshop Martinez attended in Oaxaca. Mark was impressed enough to give Martinez a scholarship to her masterclass in New York, where a fellow student, Ernesto Bazan, introduced him to James Estrin of The New York Times Lens blog. A feature on Lens followed, and then Mark introduced Martinez to Joan Liftin, a veteran photo editor and photographer. “His pictures really bounced; they were full of life and energy,” Liftin remembers. She recommended him for a Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund Grant, which he won in 2016.
Now expanding his work on Mexico’s disappeared, Martinez has started photographing other families of missing people. He would like to put out a book and build a website on the issue. “I will always photograph things that relate to me and my country,” he says. “It’s the only thing I can do.”
BORN: Edmonds, WA
EDUCATION: University of Hawaii at Manoa
CLIENTS: Bloomberg Businessweek, Sight Unseen, Fast Company, Refinery29, Popular Mechanics, Amazon, Tom Dixon, Design Within Reach, Civilization, Brooks Running
EXHIBITIONS: Fosdick-Nelson Gallery, Alfred, NY
KEY LESSON: “Figuring out the work-life balance. I’m a really hard worker, so I think that I used to work too hard and that would kind of burn me out. I’ve figured out a better balance in how to work and be happy and take care of myself. I think it’s really easy to fall into an unhealthy cycle of staying up all night hunched over a computer because you’ve got to get something done. You can tell yourself that it’s OK, that it’s good enough. You don’t have to keep going. Sometimes what I think is right, it’s unrealistic in terms of the timeframe and what other people might expect.”
Although she had a degree in photography and worked in and around the industry—as an assistant, printer and retoucher, among other jobs—Amanda Ringstad had a hard time envisioning herself as a professional photographer until she plugged into a community of creative people who offered advice, encouragement and opportunities to collaborate. She’d worked on personal still life projects “getting my lighting down,” she recalls. But she’d kept her work mostly to herself. Through a retouching gig for Jill Wenger, who was establishing fashion retail brand Totokaelo, Ringstad met Seattle-area photographers, industrial designers and other creatives. “I would ask them advice and they would support me,” she recalls. As part of this community, she collaborated on projects and worked on her portfolio. In 2013, she met her agent, Maria Bianco, who helped Ringstad get her first commercial assignments and encouraged her to go to New York to show her book.
Working for friends early on helped Ringstad develop a noncommercial, conceptual and experimental approach to still life. She likes to take an object and “make it look like something new or different,” and gets “excited about trying out new lighting techniques,” even making her modifiers. She’s also into gels, and working with the emotive quality of color. When she’s excited about an image, viewers respond. “I put some soul into it, so I think that’s visible,” she explains. “I like the fact that even if I’m in a bad mood, I make things that are pretty positive.”
Recently she’s enjoyed collaborating with editors on conceptual magazine work, and working with commercial clients, such as industrial designer Tom Dixon, who encourages her to “just do your thing,” she says. “She has a real eye for geometry and brings life to inanimate objects,” notes Dixon. “There is a real care in proportion and composition, and the images are hard hitting enough for modern digital media.” Dixon also appreciates that Ringstad “seems to have very little ego but still has strong views, which is a great combination.”
RESIDES: Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
EDUCATION: University of Alberta, Edmonton
CLIENTS: Geo France, Maclean’s, Canadian Geographic, Canadian Wildlife Federation
AWARDS: 2016 Oasis Photo Contest First Place
KEY LESSON: “To produce good work, you have to find a good story and good characters. You have to work really hard to find the right people. Every time I’m out shooting now, that’s what I’m thinking about: finding the right story and right characters.”
Peter Mather got interested in wildlife and wilderness landscape photography as a college student, when he saw a traveling slideshow of Ken Madsen’s work. Mather went on to teach math in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, but seized the opportunity while he was there to work with Madsen documenting conservation issues.
One of the projects Mather worked on was the preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which supports a herd of 200,000 caribou that the Gwich’in First Nations people depend upon for their survival. “I was taking pretty pictures, but I didn’t see the story at my feet” about the “caribou people,” Mather says.
In 2012, Paul Nicklen hired him as a guide and assistant for a National Geographic story about the Yukon. Watching Nicklen work, Mather says he started thinking about showing the relationships between people and nature. “I realized I wanted to start telling National Geographic-type stories,” he says.
Mather started using camera traps, as Nicklen and other Geographic photographers do, to get more dramatic, up-close images of wildlife. At the same time, he says, he began pushing himself to shoot layered, emotionally driven images of people “that tell specific and important stories.”
“From Paul, the biggest thing I learned was the amount of work you have to put in to get those photos,” he says, describing long drives, some 23-hour work days, and the litany of physical discomforts behind some photographs. “I’m putting in twice as much time and effort as I used to, and I’ve learned not to be frustrated when you put in the time and don’t get the shot. It’s just part of the process,” Mather says.
His goal is to continue working on long-term stories about wildlife and people across Northern Canada. He’s shot assignments for several publications, including Maclean’s and Geo France. Looking back on his long road to a photography career, Mather says his advice to aspiring photographers is to “follow your passion projects [not] the money. Eventually [that] will lead you to a career that you will love.”
RESIDES: New York City
EDUCATION: Maryland Institute College of Art
CLIENTS: Bloomberg Businessweek, Esquire, Fast Company, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Opening Ceremony, WWD
AWARDS: American Photography 30
KEY LESSON: “Being nice and easy to work with is really important. If [clients] have the opportunity to hire one of two photographers, and one’s difficult to work with, they’re going to choose the other photographer.”
Eric Helgas has long been a fan of reality television, but he’s less fascinated with the lifestyles or the characters it presents than the facade itself. “I feel like I have a critical eye and I’m interested in looking beyond the constructed images of media and fashion,” he says.
Many of his conceptual still lifes and portraits are influenced by manufactured TV realities, and using bright light often helps him execute his vision. “It adds an artificial element. The idea of a set becomes way more apparent when there’s a blatant use of light,” he says. “I think the use of flash adds a performative quality to the work.”
Helgas began working in photography as a studio manager and assistant for Ryan Pfluger in New York. During that year, Helgas started marketing himself beyond social media by sending postcards to about 15 photo editors. “I was reaching out to people I thought I could actually make pictures for,” he says.
About a week later, a Bloomberg Businessweek editor called him to do a shoot that night for a story about what was then called the Apple iWatch. He shot an iPhone taped to a friend’s wrist.
He left Pfluger’s studio a few months later, and began emailing editors to request meetings. That effort led to work from The New Yorker, and other clients followed.
“Eric’s photographic style is unique because of the way he’s able to reimagine the familiar into something that feels slightly offbeat, unexpected and, therefore, striking and new,” says Siobhán Bohnacker, senior photo editor at The New Yorker.
Bohnacker sees Helgas as a “grade-A troubleshooter” who understands that images have to fit the esthetic style of her magazine. Bohnacker says, “He’ll push the subjects, the publicists, whoever it might be, to give him a little something extra.”
BORN: Tucson, Arizona
RESIDES: Dammam, Saudi Arabia
EDUCATION: King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Portland State University
CLIENTS: National Geographic, Vogue Italia, Wall Street Journal
EXHIBITIONS: Photo Kathmandu, Nepal; Paris Photo
AWARDS: Magnum Foundation Prince Claus AFAC grant
BEST ADVICE: “Jim Estrin [co-editor, The New York Times Lens blog] said to me, ‘Photograph your own backyard before you go somewhere else.’”
After working for several years as a wedding photographer, Tasneem Alsultan received her first call about an assignment in 2015. A National Geographic editor wanted Alsultan to cover Saudi Arabia’s first elections in which women would be allowed to vote and run for local office.
“I’m not interested,” Alsultan replied. “This is how the Western audience wants to portray Saudi women as being liberated and it’s a lie,” she recalls saying before hanging up. The editor called back to get Alsultan’s perspective. Alsultan said women were still struggling to win control of their own lives. She agreed to take the story, however, and show the restrictions placed on female candidates. “No gathering between the women and their voters was allowed to be photographed and published anywhere,” she explains. She contacted candidates in several cities “until I had the few that allowed me to photograph them in different environments that would represent their districts.”
Alsultan says making the leap from wedding photography to documentary photography wasn’t difficult: “I learned how to tell a full narrative through weddings and work well under stress and pressure.”
Alsultan’s best-known body of work, “Saudi Tales of Love” shows the lives of happily married, divorced and widowed women in a country where divorce is still stigmatized. Alsultan says the series found its footing after photographer Tanya Habjouqa, whom she met at Magnum Foundation’s Arab Documentary Photography Program, encouraged her to collaborate with her subjects. Alsultan began asking them how they would like to be portrayed in a story about love. “I felt like I was peeling off layers of these humans that I wouldn’t have reached with documentary photography alone,” says Alsultan. Habjouqa also urged her to choose less pretty, more emotional photos. “Coming from a wedding background, I wanted everything to look perfect—no lines crossing the head, well lit, everyone smiling.”
“She is trying to use her work to change the way people see Saudis and Arab women, and Arabs in general,” says photographer Maggie Steber, who mentored Alsultan. Steber says Alsultan goes beyond “the obvious and goes right for the heart and the intellectual thinking.”
Alsultan is working on a project about the LGBTQ community in Kuwait. “It’s the only country in the Gulf region that is very out,” she says. “Westerners wouldn’t know this, but we know this.”
BORN: Seattle, WA
RESIDES: San Francisco, CA
EDUCATION: Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA; Columbia College Chicago
EXHIBITIONS: Tokyo International Photography Festival; Singapore International Photography Festival; Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, IL; Pictura Gallery, Bloomington, IN; Lianzhou Photography Festival, Lianzhou, China
AWARDS: Stuart Abelson Fellowship; Golden Colt Award
KEY LESSON: “I was balancing my commercial work and my fine-art practice, and I found that my fine-art practice had been quite influenced by the commercial work I was doing.But I was more intrigued by the stuff I was producing in my art work…so I decided that was something I wanted to pursue.”
As an undergraduate at Western Washington University and after he graduated, Kai Caemmerer worked as an architectural photographer. At the same time, he was making art. He often photographed the “low, contractor-grade spec homes” he came across while on commercial jobs, but played with scale and angle to turn these ordinary houses into surprising, unexpectedly off-putting structures. “I was more intrigued by the stuff I was producing in my art work than I was with the work I was making for my clients,” he says. He decided to pursue an MFA from Columbia College Chicago.
There, he found a big city to explore. “I was really shocked by the scale of the urban environment, and how everything was growing so fast in that city,” he says. He would explore on foot and take notes, then return before sunrise and just after sunset to photograph with his 4x5. At those times, “the light levels become more even” and long exposures produce “these hyper-saturated colors and almost surreal lighting.”
In 2015, Caemmerer traveled to China to make “Unborn Cities,” a series documenting urban developments that the government has been building since the early 2000s. Unlike Western cities that grow slowly over time, the places Caemmerer photographs in China are densely built but have remained mostly empty during their construction. The cities felt “like CAD renderings—they were so new and so shiny, they almost felt unreal or futuristic.”
In 2015, the project was shown at the Lianzhou Photography Festival, in Lianzhou, China. Since graduating last spring, Caemmerer has been working nearly full-time on this and other fine-art series. His interest in the urban environment comes back to the feeling he finds in cities, where “there’s this constant flux, this change and growth and movement...that for me seems to imbue the landscape with a sense of unrest or anxiety,” he says. Walking through a financial district made of glass and steel, “I think there’s something almost sublime about that,” he says. But rather than coming from nature, the feeling comes from the “power of what we have built.”
BORN: Saratoga Springs, New York
RESIDES: Nairobi, Kenya
EDUCATION: Colorado College; International Center of Photography
CLIENTS: Wall Street Journal, Reuters, UNICEF, Airbnb
AWARDS: Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award; Getty Reportage Emerging Photographer Award; Eddie Adams Workshop; World Press Photo, Contemporary Issues Singles 2nd Place; Magnum “30 Under 30”
BEST ADVICE: “Success is the work itself, and if you don’t continue producing work you are no longer a photographer. I like the idea, and I think it’s true, that no matter how successful you are as a photographer, you’re up before sunrise, crawling around in the dirt, being denied access and shooting images, because that’s the work itself.”
Adriane Ohanesian has covered news in South Sudan, Sudan, Burundi, Somalia and elsewhere, but it’s the more in-depth stories she assigned herself that have earned her accolades and attention. “The photos and stories that I have worked on independently have been the most successful. I think that’s because I’ve been able to spend more time photographing,” she says.
Two months after she graduated from ICP, Ohanesian traveled to Eastern Sudan on a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, and then ventured to South Sudan. She met photographer Goran Tomasevic there in 2012, “showed him some work on my dusty laptop while sitting under a tree, and he let me string for Reuters.” A year later, seeking a new challenge, she went to northern Myanmar for three weeks. She photographed young women soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army, observing their training, their daily routines and their brief moments of relaxation and loneliness. In 2014, while at the Eddie Adams Workshop, she showed the work to James Estrin, who published it on The New York Times Lens blog. Soon after, newspapers in Europe licensed the story, opening doors to other publications. She’s shot assignments for Wall Street Journal, and also funds her own stories, then pitches them to publications.
In 2015, after lengthy preparations, she went to Darfur, a region of Sudan that had long been inaccessible to international journalists. She was inspired to tell “a story about the people in Darfur who continue to live in an active war zone, and continue to be raped and bombed by their own government.” Her image of 7-year-old victim of a bombing earned her honors at World Press Photo.
Now based in Nairobi, Ohanesian continues to shoot in South Sudan often, but wants to branch out to more of the continent. She says, “I think the challenge now is to come up with meaningful ideas, and be able to support those ideas with quality images.”
BORN: Norwich, VT
RESIDES: Bozeman, MT
EDUCATION: University of New Hampshire
CLIENTS: National Geographic, The New York Times
AWARDS: The Wildlife Photojournalist Award, Single Image
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “I worry that the work that I do is just bringing an issue to the surface, just presenting and educating. I like to have tangible outcomes, and I’m trying to find work that does have that. That’s what pushed me to [conservation photography] in the beginning. [M]y biggest challenge right now is to feel like my work is contributing to positive change in a tangible way, which is maybe asking too much, but that’s where I’m at.”
In 2011, Ronan Donovan was researching chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kibale National Park for Harvard professor Richard Wrangham when he made the images that helped him establish a career as a conservation photographer. Part of his work involved climbing fig trees to observe the chimps, and he brought his camera with him, creating a series of photographs of the primates from above. Wrangham sent the images to wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman, who put Donovan in touch with Kathy Moran, National Geographic’s senior editor for natural history. That put Donovan on Moran’s radar, but it wasn’t until 2014 that Moran asked if he’d like to try assisting photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols on a project about Yellowstone National Park. Moran initially gave Donovan a two-week contract to see if he and Nichols clicked. He ended up assisting Nichols for several months. When things didn’t work out with a photographer who was covering Yellowstone’s gray wolves as part of the same project, Nichols pushed for Donovan to get the assignment. Donovan spent the next year on that work, which was published in the May 2016 issue alongside stories by Nichols, Erika Larsen, David Guttenfelder and others.
Donovan taught himself the technical aspects of photography and filmmaking while working for eight years on a series of wildlife biology projects. In 2013, he decided to pursue photography and filmmaking full time because he thought he could have “more of an impact through visual storytelling” than he could as a biologist. His wildlife research work has helped him, however. “Knowing your subject in general, [in] any type of photography you’re doing, is going to make the work you do much more successful and much more powerful, because you know the moments that are unique,” he says.
At Moran’s urging, Donovan has worked to expand his storytelling skills beyond wildlife. “You can’t address conservation if you don’t address the human interaction,” he says. He took a Missouri Photo Workshop in 2015, and was on his way to another workshop in Kenya when he spoke with PDN. With the help of a grant from the National Geographic Society, he’s also pursuing a story in Uganda about how deforestation is creating conflict between chimpanzees and humans.
BORN: Eaton Rapids, Michigan
RESIDES: New York City
EDUCATION: The Art Institute of Pittsburgh
CLIENTS: Best Made Company, Beretta, Toms Shoes, Whole Foods, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Martha Stewart, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Domino, Popular Science
EXHIBITIONS: The Carton, Beirut
KEY LESSON: “My biggest adjustment has been figuring out how to really get the workflow down [on] the current job you’re shooting, while you are doing pre-pro on another and post on another, all in sync. The challenge…has been an eye-opening experience…but has now fallen into a flow.”
One of the most valuable lessons Christina Holmes learned when she was starting out was “to take your time doing your craft to perfection,” she says, and develop “a sure sense of your point of view.” When she made the transition from assistant to pro, she was confident about the pictures she wanted to make, and clients quickly took notice.
Holmes studied photography at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and moved to New York City soon after graduating. Her first assisting gigs came through a food stylist she knew, and Holmes found she enjoyed food photography. Having grown up on a farm in Michigan, she says, “I feel like food for me has always been a place of comfort.”
When she wanted time and space to develop her own voice, however, she stopped assisting food photographers. “I wanted to make sure what I was doing was my own style,” she says. “In the world of food, when you’re starting full time, you want to be doing something that nobody else is really doing.” She began working as a digital tech in fashion, and spent her spare time shooting tests, making still lifes in the studio. To build a portfolio of travel work, she would tack extra days onto trips she made as a digital tech, so she could shoot on her own. She eventually developed her own look: “very open, simple composition, very spare,” she says. “I remember sitting with Bettina [Lewin] on location in Italy, which was one of the last shoots that I teched on, and her saying to me, ‘You’re ready. You’ve got everything set. Go for it.’”
Her first editorial jobs were for Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. Today, her assignments often take place outside of the studio, but Holmes makes location images with the same calm look and emphasis on negative space as in her studio work. Even after finding her voice, she still experiments through personal work. She says, “I’ve learned that you constantly need to evolve.”
EDUCATION: University College London
CLIENTS: National Geographic, The Guardian, The New York Times, TIME, VICE
EXHIBITIONS: Horniman Museum and Gardens, London; Royal Geographic Society, London; Somerset House, London; Houses of Parliament, Inter-party Panel of Global Health, London
AWARDS: Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Catalyst Grant; Visura Photojournalism Grant; Getty Grant for Editorial Photography; Magnum Photos International Photography Award; College Photographer of the Year Silver Portfolio Award
KEY LESSON: “Creatively, it’s more important than ever to have unique and personal things to say, to have your own way of interpreting the world. That’s what people remember, what they buy into, and what they will keep coming back for. Take strong pictures and let others inspire the hell out of you, but find your own way of seeing and communicating. In terms of developing a decent living from photography—networking, targeted promotion, finding market gaps have become so important.”
Souvid Datta was 22 years old when the accolades for his lush, evocative photography started rolling in, and they don’t appear to be slowing down. Born in Mumbai but raised in both India and London, Datta came to photography through his passion for people and culture. “I wanted to be a politician…[then] a lawyer,” he explains. “Part of what interested me about that was the interaction with people, the social commitment and the challenge of compelling communication and argument.”
Those same interests underpin his photojournalism, which explores themes of social justice, environmental degradation and human conflict. His career began in earnest with an impulsive trip to Cairo during the 2011-13 Arab Spring protests. “It was a bit of a trial-by-fire learning experience, but it opened my mind to the world of on-the-ground reporting, and the need to just trust your gut and go for it sometimes,” Datta says.
In Egypt, he formed connections with other photographers. Having never studied photography formally, he had to build his own networks of colleagues, collaborators and mentors. Winning the Ideas Tap/Magnum Photos International Photography Award in 2014 was a big stepping stone. Not only did it mean mentoring from experienced editors and photographers, but it also helped point him towards new projects in China and Afghanistan.
He urges aspiring photographers to put aside apprehensions about applying for grants and competitions. “Don’t be nervous or doubt yourself because there’s also very little to lose,” Datta counsels. “On the flip side, you get exposure, sometimes a chance to interact with industry leaders, the possibility of funding, great publishing platforms, and a bit of a career springboard.”
For Datta, photography is just one of the tools—along with writing and video—that allows him to express himself. Moving forward he wants to keep using all of them to tell the stories of “oppressed and exploited people at the fringes of societies.”
BORN: Bristol, England
RESIDES: Brooklyn, NY
EDUCATION: University of Sheffield
CLIENTS: New York Magazine, National Geographic, Esquire, WIRED, The Guardian Weekend, Budweiser, Cadillac, VICE, The Red Hook Criterium
EXHIBITIONS: Queens Museum, New York City
AWARDS: Eddie Adams Workshop; American Photography 31; American Photography 32; PDN Faces; PDN Emerging Photographer; PDN The Shot; PDN Photo Annual; National Headliner Awards
BEST ADVICE: “You can’t publish an excuse. Nobody cares how difficult the circumstances were. That’s one of the things I love about photography. It’s problem solving and you’re constantly asking yourself, ‘How can I make this work?’”
Meeting photographer Platon at The New Yorker Festival in 2009 was a life-changing moment for Benedict Evans. Platon was presenting a Master Class in photography, talking about the importance of interactions and personal connections, Evans says, “and I thought: This is what I’m interested in.”
Evans had just moved from England to New York City. “I had no idea how [the photo industry] worked or how many people he employed,” he recalls, but he called Platon’s studio and spoke with the studio manager Siobhán Bohnacker (now a senior photo editor at The New Yorker) and “quietly insisted” that he’d be a good fit for a studio job. That call landed him an internship, a visa sponsorship and “my introduction to the world of editorial portrait photography,” Evans says.
After five years, the job had become less challenging. “It came to a point where, when we were shooting or editing, I realized that if I was in Platon’s position, I would do it differently.” He knew it was time to take “a hell of a gamble” and go out on his own. Working with Platon, he had met many photo editors and creatives. He says the first clients he contacted were “the ones I was already on a first-name basis with.” Within a month, he landed his first major assignment: shooting a series of portraits that ran over 24 pages in the February 2015 issue of Out. “Once that was published, it helped a huge amount in showing to other editors that I was capable of taking on a large-scale project involving some big personalities.”
One of those editors was Elizabeth Griffin, then photo director of Esquire magazine’s digital products. Griffin assigned him a sensitive story about a mentally disabled boy who had been arrested for allegedly providing support for an act of terrorism. She hired Evans because of “the strength of his work and his reputation,” she says. “He really set himself apart by being someone people liked to work with.” Griffin has continued to hire him for “anything,” she says. “He can be a fly on the wall and also direct people and feel comfortable engaging them.”
BORN: Manizales, Colombia
RESIDES: Chicago and Paterson, NJ
EDUCATION: William Paterson University, Wayne, NJ; Columbia College Chicago
EXHIBITIONS: Chicago Public Library; President’s Residence, Columbia College, Chicago; Filter Photo, Chicago; Ann Arbor Art Center, MI; Plymouth Center for the Arts, Plymouth, MA; Perspective Gallery, Evanston, IL
AWARDS: The Center for Photography at Woodstock Artist in Residence; Center for Book and Paper Arts-Columbia College Chicago Alumni Residency Program; Dwight D. Follett Fellowship Full Tuition Award, Columbia College Chicago
KEY LESSON: “Objectivity is long dead, but it’s important to stay informed about the context in which you’re working. Concept is important but [work] shouldn’t be so hyper-conceptual and steeped in theory that only you understand it.”
Juan Giraldo was born in Colombia, but his photography owes more to the hardscrabble streets of Paterson, New Jersey, where he was raised. His mother was a domestic worker and his father painted houses, so while Giraldo learned the value of hard work at a young age, he didn’t have many role models for a career in the arts. He began taking photography seriously in community college and worked his way into an MFA program at Columbia College Chicago in 2012. “Being around such a diverse group of interests, in terms of the work that was being made [in college], pushed me both conceptually and technically,” Giraldo says.
It also provided the launching pad for his signature work to date: “Blue & Blue,” a photo series centered around factory workers in Illinois and the blue-collar communities where they live. The work led to a month-long residency at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in 2015. “The CPW residency gave the time to work on my art. I forgot about my full-time job at the time and focused on my personal work like it was my full-time job,” he says. “Always make time for your personal work regardless of how tired you might be, unmotivated or whatever excuse one might come up with.”
Giraldo says his approach is constantly evolving. He recently swapped his DSLR for a 4x5 and, as part of that shift, reconsidered his process. The 4x5 “has allowed me greater control of the process between photographer and subject...which has given me better control over the narrative of the work,” he explains.
Promotion and financing are the proverbial dragons that Giraldo must slay, only to slay again the next day, but he has improved, he says. “I work at keeping my website as up to date as possible, email curators, galleries...[and] keep a strong social media presence, whatever that is.”
BORN: Ziyang, Sichuan Province, China
RESIDES: Shanghai, China
EDUCATION: East China Normal University
CLIENTS: The New York Times, Getty Images, ChinaFile, UNICEF, Save The Children, Greenpeace
EXHIBITIONS: Bronx Documentary Center, New York City; United Nations Climate Change Conference, Paris
AWARDS: Ian Parry Scholarship; Abigail Cohen Fellowship in Documentary Photography; Magnum Foundation Photography and Human Rights Fellowship
KEY LESSON: “[Awards] don’t only help you continue your work and your shooting, they’re also a promotion for your work. If you’ve got a fellowship, the [organization will help] publish your project in the media.”
Yuyang Liu was a teenager when he discovered reportage photography and envisioned a career in photojournalism. “I think it’s meaningful for the world and society,” he says. “It became a dream inside my heart, but I didn’t have the ability to travel and document the real world.” He was still in high school, after all, with exams to pass.
Opportunities would open up rather quickly for the self-taught shooter. At a 2013 photo festival in China, Liu showed some work to Emma Raynes, director of programs at the Magnum Foundation. She encouraged him to apply for a foundation fellowship.
He did and won, earning the chance to spend five weeks at New York University learning how to document human rights issues from veterans including Susan Meiselas and Fred Ritchin. “I was so excited because I could never imagine that I could attend a class or platform like that, that big,” he says. “It was really the start of my career.”
He worked at two Chinese publications before setting off on his own to tell stories about urbanization, immigration and other issues of his homeland. Connections he has made through winning awards have helped him build an impressive client roster.
His government’s media control, however, creates obstacles. “It’s tough to be a freelancer, and it’s tougher to be a freelancer in China,” he says. In January, he was working on a New York Times piece about the Chinese government’s controversial offer to remove the intrauterine devices it had once demanded women receive. He had to abandon plans to shoot portraits of women. Local officials had taken the women out of town, and when Liu went to their homes, two men began following him. He ultimately shot images in a hospital instead, showing signage in one shot, two people in silhouette in another.
He pushes on, documenting complex subjects like China’s fishing industry in West Africa, which he did for Greenpeace. Liu’s advice to others is sunny: “Be optimistic,” he says. “About the subject you are shooting, about the story you are making, about your life and about your career.”
BORN: Kiev, Ukraine
RESIDES: San Francisco
EDUCATION: Kiev University of Tourism, Economics and Law; Academy of Art University
CLIENTS: Fast Company, Inc., Stanford University, University of California, Firebrick Consulting
AWARDS: Emerging Photographer, Communication Arts Typography Annual 6, The Center for Fine Art Photography Black and White Competition, International Art Competition
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “After I graduated, my biggest challenge was first to understand the business side of photography—from marketing to working with clients, and pricing was so confusing as well….The second challenge was to learn how to say no to underpaying gigs, mostly because people do not really understand what goes into a photo shoot.”
In the past two years, clients have hired Anastasiia Sapon to create the kind of bright, colorful, romanticized portraits she’s been shooting for herself. For example, when Inc. hired her to photograph Lynn Jurich, CEO of solar-panel maker Sunrun, deputy photo editor Ernie Monteiro asked Sapon to use the same setup she had used in some of her personal photos: the subject seated behind a table, in front of colored seamless. Monteiro also asked her to shoot at least two environmental portraits. Monteiro notes that Sapon’s work is “a little softer, a little airier” than the usual “hipster” portraits she sees often: “Sometimes you want someone to look beautiful and nice,” she explains. Sapon recalls, “It was cool that they sent me my photos to show what they wanted.”
Jobs like these are the reward for honing her style through self-assignments. “You have to shoot every day what you like to shoot,” Sapon says. For three years, she assisted San Francisco-based commercial photographer Elena Zhukova, who became a business mentor as well as a friend. “When people start assisting they stop shooting. If you want to be a photographer and not an assistant, you have to find a way to shoot,” Sapon says. With Zhukova, “Even after a hard commercial shoot, we would go and create some photographs for fun.” While living in a house with several roommates, Sapon would use the backyard to make daylight shots of friends, acquaintances, people she met. Once she started landing assignments from tech companies and magazines, she learned to recreate her look indoors using strobes.
Hoping to land travel assignments, Sapon booked a flight to Alaska two years ago. To find accommodations, she called a town hall, and asked if there were locals who would put her up in exchange for photos. Her images of life in Alaska were published in Emerging Photographer. A rep from SAINT LUCY Represents saw the layouts and offered to sign her. “You never know who will see your work when you enter contests,” Sapon says. Work she submitted to other contests caught the eye of judges and led to a feature in Communication Arts.
While she shoots pro bono for charities, she has learned to give a polite “no” to companies that want free work, she says: “By accepting a low price, it’s not only hurting me, it’s hurting the photographers who come after me.”
BORN: Drummond Island, MI
EDUCATION: University of Arizona; Central Michigan University
EXHIBITIONS: Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL; Division Gallery, Toronto; Candela Books + Gallery, Richmond, VA; Lycoming College Art Gallery, Williamsport, PA; Northlight Gallery, Phoenix
AWARDS: Fulbright Fellowship; Photolucida Critical Mass Monograph Award; American-Scandinavian Foundation Grant; Swedish Women’s Educational Association of San Francisco Scholarship
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “I think one of the biggest challenges can be overcoming feelings of self-doubt, and the fear that what we create won’t be good enough, for the rest of the world, or for the unrealistic expectations that we manage to hang over our own heads. The best thing we can do then is make as much work as possible,stop worrying and just do.”
Clare Benson spent her formative years on Drummond Island, a township on Michigan’s Lake Huron, developing a fascination with “extreme shifts in seasons. The winter is really long, and you see this incredible change from winter into spring, and the fall into the winter.” Living in the north influenced her work and “notions of family, memory and mortality,” she says. “I watched my mother die of cancer when I was 11; memories of that time seem to still be embedded in the images I create, though the subject matter has changed over the years.” Her series “The Shepherd’s Daughter” charts her relationship with her father and her family through their shared tradition of hunting.
Benson is fascinated by photography’s ability both to misrepresent reality in a “terrifying and incredible” way and to provide evidence for scientific research. In graduate school at the University of Arizona, Benson combined her photographic practice with painting, sculpture, performance and video to create bodies of work that could be mistaken for exhibits at a natural history museum. “She makes her photography practice one of science, and research,” says Sama Alshaibi, co-chair of the photography department at the University of Arizona. “This is exhibited through her work and yet her images are esthetic, they’re poetic, they hold their own, they’re not just research-based.”
In 2012, Benson visited an observatory, and felt that something “clicked into place.” She saw studying the stars as a way of learning about humans’ quest to understand the universe. She won a Fulbright Fellowship at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, where she produced her series “Until There Is No Sun.”
Benson credits part of her success as an artist to applying for grants, which forces her to fully develop her ideas, and to being part of an academic community—she is a visiting artist and faculty member at Arizona State University. “It provides a level of accountability that is important for me,” she says. “Academia taught me to understand the value of hard work. It helped me develop a network of like-minded individuals among my peers.”
Andy J. Scott
BORN: Bangor, ME
RESIDES: Los Angeles
EDUCATION: Florida State University
CLIENTS: BMW, Nike, VICE, MADE, T Brand Studio, Billboard, Architect Magazine
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “I think being self-taught was great for my style and voice, though I think I missed out on the business knowledge and have had to learn that along the way… I was luckily able to reach out to reps and producers I know to get some help. When you are starting, it’s easy to feel like an island when you don’t have the connections or support.”
Andy J. Scott says working as a videographer and editor for six years, first in Atlanta and then in Los Angeles, helped train his eye for framing, color and composition. But after shooting photography “as a creative outlet,” he decided to quit his day job and seek jobs in the photography world. That’s when he discovered how much he needed to learn. He contacted Nicholas Maggio, a photographer he admired, about an assisting gig. As Maggio’s career in commercial photography took off, Scott assisted him on larger and larger shoots, gaining knowledge of techniques and production. In his spare time, Scott shot portraits and images for young musicians he liked. “It was using photography as a way to connect with people I might not otherwise connect with,” he says. “That’s remained the thing I love the most about photography.”
Very early in his career, he mailed some images to dream clients like Rolling Stone. He realizes now he was “embarrassingly shooting for the stars,” he says. “I think I wasn’t quite ready to put myself out there.” Since then, he’s gotten most of his jobs either through word of mouth or by “having a clean, updated website with good SEO,” he says. “I have gotten a lot of overseas work because [clients] are Googling ‘LA photographers.’”
A personal project on the artists and musicians of LA’s Fairfax district led directly to his biggest break to date: Pivot TV network hired him to shoot promos for the reality show “Welcome to Fairfax.” Says Scott, “People always say, ‘Shoot what you want to shoot.’ This just worked out perfectly.” Assignments for Nike and BMW followed.
Scott strives to make “timeless” photos, and avoids “trendy techniques,” he says. An assignment to shoot MADE Fashion Week, which highlights young, independent fashion designers, forced him to apply his thoughtful style while shooting amidst a scrum of runway photographers. He had to “tune all that out and look for the moments no one else was getting,” he says.
Scott is exploring making music videos while continuing to refine his photographic style. “Knowing what subjects you want to shoot and how you want to portray them will keep you on a path, and honing your style will bring clients who want your unique voice.”
BORN: Shelburne, VT
RESIDES: New York City
EDUCATION: University of Vermont
CLIENTS: TIME, WIRED, VICE, CNN, Pfizer, Delta, P&G
KEY LESSON: “If you’re interested in a topic and your approach sheds new light on it, trust that there’s a market for that. I’ve had photos picked up by editors after being rejected by others at the very same publication. Don’t be too discouraged by rejection. A well-crafted pitch can make all the difference.”
Peter Garritano believes his aversion to doing a job he hated—working in public relations at a financial holdings company—might have led him to try a career in photography. After he shot portraits of employees for the company’s website, a superior gave him a “back-handed” compliment and suggested he pursue photography. Garritano decided to take the comment at face value. “I had enjoyed photography growing up, and I just wanted to do something I had a better chance of being good at.”
Self-taught, Garritano didn’t have a portfolio of work to show, but he had a background in business and marketing: “I knew how to package [a story in a way that editors] would be remiss to pass on.” He pitched VICE a story on a DIY tattoo parlor his sister was opening with friends in Fairlay, Colorado. He says, “It’s exactly the blood and guts stuff they publish.” Garritano sent the editors a Tumblr page with some of his images. VICE commissioned the story.
Since then, he’s successfully pitched projects to TIME, WIRED, and CNN, and has shot for Delta and Pfizer. He’s shot illegal street racing in the United Arab Emirates and a series of portraits of New Yorkers who post personal ads on Craigslist’s “Strictly Platonic” section. The latter highlights his growing technical skills and his ability to connect with the subjects. “Peter allows their energy, their loneliness, their quiet, to come forth,” says Katie Booth, digital manager at the Aperture Foundation, who met Garritano while working on Tina Brown’s Women in the World summit. His portraits “have a very quiet feel to them—that’s very powerful.”
Garritano supplements his personal work with commercial jobs that don’t make it into his portfolio but help fund his business. In the future, he’d like to create a broad epic, “like Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights,’ charted out in various chapters.” For now, he’s still figuring out the delicate balance between maintaining his marketability while not diluting his personal voice.
BORN: Saint Petersburg, Russia
RESIDES: Saint Petersburg, Russia
EDUCATION: Saint Petersburg State University of Economics and Finance; FotoDepartment.Institute
CLIENTS: CNN, The Guardian, The Observer , Spiegel Online, 6moise, Takie Dela, Refinery29
EXHIBITIONS: Angkor Photo Festival, Siem Riep, Cambodia; The Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles; Kolga Tbilisi Photo, Tbilisi, Georgia
AWARDS: Eddie Adams Workshop Award, PDN Exposures, LensCulture Portrait Award
BEST ADVICE: “Once I asked [photojournalist] Ruth Fremson about going to places that might be considered unsafe for a woman photographer. She answered, ‘Sometimes you need to project confidence when you don’t have it. You are there as a professional, a third gender.’ This advice about confidence related to being a photographer and everyday life. The words were simple, but they were said at the right moment and touched me a lot.”
Last year was a year of workshops for Katya Rezvaya. “The workshops gave me a huge step forward,” she says. At Eddie Adams, she met with photographers and editors she had admired from afar. The Angkor Photo workshop provided connections across Asia. But Rezvaya is aware of the risk of spending too much time in workshops. She recalls the advice photojournalist Vlad Sokhin gave to a class: “How many of you are planning to seriously work in this industry? Then stop studying. Work!”
When she decided to dive into photography in 2014, she had the technical skills needed, but the bigger challenge she faced was overcoming her self-doubt. The breakthrough that boosted her confidence and brought her recognition was her portrait series called “Oh my rabbits,” which she shot over a three-day period at the 92nd annual American Rabbit Breeders Association convention in Oregon. Although it felt like a huge risk to travel abroad with only curiosity, a scarce budget, and a few contacts, it paid off. The series was recognized in contests and earned her invitations to Eddie Adams and Angkor Photo Workshops. “It’s very recognizable,” says Rezvaya of the work, “it’s something you look at and remember,” and has served as a key promotional tool.
Rezvaya is “committed to development, change and growth through her work” says Andrei Polikanov, Visual Director at the online news outlet Takie Dela. Rezvaya hopes to continue honing her storytelling and to avoid being pigeonholed as the “rabbit photographer.” She has already produced series on a psychotherapist who uses an unorthodox form of role-play in his practice, and on people affected by healthcare cuts in Russia. She recognizes the need for persistence. “A career in photography seems to be a long-term project in itself,” states Rezvaya.
She adds, “At some point, I will start teaching photography. I would love to help and inspire people to believe in themselves.”
BORN: New Brunswick, NJ
EDUCATION: Ohio University
CLIENTS: National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, California Sunday Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, WIRED
EXHIBITIONS: College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA
AWARDS: Eddie Adams Workshop
KEY LESSON: “Learning to take a step back and not need to look at [images from a trip] right away....[Now I] get home from a trip, upload everything, back it up and then just sit on it for a month. Then I go through it all and order a ton of tiny prints and put them on a wall and let them sit. Taking time and living with work has been really helpful.”
As a junior photojournalism major at Ohio University, Ian Bates decided he wanted to pursue a different style of work, one without “all the restrictions”—ethical, compositional and otherwise—of photojournalism. He studied the books and careers of photographers such as Alec Soth and Joel Sternfeld, bought a Mamiya RZ67, and started “messing around on my own and looking at more work.” He taught himself portraiture by photographing friends and, after he graduated, started a personal project, “Meadowlark,” a free-form investigation of the people and landscape of North Dakota. He’s since expanded the project to encompass five other states that share the Western Meadowlark as the state bird. The project combines landscapes and portraiture. It considers such themes as wildlife habitat loss, rural depopulation, and how political and geographic borders affect cultural perception.
With referrals from photographer Matt Eich, whom he assisted one summer, Bates began showing his work to editors and freelancing while still in school. He attended the Eddie Adams workshop as a junior, and did The New York Times portfolio review. National Geographic photo editor Vaughn Wallace, who first worked with Bates at Al Jazeera America, says he likes working with him “because he produces this really great and surprising mix of reportage and portraiture.” Often photographers do one or the other well, Vaughn says. Bates excels at both. And, “he’s a worker. You can put him on something and he figures it out.”
As his work has evolved, Bates says he’s tried to “shake loose” of the photojournalism lessons about composition and content he learned in school. Rather than trying to make photographs layered with information, he’s “interested in editing out all those layers and getting down to one specific thing that I want to look at.” One of the skills that he has carried with him, however, is the “practice of talking to strangers and knocking on doors.I haven’t been afraid of doing that, so that helped early on for learning how to make portraits that I like.” This year, in addition to continuing “Meadowlark,” Bates is working to get more big editorial assignments and make inroads in the commercial market.
BORN: Washington, DC
EDUCATION: Columbia University
CLIENTS: Mashable, The Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, CNN, National Geographic, Five Thirty Eight, BBC
EXHIBITIONS: Anastasia Photo Gallery, New York City; Photoville, Brooklyn, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
AWARDS: FotoEvidence Book Award; Magnum Foundation Inge Morath Award; Magenta Foundation Bright Spark Award; Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grants; International Women’s Media Foundation fellow
BEST ADVICE: “Almost all of the advice I got as a young photographer applied to a part of my career that no longer exists, but I do remember one Daily News staffer telling me that as long as I could learn to file my photos quickly I’d always be okay, and I did, and he was right.”
For a documentary photographer who focuses on the pernicious legacies of Western colonialism, Daniella Zalcman’s career began improbably: shooting news assignments for New York tabloid The Daily News. And although she is worlds away from those days, Zalcman still values what she learned. “It taught me to be quick, and trained me in a lot of different subgenres of photojournalism, and was a lot of fun, too.”
The shift in her career trajectory began when her husband—also a journalist—got a job in London and the couple moved in 2012. Faced with the task of rebuilding her client list in a new country, Zalcman realized that she wanted to move away from newspaper work entirely. Her “big break” came with “Kuchus in Uganda,” her story about Uganda’s LGBT community, which earned her a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in 2014.
Over the last several years, the Pulitzer Center has supported three of Zalcman’s projects with a total of six travel grants. Managing Director Nathalie Applewhite lauds Zalcman’s “ability to intelligently and empathetically engage” with her subjects, and her “deep commitment to understanding the roots of trauma.”
A self-described “obsessive person,” Zalcman takes an exhaustive approach to long-form documentary work. “Whenever I start a project I dive into research, reading archival photos, research papers, anything,” she says. Zalcman hopes to spend the next five-to-ten years working around the tragic impact of Indian Boarding Schools in North America.
Having had no formal training, Zalcman credits the strong relationships photojournalists form, in the field and with their editors, as her source of mentorship. As for her artistic sensibilities, she is not particular to any camera or stylistic approach, preferring to focus on “being consistent in how I incorporate and invoke the voices of the people I photograph.”
BORN: Kansas City, MO
RESIDES: Brooklyn, NY and Los Angeles
EDUCATION: Pratt Institute
CLIENTS: WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, Surface, Metropolis, Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Tumblr, Uber, Urban Outfitters, Fast Company, Hello Mr.
EXHIBITIONS: Photoville, Brooklyn, NY; Der Greif, Krakow, Poland
BEST ADVICE: “There was a time where I was afraid of not getting enough work. During that time I would work from 8:30 a.m. to midnight and compile a mailing a list and set up meetings. I would shoot personal work that I could share all the time. If someone isn’t hiring me to shoot, I need to hire myself to shoot so I have work to share. When you live in a place like New York and there are hundreds of other photographers who are shooting for the same magazine, it’s up to you to continuously remind people that you exist.”
Five years ago, Cait Oppermann and her partner, Yael Malka, spent two months backpacking across Europe with one goal: to make pictures. Through Kickstarter, they raised enough to support the trip and publish Sea Blues, a book that mixed their portraits, still lifes and vignettes of the cultures they explored. “That’s what I love: Giving myself a project or parameter or a place and just going and shooting,” Oppermann says.
The trip was an opportunity for personal growth, but it was also strategic. Oppermann says the photos in Sea Blues showed “how I wanted to shoot editorially.” The book served as her first promo and “was the first big thing that started my photo career.”
Her biggest project to date was her series on the players of the National Women’s Soccer League. Having played soccer growing up, “I had a deep connection to the sport,” Oppermann says, and that interest helped her make connections with players on and off the field. She worked extra hard on the project “because I knew I wanted to do more work like that.”
Oppermann says she does her best work when she’s “at play” with the camera, and the Soccer League project allowed her to experiment. “I made some super tight crops of athletes’ bodies,” honing in on the goose bumps on a player’s legs during an ice bath, for instance.
Her compositions are getting Oppermann noticed. Sarah Silberg, senior photo editor at WIRED, says she has received the photographer’s promos for years and watched her grow as an artist. When she hired Oppermann for the first time last July, she says, it was the photographer’s “composition and colors that drew me in.” Silberg assigned Oppermann to photograph David Adjaye, architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in his office. Silberg notes, “I was thrilled to work with her from then on because she makes my job easy. She makes sure anyone who hires her gets what they need, but she also adds her own style to it and it’s always in line with what we ask for.”
BORN: Midland, MI
RESIDES: New York City
EDUCATION: New York University
CLIENTS: T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Frieze, Fast Company, Herman Miller, Dwell, Mociun
EXHIBITIONS: Osnova Gallery, Moscow; CFA Brooklyn Pop-Up Show, Brooklyn, NY
AWARDS: Tierney Foundation Fellowship
KEY LESSON: “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to be persistent and not give up. When you send work out, only a tiny percentage of the audience gives any feedback that they’re looking at it at all. But then, years down the road, you might get a call from someone who’s been following you all along.”
Whether he’s shooting architecture, an interior, a still life or a portrait, Nicholas Calcott brings a mix of discipline and playfulness to his work. He does that using a combination of muted tones and pops of color, straight lines and wild curves. “I work with lines and geometric figures, but if something looks too pure, I might fold in a rougher element, or include something more spontaneous,” Calcott says.
His approach has led to a wealth of editorial work, from regular assignments shooting interiors and portraits for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, to photographing still lifes for Metropolis. “Nick is always excited about whatever project he’s taking on,” says Nadia Vellam, photo director at T. “It’s great to work with someone who’s always game for whatever you’ve asked him to do.”
Like most photographers just out of college, Calcott struggled. A job assisting editorial photographer Dean Kaufman was a key step to success, enabling him to perfect his techniques while meeting industry folk. But then he moved to Paris for four years, where “the editorial market is pretty conservative,” he says, and his career stalled. He worked as a set painter and web designer, meanwhile showing his portfolio whenever he came to New York.
His persistence paid off. First, Fast Company assigned him to photograph an architect working with Doctors Without Borders. Slowly, other work started trickling in. Then he was contacted by Vellam at T with an assignment. That shoot three years ago gave him “visibility,” he says, and he was able to pursue photography whole-heartedly.
These days, Calcott likes to keep things interesting by dividing his time between editorial genres. “In the photo world, it’s difficult not to be pigeonholed,” he says. But he’s defied the trend. “The joy of the medium is the joy of experimenting.”