JURORS + NOMINATORS
Jurors + Nominators
Established in 1999, The 30 is recognized throughout the professional photography industry as a “go-to outlet to discover up-and-coming photographers” (TIME, 2015), and as a platform that helps emerging photographers grow their careers. Each year, The 30 are selected through a nomination and jurying process that includes the input of established photographers, photography editors, art directors, curators and other photography industry leaders. The 30 was created by the editorial staff of Photo District News magazine.
The 30 is a production of Emerald, a leader in building dynamic platforms that integrate live events with a broad array of industry insights, digital tools, and data-focused solutions to create uniquely rich experiences. With over 140 events each year, our teams are creators and connectors who are thoroughly immersed in the industries we serve and committed to supporting the communities in which we operate.
ABOUT THE 30
September Dawn Bottoms
September Dawn Bottoms
Center for Documentary Studies
(CDS) at Duke University
The New York Times
Ann M. Jastrab
Center for Photographic Art
Anna Goldwater Alexander
The New York Times
The New York Times
The Washington Post
The Tampa Bay Times
Prior to Apple, Darhil Crooks was Creative Director at The Atlantic Magazine in Washington D.C. where he led the art department of the 163-year-old publication. In his time at The Atlantic he oversaw redesigns of both the magazine and website which were recognized by ASME as website of the year as well as magazine of the year. Previous to his time at The Atlantic, Crooks served as Creative Director of Ebony Magazine in Chicago where he oversaw the first cover-to-cover redesign in the magazine’s history. He also served as Art Director at Esquire Magazine and Men’s Journal in New York City. Crooks studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Richard B. Menschel
Senior Curator of
Photography, The New
York Public Library
Joshua Chuang is the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Associate Director of Art, Prints and Photographs
and Robert B. Menschel Senior Curator of Photography at The
New York Public Library. Prior to coming to NYPL,
he served as chief curator
at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona,
and the inaugural Richard Benson Associate Curator
of Photography and
Digital Media at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Director of Photography,
Katherine Pomerantz is the Director of Photography at TIME. Prior to joining TIME in 2017, she was director of photography at Newsweek and the founding photo lead at The Daily Beast.
She has also worked in various creative roles at Magnum Photos, Airbnb Magazine and ABC News.
Rangefinder + WPPI
Sharon Ber was previously Art Director of Photo
District News (PDN). She has designed The 30 since 2016, and this is her second year as a juror. Previous to her time at PDN, she was an Art Director at WWD.
She also led the art direction for the Kenneth Cole, Betsey Johnson, and BCBG brand licenses for Geneva Watch Group.
Digital Strategy Lead
Rangefinder + WPPI
Conor Risch was previously Senior Editor of Photo
District News (PDN). He has been a juror and editor of The 30 since 2009. Conor is also the President of the Board of Directors of Blue Earth Alliance, a non-profit organization that provides fiscal sponsorship and
other support to visual storytellers working on environmental and critical social issues. Based in Seattle, Conor grew up
in Redmond, Washington, and has a B.A. in English
from Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
David I. Walker
editor and photography consultant
Debra Klomp Ching
The New York Times
Center for Photography
Holly Stuart Hughes
writer and editor
California Sunday Magazine
The New York Times
Humble Arts Foundation
The New York Times Magazine
+Kris Graves Projects
Indie Photobook Library
The Photographic Journal
The New Yorker
Rangefinder + WPPI
San Francisco Chronicle
The Aftermath Project
Zora J Murff
David I. Walker
Debra Klomp Ching
The New York Times
Center for Photography
Holly Stuart Hughes
writer and editor
California Sunday Magazine
The New York Times
Humble Arts Foundation
The New York Times Magazine
+Kris Graves Projects
SEE THE LATEST BATCH OF EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHERS NOW
“My earliest memory of photography is when I was five or six years old, flipping through photo albums of my family” says Lawrence Agyei. He would pore over the old photos his parents had taken back in Ghana, from before they immigrated to Italy, where Agyei was born and raised. “The Ghanaian photographs had a real warm sepia tone,” he remembers, a worn-in ease that contrasted the family’s Italian photographs, which were marked more so by starkly clean tones. Agyei’s art has followed after that warmth ever since. In lieu of technical perfection, he wants his photographs to overflow with emotion; he wants to make images that you feel in your body when you hold them in your hands.
When Agyei relocated with his family to Chicago at the age of 17, he learned English and analog photography in quick succession, the latter from a high school art teacher who forbade digital photography, taught students to process film in a darkroom, and urged Agyei to take his natural talent seriously. Agyei is deeply devoted to the texture and intentionality of film photography and counts as inspirations the street scenes and spontaneous grace in the works of Gordon Parks, Jamel Shabazz, Roy DeCarava, Ming Smith, and James Barnor.
In 2016, Agyei caught his first major assignment when The FADER commissioned him to photograph local rapper—and Chance the Rapper’s brother—Taylor Bennett. Soon thereafter came assignments from The New Yorker, The New York Times, Apple, and TIME. “He makes multiple-exposure portraits that are startling and psychologically complex,” says Joanna Milter, Director of Photography at The New Yorker. “It’s been particularly rewarding when we’ve commissioned him to photograph another artist—a writer or a musician; he always teases out something unexpected from them, he gives you a hint of their own creativity.”
Agyei’s latest subjects are the creatives and passersby he encountered on his trip to Ghana at the end of last year, his first time visiting a country he calls home. Next year, he plans to go back to Italy, the home he’s missed for thirteen years. There, he’ll visit his old neighborhood, spend time with the people who have stayed, photograph in warm tones what’s familiar—and also what’s viscerally new.
KEY LESSION: “I always tell photographers, focus on your personal projects, don’t get stuck on your clients’ projects too much. Personal projects are so key to your growth as a photographer. You're able to come up with your own ideas and bring them to life. And that will open the doors for other people to see your work so that they can hire you for the type of work that you create.”
BORN: Sassuolo, Italy
KEY LESSON: “I always tell photographers, focus on your personal projects, don’t get stuck on your clients’ projects too much. Personal projects are so key to your growth as a photographer. You're able to come up with your own ideas and bring them to life. And that will open the doors for other people to see your work so that they can hire you for the type of work that you create.”
Shayan Asgharnia was working as a production assistant on a commercial shoot in Los Angeles when he realized he was in the wrong industry. More than 40 people were involved on the film side of the shoot. Asgharnia, an aspiring filmmaker, noticed the photographer on the set was working with just one assistant and a digital tech, and seemed to have a lot more creative autonomy. “I walked up to the photographer, and told him that if he taught me about light, I would work for him for free,” Asgharnia says.
Thus began a period of apprenticeship and assisting various photographers working in a range of genres including still-life and fashion. On his days off, Asgharnia flipped over his bed, and took portraits of friends in his bedroom. “I received a graduate education in photography without the student debt,” he laughs.
His big break came when a friend showed his portraits to an editor at The Wall Street Journal. The editor assigned him to photograph Wolfgang Puck. Assignments to photograph Forest Whitaker, Moby and Jessica Chastain followed. Before long, Asgharnia had a book full of celebrity portraits he used to secure jobs with The New York Times, People, Los Angeles, Ebony, Variety, ESPN The Magazine and Columbia Records.
“His work is so strong, but he’s also emotionally intelligent,” says Allyson Torrisi, the Deputy Director of Photography at People, who has worked with Asgharnia. “He has a really good sense of reading the room.”
Asgharnia has always paid close attention to the business side of being a professional photographer. Early on, when he was assisting, Asgharnia listened to the way that photographers talked to clients on set, and used that knowledge to build his own relationships first with editorial clients, and then with commercial clients including AT&T, Nike and Amazon Studios. With mentors, he practiced having open conversations about money.
“He’s a gem,” says Michael Skolnik, a founding partner at the Soze Agency, who worked with Asgharnia on the 2020 #iamanimmigrant campaign. “He’s young, but he’s found his voice. And he’s a kind, gentle individual.”
Asgharnia’s volunteer and nonprofit work is just as important to him as the commercial and editorial work. To date, he has photographed for nonprofits including Families Belong Together, Rescue from the Heart and the ACLU. “There was a time when people would advise, hey, watch what you’re saying, you don’t want to get blacklisted from this or that organization,” Asgharni says. “But we’re in a time right now where it’s like, you need to say something.”
KEY LESSON: “There is no
It’s not like, OK, I assisted this person, and I have these clients, so now I get a Condé Nast contract. Nope. The only way to make it in this business is to create, and to put your work out there strategically.”
BORN: Tehran, Iran
RESIDES: Los Angeles
University of Texas
KEY LESSON: “There is no tier system. It’s not like, OK, I assisted this person, and I have these clients, so now I get a Condé Nast contract. Nope. The only way to make it in this business is to create, and to put your work out there strategically.”
September Dawn Bottoms was researching her family history when she began to learn about Boley, Oklahoma, which neighbors Paden, where her family is from. Boley was founded as a predominately Black town and was once large and prosperous. But the population has declined, and the community is under threat. When Bottoms expressed interest in Boley to (mostly white) people outside of the community, “it just seemed like everyone was afraid of it, and I thought that was so silly.” Bottoms connected with folks who are working to revitalize Boley and created a project about the town and its residents. She showed that work at the New York Portfolio Review in 2019, along with a project she created about sex workers in Los Angeles, and photographs from her ongoing work about her family and its history. Not long after the reviews, she began to get assignments. She has since shot for TIME, The New York Times, ESPN, Rolling Stone and The Tulsa Voice, among other publications. In 2018, she had attended Eddie Adams Workshop with no assignments to her name and a disjointed portfolio. Earlier this year she was named a New York Times Fellow for 2020. Her rapid rise is “very much a miracle in my eyes because no one where I’m from has any wherewithal that things like this could happen to them,” she says.
Bottoms is self-taught. She began taking pictures after moving to Los Angeles with her mother and sister after high school. During that period she was “very lost, very confused, very angry,” she says, but loved making pictures. “It felt like an escape from whatever I might have been going through emotionally,” she explains. So she decided to put all of her energy into photography. She sold her bike, bought a real camera and enrolled in a community college Photo One class. She started creating her own stories, and researched other photographers’ work and resumes, which led her to apply for the Eddie Adams Workshop. There she met James Estrin, who took an interest in her photographs of her family, kept in touch and encouraged her to apply for other opportunities, including the New York Portfolio review, which helped spark her career.
As part of a military family, Bottoms moved frequently as a kid, and the negative reactions she got when she told people she was from Oklahoma left an impression. That misunderstanding from outsiders is part of what drives her interests as a photographer. Before she received The New York Times fellowship, Bottoms had moved to Tulsa to be near family and tell stories that challenge stereotypes of Oklahoma. The more she works, she says, the more she is drawn to focus on her family and her personal history. “It just becomes more and more apparent to me that that’s where the best work will come from,” she explains. “And once you master facing yourself, you’re better equipped to tell other people’s stories. I don’t know if that’s true or not, that’s just how I feel.”
BEST ADVICE: “Everything that I do always goes back to advice that I’ve heard everywhere from everyone, which is work on something that you really care about…. Take the time to figure out what it is that you really care about and work on that, because that is where you’re going to make the best thing that you can make.”
BORN: Lawton, OK
RESIDES: Los Angeles
and Tulsa, OK
When she was a graduate student at Yale, Dannielle Bowman saw an exhibition of Carleton Watkins’s landscapes of the American West that changed her understanding of landscape photography. “Blown away by the formal qualities” of the prints, she researched Watkins’s work and learned that the pictures helped support government efforts to “steal that land away from the people who already lived there,” Bowman says. She imagined “landscape as a power play,” and thought about how one man created many of the established views of the American West. “Those landscapes really set me off,” and lead to the graduate school work that “laid a lot of the groundwork for the ideas that I’m unpacking now.”
Bowman’s projects engage with “landscape, time and the unknown aspects of personal and cultural histories,” she writes. “Here, Now,” a series of black-and-white abstractions of monuments and landscapes, questions what people in power choose to preserve. “What Had Happened,” which showed at Baxter Street Camera Club in New York in January and won the Aperture Portfolio Prize this year, investigates “themes of displacement and personal history” through photographs of family homes and the surrounding landscapes. Bowman also received a commission from The New York Times Magazine to photograph former slave auction sites for the 1619 Project. Her image of the ocean and horizon where the first ship carrying slaves arrived in Virginia was on the cover of the issue that introduced the 1619 Project in August 2019.
Eight months prior to getting the 1619 project assignment, Bowman says, she had cold emailed Times Magazine Director of Photography Kathy Ryan at the suggestion of another photo editor. Taking editorial and commercial work is one way Bowman envisions the progress of her career. She also currently teaches as a way of supporting her art practice. Early on, she also looked at the CVs of artists she liked and applied for the residencies, awards and opportunities that had helped them. The support, validation and exposure from residencies and awards is important, Bowman says. She also appreciates the opportunity “Just to get the work out there, to be in conversation with the world.” The photographs start that conversation, but they are “just the tip of the iceberg,” Bowman says, signifiers of all of the things she’s thinking about. “I’m eager to talk about those things with other people because I think they’re important things.”
BEST ADVICE: “One of my grad school teachers, John Pilson, he used to always talk about the pleasure principle…He would always ask me, ‘Where’s the pleasure? There should be some pleasure in this.’ I think it took me a year to figure out how to get there…To be able to identify that area of making has been very crucial for me and I still think about it.”
BORN: Los Angeles
RESIDES: New York City
BFA, The Cooper Union
MFA, Yale University
Rachel Bujalski wants to use her photographs as a catalyst for connection, conversation and, ultimately, solutions. Her work focuses primarily on housing and the importance of home in people’s lives. Fed in part by her own experiences living on a sailboat as a young adult in need of cheap rent, she has pursued projects about people living off the grid; California’s housing affordability crisis; and families displaced by the 2018 Camp fire that destroyed the community of Paradise, California, killing 83 people.
Her work is humanistic, and her mixture of documentary photographs and environmental portraiture introduce us to people who are often referred to in the abstract in news reports and articles. “I think everyone deserves to be listened to and the way I approach it is kind of from an activist standpoint,” Bujalski says. “I think it’s really important we know who our neighbors are” she adds.
Housing is a hot-button issue, and Bujalski’s personal work has led to assignments for The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Those assignments “push me in different ways,” she says, and often take her personal work in new directions.
Bujalski, who studied art education in college, learned the business of photography during two years she spent working for Lauren Greenfield, first as an intern and then as a studio manager. “I saw how she did it,” Bujalski says, so after two years she was able to start reaching out to editors and working on her own career. She also participated in the Eddie Adams workshop and has made an effort to build community with other photographers.
When she was living in Venice working for Greefield, Bujalski met and collaborated with homeless rights activist David Busch. They created an organization that connected artists with homeless teens to create artworks that they then sold to raise money for a local shelter. Now, Bujalski envisions combining that experience, her art education training, and her photography to take her work “a step further,” she explains. “How can I use everything I’ve learned…and make change?”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “I’ll spend weeks on my own assignments that I care deeply about and I don’t get a response back from every editor, or any editor, on a project, and that’s so frustrating. But you you just have to know to keep going."
BORN: Winfield, Illinois
RESIDES: San Francisco
Illinois State University
Nolwen Cifuentes bases her approach to portraits on the energy of the person she’s photographing. Take Nancy Pelosi, whom she photographed for the November 2018 cover of The New York Times Magazine. The plan was to shoot a simple portrait of the Speaker of the House of Representatives seated behind a table, in front of a grey background. But when Pelosi walked in wearing a bright orange pantsuit and heels, Cifuentes went for something a little bolder. She photographed Pelosi in front of a tall curtain, as if she were seated center stage in a theater.
That was her first “big assignment,” and she got it by booking a flight to New York and cold-emailing an editor to get a meeting. “I think this is the only time this happened, but that same day, she called me to ask me if I wanted to shoot the cover,” Cifuentes says. Last year, she photographed Kamala Harris for the cover of TIME “and that was, I believe, because they saw my cover with Nancy Pelosi.” The shoot felt big, but Cifuentes knows “there isn’t going to be a make-or-break” moment. “You’re always going to have to keep working hard.”
Building a community of photographers to talk with has helped. If it wasn’t for them, Cifuentes asserts, she would not have known that you could pitch ideas to editors, which is one way she gets assignments. She also sends her latest work to a targeted list of existing and potential clients. Cifuentes built her connections with colleagues by messaging questions to photographers on Instagram. She asked about anything from photo contract terms to lighting techniques.
She tells other advice-seeking photographers to make sound financial decisions. It was helpful for her to have a side hustle early in her career that allowed her the flexibility to take on photo projects, she says. It is also important to negotiate with clients who ask you to front the cost of a shoot. “You don’t have to just bow down to the client and do whatever they say if you’re not going to be able to pay your rent,” Cifuentes says. “I’m really a proponent of not getting into debt for this. You’ll get stuck doing work you don’t want to do to pay it off, when you could just be focusing on what you really want to do.”
Cifuentes wants to photograph key art for TV shows and movies one day. She also hopes to move toward photographing ad campaigns, particularly for brands that are “thoughtful about the narratives they’re putting out there.” She’s also preparing to release a series of short films. “I want to do a lot more shorts,” Cifuentes says. “And then probably when COVID is over, do a feature film.”
BEST ADVICE: “Don’t do this alone. And don’t be tight-lipped either; share the wealth. If you share your knowledge with more people, they’re more likely to share with you as well. That’s how you build a community.“
BORN: Harbor City, California
RESIDES: Los Angeles
One of Meghan Dhaliwal’s main goals as a photojournalist is to act as “the intermediary” between viewers and the people she’s photographing. She wants viewers to be able to use her work to “forge a connection with folks they would never actually get to meet in real life.” She is also deeply curious about others, and the opportunity to form bonds with the people she photographs is one of the reasons she became a photographer. If she has the time, she says, her preferred way to work is to “hang out, spend time, and then do my best to disappear as the day goes on.” Once people trust she is not there to exploit them or “harm them in any way,” she explains, she can fade into the background and make images that allow viewers into a space they would never otherwise have the privilege of knowing.
Dhaliwal’s first job out of journalism school was as a Multimedia Projects Coordinator at Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, where she was able to work with and observe many photographers she admired. “It almost felt like working backstage” in a theater, she says. She saw, for instance, how photographers would get editors and publications interested in their project ideas before starting work on them, and how they would use grants or assignments to gather different images and text, so they could sell work to two or three different outlets. Watching photographers figuring out how to earn a living, she realized that it isn’t easy, but “it gave me hope” that it could be done. During her stint at Pulitzer Center, she met her husband and moved to join him in Mexico City, where she’s based now.
She spent her first year there learning Spanish, then applied for grants and reached out to editors she met while she was working at Pulitzer Center. She also pitched stories frequently, which helped her grow her client base. “I think every steady client that I have now originated with a pitch that they said yes to,” she says. These days she pitches more strategically, and the projects she pursues often grow out of assignment work. While she covered the migrant caravans in 2018 for The New York Times, for instance, she noticed “tons of pregnant women” among the refugees. She wanted to know more about the women, so she applied for and got a National Geographic Society grant to pursue the story.
BEST ADVICE: “Be gentle, but be relentless. It was from [Los Angeles Times staff photographer] Marcus Yam at a [NPPA] Northern Short Course in 2014…. I really loved that because I can either be one or the other sometimes. I give up too quickly or, it’s less often, but I’ll be too relentless.”
BORN: Scotch Plains, NJ
RESIDES: Mexico City
When Mamadi Doumbouya emigrated from Guinea to New York City, he started taking photographs of the city on his iPhone. “I was excited about shooting architecture and buildings as an immigrant,” says Doumbouya, “but I found my place when I started shooting portraits.”
Doumbouya attended NYC Salt, an after-school photography program for underserved youth, before he had his first camera. “I learned a lot, it taught me what I needed—and then I went out and found myself,” adds Doumbouya, who was introduced to The New York Times Magazine Director of Photography Kathy Ryan through the program. Ryan assigned him to go to Guinea to photograph his extended family celebrating Eid al-Adha in Kankan, their ancestral village. The portfolio appeared in the magazine's annual “Voyages” photography issue.
A magazine debut brings new eyes and audience, which also led to new assignments. Now, Doumbouya photographs the thrice-monthly “Talk” column for the magazine. “His stylish pictures are classical with a contemporary twist,” says Ryan. “They are often quiet in mood and at the same time high in impact—they resonate with beauty, seriousness, and humor.”
Doumbouya has learned to read his subjects’ expressions and react quickly. “I am not starstruck,” he explains, “but I can tell quickly whether my subjects are willing to do what I want them to do, or if they’re only going to give me one pose.” Doumbouya, whose photographs are vibrant and saturated in color, always comes prepared but leaves room for improvisation. “The color juxtapositions he conjures up with his gels are always exciting, often eye-popping, and never boring,” Ryan nots. Doumbouya says he is always shooting or thinking about his next shoot. “Maintain relationships, email people regularly,” he tells other photographers who now come to him for advice. “Most importantly,” he adds, “collaborate with people who want to see you grow.”
BEST ADVICE: “I always show the first photo to the people I photograph. That way, they can relax, and I can do my thing.”
BORN: Conakry, Guineau
RESIDES: New York City
While he was in graduate school at Yale, Eli Durst had a studio visit with the photographer Torbjørn Rødland and asked him to sign a copy of one of his books. Rødland’s inscription read: “Believe the lie!” At the time, Durst was working on his series “The Community,” which investigated communal spaces and the strange ways people come together in search of meaning, self-worth and purpose. He interpreted Rødland’s words as a suggestion to go inside of the world he was photographing as opposed to simply looking on from the sidelines, advice he still takes to heart today.
In 2016, he won the Aperture Portfolio Prize for his series “In Asmara,” which examined life in Eritrea’s capital city, and this allowed him to connect with several curators and photo editors. “I apply to so many grants, prizes and open calls and get rejected from the majority of them,” says Durst, who tells his students at The University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches, never to take rejection personally and to “keep applying until you find the curator that gets your work.”
Before moving to Austin, Durst took as many meetings as he could with photo editors, and although none ever gave him an assignment on the spot, “several contacted me months later when the right opportunity arose,” he says.
Mörel Books published The Community in 2019, and he is now working on a follow-up project. “I’m thinking more about America’s obsession with self-help and I am interested in work that feels discovered as opposed to engineered,” he explains. Although making work “outside of the school context, without having hard deadlines” has been challenging, he is excited about what the future holds: “I learn from the world and myself as I struggle to create work that I hope is always getting better.”
KEY LESSON: “Do not take rejection personally—it should not be seen as an invalidation of your work.”
BORN: Austin, Texas
BA, Wesleyan University; MFA, Yale University
Critiques at key moments have helped spur George Etheredge’s development as a photographer. He studied studio arts at University of North Carolina Asheville, where his professor, Eric Tomberlin, scrutinized Etheredge’s body of work about a community garden in a local public housing development. Tomberlin’s questions about representation were “super challenging for me,” Etheredge says, but ultimately helpful. He started another project—about the relationship between masculinity and the landscape in Appalachia—that was closer to his own experience. He had wanted to use the work to undermine stereotypes of Appalachian men. But when photographer Alejandro Cartegena visited the school as a guest lecturer, he gave Etheredge another important critique: “The work’s really good, but that’s not what the project is about,” Etheredge recalls Cartegena saying. The lesson was, “Sometimes what motivates you to go out into the world can be completely different than what the pictures say at the end,” Etheredge says. “It was really profound for me as a young photographer to hear advice like that.” The project was more personal and introspective than he’d realized.
Even as he developed his personal work in school, Etheredge knew he wanted to pursue assignment work. Growing up in a small town in North Carolina, it was hard to imagine a career in photography, Etheredge recalls. But an older friend he grew up skateboarding with, photographer Mike Belleme, “took me under his wing,” Etheredge says. “He didn’t keep any secrets and would tell me everything that he knew and was one of the most generous people.” Seeing someone else making a living as a working photographer “was really important for me,” Etheredge explains, and Bellamy also encouraged him to do things like apply for Eddie Adams Workshop. A visual journalism internship at The New York Times brought him to New York, where he learned to shoot difficult assignments on tight deadlines. After the internship, he freelanced for The Times while making connections with editors at other publications via opportunities such as the New York Portfolio Review.
As he has developed his career as an assignment photographer, working on projects with Pro Publica and assignments for TIME, Rolling Stone, WSJ Magazine and other publications, he has tried to bring a quietness to his images that reflects his sensibility. Part of his process is to ask tough questions about the success of his photographs, which can be frustrating, he says. “That’s a constant challenge with photography, is to hold yourself accountable for the work that you’re making.”
KEY LESSON: “Don’t be shy, be confident about the work that you’re making. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people for help and ask for advice. Most photographers are pretty open to answering emails from younger photographers when they reach out.”
University of North
Fabiola Ferrero captures the simmering tensions in her homeland that erupt into protests over chronic food and medicine shortages, economic collapse, and creeping governmental authoritarianism. Born in and based primarily in Caracas, Ferrero has worked out of Bogota since March 2020 when she was trapped there as the spread of COVID-19 forced the closure of the Venezuela-Colombia border. A long-form project that Ferrero began in 2015, “Blurred in Despair: Venezuela’s Psychological Turmoil,” captures the profound toll of living through epochal upheaval that roils the once-prosperous South American nation. Ferrero contrasts joy and stillness—children at play, a woman standing alone in the sun—with the chaos and fear of protests and armed militia members, conveying the emotional extremes that define Venezuelan life day to day.
Ferrero says that she benefits from from self-care practices: maintaining healthy relationships, finding balance between what feels good and professional obligations, and nurturing a calm and quiet mind. For Ferrero, self-care also manifests as collaboration. She speaks fondly of Ruda, the collective of eleven South American women photographers to which she belongs. The opportunity to share experiences with artists who understand rampant gender bias in creative professions is healing, she says. Ruda members are supportive and non-competitive, and their nurturing and collegiality offers a respite from the solo work of photojournalists.
Ferrero is thoughtful about how she promotes her work. She rejects the notion that she has to post daily on Instagram or constantly produce new work to cultivate followers and attract clients. If that makes it sound like Ferrero doesn’t understand the hustle required to live as a freelancer in a competitive profession, that's not altogether accurate. Ferrero acknowledges her relative privilege, and knows that resources—financial, educational, material—or their lack, undeniably influence freelance life. She emphasizes applying for grants, fellowships and other opportunities that further her education. Her acceptance into Magnum Foundation's Photography and Social Justice Fellowship and the VII Photo Agency Mentor Program have been life-changing, she says. When asked what advice she would give, Ferrero says that she encourages photographers to consider two pivotal questions: Why are you doing this work, and how will you accomplish your goals?
BEST ADVICE: “Don't rush.” [from photographer Sebastian Liste].
BORN: Caracas, Venezuela
Andrés Bello, Caracas
The ways that photographs influence culture, reflect and challenge power structures, and shape history are central ideas in Christopher Gregory-Rivera’s work. He is particularly interested in how media has shaped outsiders’ perception of Puerto Rico, where he was raised. Growing up, Gregory-Rivera recalls seeing photos of Puerto Rico and thinking, “This is not what Puerto Rico looks like and this is not what it feels like to be here.” As a result, he says, he feels “a pretty deep responsibility” to create stories about Puerto Rico that reflect his understanding of the place, its people, and its colonial history and relationship to the United States. His experiences also drive him to think deeply about context and history when he works elsewhere, whether abroad or in the United States.
Gregory-Rivera studied journalism at George Washington University, and started to build his portfolio through a series of internships and freelance assignments. Before he moved back to Puerto Rico after school, he met with editors at The New York Times. The editors liked his portfolio, but there were few assignments in Puerto Rico at the time. One day when the other freelancers were busy, however, he got a call, and did so well on the assignment that he ended up with a byline on the story and an internship offer at The New York Times. After working what he thought was a “dream job” as a political photographer he grew disillusioned with D.C. and used his personal projects to break into magazine photography.
He used still life for his project about a little-known but massive U.S. surveillance program in Puerto Rico, for instance, which lead to his first magazine assignment for Bloomberg Businessweek. And he developed his use of portraiture while photographing the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In that case, he recognized that he could contribute a sense of connection and collaboration with people, which was missing from the news photographs of devastation and suffering. “Having this variety of [visual] tools and interests and ways of representing things made me very attractive to magazines,” he says. He has also assisted advertising photographers as part of his “exploration of esthetics,” and he has parlayed that experience into ad work that helps fund his personal work.
After Hurricane Maria, U.S. media interest in Puerto Rico grew, and the Puerto Rico stories Gregory-Rivera was pitching suddenly got him attention. His past couple of years have been nonstop, with many of his assignments taking him home to the island, he says. His long-term projects, too, continue to center Puerto Rico and his own identity. “I photograph a way to understand my own story,” he wrote in an artist statement. “Starting with historical research, my personal projects look to document objects, people and places rooted in the past, that are at risk of being forgotten.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “While I am absolutely in love with my life as an assignment photographer, there are stories that I think are my responsibility to tell, and making time for that, finding money to do that...can be daunting.”
BORN: Albuquerque, NM
George Washington University
Nanna Heitmann thinks deeply about what she photographs—at times, she feels, too deeply. “I’m always thinking and questioning,” often before a project even begins. But her inquisitiveness also helps her work evolve.
For instance, in the year and a half she spent photographing “Weg vom Fenster,” her project about life at the last German coal mine, her approach flipped completely. She started as a “silent observer,” but could not help the fact that the miners wanted to pose. “I remember a worker asked to have his photo taken and put his arm over his peer’s shoulder,” she says. “In that moment, the way the miners presented themselves in this staged picture symbolized so much more than if I had just been observing them going about their routine.” The unexpected change in her role as the photographer fascinated her, and it led her to pursue more portraits.
A Magnum nominee, Heitmann has explored different aspects of isolation in her work. She began to think about isolation more during the pandemic. “I think in some way, I’m drawn to different issues of isolation because it also reflects my constant wandering state of mind as an introvert, between longing for isolation and feeling isolated and lonely,” she says.
She studied photojournalism and documentary photography in Hanover, Germany, which instilled in her a belief in the importance of working on personal projects that she’s “burning for” and then entering them for portfolio reviews and award consideration. Winning the Leica Oskar Barnack Award and Ian Parry Scholarship helped her gain a wider audience—and financial bonuses. “I think awards were also important for me to receive assignments,” she says. “Even if you don’t win, it’s a great way to present your work to a professional jury.”
BEST ADVICE: [From photographer Mads Nissen]: “What matters is that you really, really know what you are searching for. You have this one feeling that you are hunting. ‘What is that?’ is the question you’ll need to ask yourself day and night.”
BORN: Ulm, Germany
RESIDES: Moscow, Russia
University of Hanover
Ériver Hijano’s interest in travel has figured strongly in the development of his career as an editorial and commercial photographer. “I’ve traveled a lot since I was a student and have spent time in different countries witnessing different ways of life,” he says. “That in itself has really informed my body of work from the get-go.” The more places and cultures he’s learned about, he says, the more he’s sought out the “unique details that paint a story beyond the run-of-the-mill, beautiful travel photo.”
Hijano’s work has caught the eye of many a photo editor over the past five years, including AFAR’s Director of Photography, Tara Guertin. “Ériver’s images have always drawn me in and stood out because of his use of rich, dusty hues with pops of bright color, his strong horizontal lines and his consistent point of view,” says Guertin. She has given him some tough assignments to photograph in difficult conditions, she says. “Without fail, he always comes back with a visual story that’s fun and unexpectedly bold and inspiring.”
Hijano cites the work of Lars Tunbjörk and Martin Kollar as influential in helping him develop his interest in offbeat, rather than obvious, images. “I am drawn to real situations, but then I am always looking for the odd moments within them,” he explains. “If a see a classic Instagram photo, especially with travel images, that’s the picture I don’t take—the one that is the most beautiful or follows the rule of thirds. I skip that. My goal is to always photograph something different and more real.”
KEY LESSON: “One of the most important things I realized this year is to look at my photo career (or any career) as a marathon rather than a sprint. This all requires a lot of discipline and a lot of determination, and sometimes you can run faster, sometimes you have to run slower. Sometimes things go the way you want, sometimes they don’t. The most important thing is having this dedication and stamina to stay at it.“
BORN: São Paulo, Brazil
Jabari Jacobs didn’t mean to become a photographer. A few years back, he was working as a music producer, collaborating on projects with his brother, a music video director, in their small Maryland hometown. Photography entered his life as a practical solution to a resource lack: he had just finished working on an album with a recording artist, and they had no album cover. His brother had a camera, and Jacobs took the shots. He quite liked doing so, and started taking more, of his friends as they passed through the studio, of acquaintances who boasted the sartorial trifecta: “Cool tattoos, nice hair, bright and colorful style.” He put all his photographs on Tumblr. When he packed up for Los Angeles in 2015, his first major gig came through the attention he’d gained on the site. The art director of Atlantic Records, Virgilio “V” Tzaj, contacted him to photograph Twenty One Pilots for their album Blurryface.
This was just a year after the official start to Jacobs’s photography career. “I’d never done a shoot of that level, with a major label like Atlantic Records,” he says. Thanks to his first career, however, he was already an expert in the nuances of working with musicians. “A lot of artists, they just want to be in the studio, they just want to make music,” he says. “I shoot very quickly. I don't like to have an artist all day if we don’t have to.” Jacobs’s former production work, which would often dovetail into creative direction, offers him another edge, as he thinks not just of the artistic elements of a photo’s composition but also of how it functions in marketing, intentionally leaving free space around his subjects so that the image might better meld with text for an album cover or a flyer.
Jacobs has gone on to photograph artists such as H.E.R., The Internet, and Earth, Wind & Fire, and has developed a vibrant aesthetic with an always careful eye on the quality of light in his portraits. He now uses color gels and prisms and has moved far beyond his early one-light setup days, though he’s still committed to the self-directed learning that has served him from the start. “I look online all day at tutorials. I’ve taken a couple lighting classes,” he says. “And I graduated ‘YouTube University’ with flying colors.”
BEST ADVICE: “When Amy Kellner at The New York Times Magazine told me to get out
BORN: Washington, D.C.
RESIDES: New York
and Los Angeles
BEST ADVICE: “Brent Lewis at The New York Times helps out a lot, he’s really been a close friend of mine. When I did the New York Portfolio Review, I sent him my portfolio. He was like, ‘The photos are great, but the sequencing needs some work.‘ He was the first person who taught me about sequencing and the actual presentation of the photos. He would tell me, ‘You’re only as good as your worst shot.‘“
Robbie Lawrence describes his personal work as “a sort of macro form of documentary work” that explores a theme or topic “over a course of time, but not necessarily in a didactic or straightforward way.” His first monograph, Blackwater River, for instance, utilizes landscapes and portraits made along the Ogeechee River in rural Georgia to allude to the effects of climate change on communities there, without addressing the climate crisis directly. His visual language—his attention to light, shadow and color, which is informed by his training as a painter—does much of the heavy lifting. Lawrence also worked with a writer, Sala Patterson, who wove interviews with residents together into a text that grounds the images, which Lawrence describes as “quite abstract.”
Lawrence first became interested in the ways that images “can speak in relation to words and amplify them or make suggestions about them,” he says, while he was interning for The New York Times in Paris. He began making photographs during his long commutes, shooting “on a crap film camera just for myself, and printing them cheap.” Photography emerged as a more practical creative outlet than painting, and he began to think of a career as a photographer as “a small possibility.” “I come from a very middle class background where finance and law are far more likely outlets,” he explains. His dad, however, encouraged him to pursue photography during a period of uncertainty in his life. Lawrence continued to work fulltime jobs and by the time he went freelance he was doing visual identity and brand work as a photo editor/in-house photographer for an agency in Berlin.
In addition to producing personal work, Lawrence says, “I actually love the process of working with teams, and the production element of [advertising work] as well.” His editorial clients include the likes of Dazed, The New Yorker and WSJ Magazine. He has also worked for the United Nations, Lufthansa, Nike and Mr Porter, among others. Lawrence says his “aim is to have two to three months a year where I’m working on personal work,” but the balance can be difficult to achieve. Having agents in Webber Represents that prioritize personal work helps. Lawrence spoke with them off and on for three years before they announced representation last year, and he says they helped him prioritize the personal work he shows and “synthesize that into a portfolio.” Lawrence tries to make his personal, editorial and commercial work “sit in the same room,” so that clients hire him “for the work itself and not a kind of Diet Coke version of it.” More and more, that’s the case, he says, “which is nice.”
KEY LESSON: “One of the biggest pleasures I’ve had in this period of my career has been the willingness of editors to have conversations. I think there’s a sort of fear factor in cold emailing or cold calling or cold dropping off the portfolio or whatever. And actually there shouldn’t be. The work wasn’t great when I first started showing people, and I felt even then that people were willing to talk.”
BORN: Edinburgh, Scotland
University of St. Andrews, Scotland
Born and raised in Madrid, Victor Llorente came to New York to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he received his Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in 2019. Initially interested in street photography, Llorente noticed editors of major publications often hired photographers who could light. He began learning and experimenting with studio lighting in his junior year, and editors took notice of his work. “If an editor is trusting you with an assignment, they need to know that they are going to get the photos they need,” Llorente says. “Once I started doing lighting, I started getting hired.”
Llorente’s first big assignment came from an editor at The New York Times in 2017. He noticed the editor had followed him on Instagram, so he emailed a pitch. He kept on pitching until the editor finally emailed him back and invited him to bring his portfolio to The New York Times offices. The meeting led to Llorente’s first assignment, to photograph a light saber training course geared towards Star Wars fans. Llorente still photographs regularly for The Times, as well as Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and The New Yorker.
“He truly is someone that [goes on assignment], and comes back with a photograph that, no matter the situation, never fails to impress,” says Marvin Orellana, a Senior Photo Editor at New Yorker magazine. “That's truly hard to do.”
When he isn’t on assignment, Llorente focuses on a personal project he’s been working on for the past two years that features Los Andulleros de Santiago, a group of Dominican dancers and artists from the Bronx who perform during the Carnival season. “It’s been great building a relationship with a tight group of people,” Llorente says. Eventually, he hopes to turn the project into a book.
BORN: Madrid, Spain
RESIDES: New York
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Getting out of my comfort zone and actually reaching out to people and trying to network as much as possible. My most rewarding experiences as a photographer are always scary and nerve-wracking.”
After graduating from the Pratt Institute with a BFA in photography, Yael Malka struggled to make work that felt like her own. “After a couple of years of shooting editorial work, I had this portfolio,” she says. “But when I looked at it, I saw that it was full of work I didn’t actually care about.”
What she did care about was work that addressed intimacy. “I like to explore what connections look like, between strangers or friends or lovers,” Malka says. “My approach to shooting is very intimate.”
A breakthrough came when Malka took a job as photo editor at The FADER in 2016. The magazine focused on hiring photographers for assignments that fit their esthetics and interests. “I realized that I had to put the type of work forward that I wanted to get hired for,” she notes.
She scrapped her portfolio and started fresh. She pitched stories on transgender and queer people and artists, which led to assignments with publications including The New York Times, Elle and The Atlantic. She photographed public figures such as Eileen Myles, Maira Kalman and Claudia Rankine, and stories on polyamory, slime, gay pride, horse-jumping and the Paul Taylor dance company.“
Whether she is photographing plant life or taking a portrait, [Malka] is capturing a special narrative of emotion, with a painterly quality that sets her work apart,” says Eve Lyons, Photo Editor of The New York Times' Style section, which published Malka’s story on polyamory.
All the while, Malka worked on personal projects and pursued exhibition opportunities. In 2018, she was able to quit assisting, and is currently working on a book of images taken on the kibbutz in Israel where her grandparents raised her father. She looks forward to more assigned editorial work, which opens up other worlds she might not otherwise have discovered, and to continuing to make intimate connections both with the people she photographs, and with people in the creative industry.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “It’s rare to feel like I’m accomplishing what I want in both my professional and personal work. I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever overcome. Being an artist is a full-time job and shooting editorial and commercial work involves a lot of thought and planning and time. It’s a constant balancing act.”
BORN: Bronx, New York
EDUCATION: Pratt Institute
Like many art school students, Kelsey McClellan graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design with student loan debt. She was fortunate enough to land a job as visual lead with Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a chain of national ice cream shops founded by Jeni Britton Bauer that is based in Columbus, Ohio. “Jeni basically let me do whatever I wanted,” McClellan says, noting the job also paid well.
When Bauer wrote her first cookbook, she insisted that McClellan take the photographs. She was the first of many who believed in McClellan’s unique, color-infused and surreal take on portrait and still-life photography.
Her images are so delightful that they’re almost mystical,” observes Aeriel Brown, the Photo Director at Bloomberg Businessweek, who has worked with McClellan since 2018. “Her portraits are so quirky, and lively. They have such great energy.”
McClellan was still in-house at Jeni’s when Amy Kellner, who is now Senior Photo Editor for The New York Times Magazine, emailed her and said she liked a portrait of Jeni that McClellan had taken for Cherry Bombe. “I think I almost passed out when I got that email!” McClellan laughs. A year later she went to New York and met Kellner, who suggested McClellan move to a major market to continue her career. In 2015, McClellan packed her bags, and moved to San Francisco.
McClellan freelanced for publications including Lucky Peach, The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, while also working as a staff photographer for men’s apparel brand Unionmade. In 2018, she won a One Club Young Guns award, which lead to representation from Levine/Leavitt, an international management agency. Since, she has shot for clients including Apple, Chipotle and Häagen-Dazs. In 2019, she quit her job at Unionmade, and began focusing on her freelance career full-time.
Vital to McClellan’s practice is collaboration, especially with Michelle Maguire, whom she met while working at Jeni’s. Together, they work under the name Terrence Caviar to create pop-infused, highly stylized images for both themselves, and for clients including Bon Appétit, WIRED, Converse and Zappos. “I think personal work matters more than anything,” says McClellan. “Having absolute freedom in making exactly what you want is so fun and rewarding, and then editors or art directors see your work, and hope you can do something similar for them.”
BORN: Fort Hood, Texas
RESIDES: San Francisco
of Art and Design
BEST ADVICE: “When Amy Kellner at The New York Times Magazine told me to get out of Ohio!”
JUDGES + NOMINATORS
Meron Menghistab took his first photography class because he figured it would be an easy A. It was the quiet intimacy of the darkroom that captured his imagination and turned it into something more. By the time he was a senior in his Seattle high school, Menghistab had already decided he wanted to be a photographer, but he was more interested in learning technical skills than going to art school.
He decided to go to Rochester Institute of Technology. “The fact that they put a camera in your hand the first day appealed to me,” Menghistab says. “I really wanted to learn the literal craft of photography, because I felt that was the best way to secure a career. The technical background I came into the industry with made me feel comfortable on set.”
The east coast was a world away from the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and the tight-knit Eritrean-American community in which he grew up, but Menghistab felt that as a young Black photographer you had to be in New York or Los Angeles if you wanted to have a shot, so he stuck in out. He interned at The Source magazine and moved to New York City after graduation. Once there, his approach to getting a foot in the door was an exercise of sheer will.
“I would go to Barnes & Noble, look through all the magazines I liked, write down the name of every photographer, go back home, find them online and email them,” he laughs. Those cold emails gradually led to assisting positions. Once he had an income base, Menghistab took the same persistent approach to contacting editors. All the while, he constantly built on his personal work so that there was something to show prospective clients besides editorial stuff they might have already seen.
There have been splashy moments, like the American Photography award for a Trevor Noah feature that Menghistab shot for VICE, but he attributes his success to grinding the details: meeting people and forming personal connections; communicating effectively; and leaving a “trail of thank yous” wherever he goes.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Most editors, publications, and commercial clients that were considered the pinnacles of success in this industry hired one Black photographer a year, at most, till about a few months ago. Luckily there are some attempts to correct this obscenely homogenized industry…but it made starting a career very difficult."
BORN: Atlanta, Georgia
RESIDES: New York City and Seattle, Washington
Houston, Texas-based photojournalist Go Nakamura took the scenic route to his chosen profession. Nakamura was 28 years old when he got a job as a wedding photographer in Hawaii only to make a startling discovery: photographing people made him extremely anxious!
“I do not know why but I got very nervous, especially when the subject looked straight at my lens,” Nakamura remembers. Nakamura pushed past his fear and fell in love with the camera in the process.
Four years later, Nakamura moved to New York City determined to become a photojournalist, but with no idea how. He spent a couple of years struggling before a friend introduced him to veteran photojournalist John Roca.
“I asked him a bunch of questions, and then later I emailed and asked if I could ride along while he was working,” Nakamura recalls. Roca agreed, and Nakamura shadowed him, making his own pictures. Nakamura would send his work to local editors, and though it was rare that the publications actually used Nakamura’s images, the editors got used to seeing his name. After about 10 months, Roca introduced Nakamura to an editor at New York Daily News. They took Nakamura on as a stringer and he never looked back.
As his career progressed, Nakamura moved beyond local news by paying his own way to report on stories abroad. In 2016, for instance, he went to Iraqi Kurdistan to photograph the Peshmerga. And in 2018, he flew to Mexico in order to photograph the migrant caravan winding its way towards the U.S. border.
“I flew into Mexico City with no assignment because I knew it is hard to get an assignment abroad unless you are a famous photographer, or you have very good relationships with international editors and they trust you very much,” he explains. But he emailed editors once he touched down, and secured an assignment from Reuters. The trip turned into his first significant international story, and it also captured his imagination. In 2019 he moved to Texas in order to be better able to tell stories surrounding migration at the United States southern border.
Despite his own circuitous journey, Nakamura advises aspiring photographers to consider going to photography school. “It’s not just about learning photography, it’s about meeting people.”
BEST ADVICE: “I very much admire Q. Sakamaki, a Japanese documentary photographer. He told me if I keep shooting from only a news point of view, I will hit a big wall soon, because anyone can make those photographs if you are trained. He also told me, always have my own point of view, and make conceptual photographs.”
BORN: Oita, Japan
RESIDES: Houston, Texas
Finding out about Flickr was a blessing for Laurence Philomène —it was there that the Montreal-based photographer found a community of peers and young artists such as Olivia Bee and Michael Bailey-Gates, who influenced Philomène ’s creative path greatly: “We all had different ways of documenting and interpreting our lives as teenagers through photography that still inform the work I make today,” says Philomène. Through the Flickr “20 under 20” exhibition, Philomene won a mentorship with Ivan Shaw, a former Vogue photo editor, and this year they are taking part in the Women Photograph mentorship class through 2020.
Their Women Photograph mentors, photographer Annie Flanagan and photo editor Emily Keegin, taught Philomène how to “edit, sequence and prioritize [their] work.” Philomène’s series “Puberty” is an intimate, self-portrait project on the process of undergoing hormonal replacement therapy that aims to humanize trans experiences. “There’s a lot of freedom in deciding what moments I’m photographing as I have access to myself 24/7,” Philomène explains. “There’s a lot more space for vulnerability.”
They have come to understand the significance of their series "Puberty" more “in retrospect” as they have shared it, they explain, and they see it eventually “going in museums, books, and in the canon of queer and trans photography.” Yoffy Press will publish a book of the series next year.
Working on long-term projects, especially self-portraits, can be daunting,
and Philomene points out that “motivation and isolation tend to be [their] biggest challenges.” However, they have learned how to use living in a smaller city to their advantage, and selling prints and postcards of their work at art fairs helped them grow their network. “In Montreal, where the market isn’t flooded with as many photographers”, Philomène says, “I’m able to blend my commercial and personal practice and get hired by brands to create my art.” Philomène wants to continue looking at mutual care in the trans community: “I’ll always prioritize making personal work above all, because this is what will make me stand out and, ultimately, get
me hired to do the work I want to be doing.”
KEY LESSON: “Trust in the process, and know that every seed you plant, whether it’s sharing your work online, connecting with an editor, etcetera, adds up over time.”
BORN: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Growing up in the Philippines, Rozette Rago was obsessed with Western pop culture. “I realize now, as an adult, that the American films I loved had barely any Asian characters,” she says. In her work, she tries to re-tell the stories she loves in ways that are more inclusive. For example, in a story that ran in The New York Times in September of 2019, Rago re-created stills from movies including Reality Bites and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind using Asian models. “The photography industry has changed so much in the past decade, and I hope I can continue to tell the stories that are important to me,” Rago says.
Rago arrived in Los Angeles in 2011 to attend a film program at the New York Film Academy. She struggled to find paid work, and instead offered to photograph bands for free for a local music blog. That afforded her access to bands such as U2, Interpol and Metallica, and helped her build a book. Then she leveraged her portfolio to get a job as a photo editor at Time Out Los Angeles. For the past three years, she’s been a photo editor at Wirecutter. The jobs paid her a steady salary, and gave her time to work on personal projects, including a series on UFO hunters in Los Angeles. “I feel lucky to have taken this weird path,” she says. “It’s landed me exactly where I want to be.”
Today, Rago photographs regularly for The New York Times, and also on assignments for The Washington Post and Bloomberg Businessweek, among other publications. “Rozette is one of those photographers who elevates the ordinary,” says Jolie Ruben, Culture Photo Editor at The Times. “She can photograph Kanye West performing at Coachella, and despite the mayhem of it all, be in exactly the right spots at the right moments, making the most striking images. But she can also be assigned to shoot a blank wall and somehow make a great photo.”
Rago credits a lot of her success with networking with other women in the industry. She’s a member of groups including Authority Collective, Women Photograph and Diversify Photo. “They’ve helped so many editors find my work,” she says.
At the beginning of 2020, Rago was considering a full-time career as a freelance photographer. Now, she’s happy she has steady income from Wirecutter in such a tumultuous time. When she can, Rago wants to resume a personal project about Asian grandmothers inspired by The Farewell. “I want to fill imagery with beautiful Asian faces,” she says.
BORN: Bulcan, Philippines
RESIDES: Los Angeles
De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines
KEY LESSON: “On the more practical side, I just became an LLC, and set up a separate bank account for my business. People should think about doing that early on.”
Kayla Reefer is a photographer, and a talented one at that, but she sees more when she looks in the mirror. A budding clothing designer; a cinematographer whose 2019 short film “Under Bone” made the festival rounds; an entrepreneur who runs two apparel companies all while managing the aforementioned photography career. As befitting her Afro-Panamanian, first generation American, and Queer Latinx background, Reefer contains multitudes.
Born in Lancaster, California, Reefer moved often as a child, including time spent in her parents’ native Panama. She wanted to be a filmmaker and picked up photography thinking it a logical (and affordable) starting point for an aspiring director. Instagram was in its infancy, and Reefer’s artistic trajectory reflects how she has grown with the platform. “I started out photographing cityscapes and city nightlife when I began photography,” she recalls. “I’d head out to downtown late at night after work or on weekends. On off days I’d be at the beach just photographing anything and everything to actually photographing people, music performances, festivals with artist portraits in between.”
It was through that scene that Reefer got her first paid work shooting stories for a local music magazine. That position brought her into the orbit of rapper Talib Kweli, and sensing an opportunity, Reefer pitched the idea of her documenting his upcoming 30-city tour. Kweli agreed and six weeks later Reefer hopped off the tour bus with her first gig in the can. She hasn’t stopped freelancing since. A tour with jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington followed, and Reefer’s networks in the Los Angeles arts community began to grow.
Her first big photojournalism assignment came in 2018 when Morrigan McCarthy, a National Picture Editor at The New York Times, hired her to cover the tragic shooting of a teenager by the LAPD. It was the type of work that opened the door to new opportunities, and taught Reefer a valuable lesson. “It was helpful because it gave me the first opportunity to trust my instincts. I didn’t have any real reference point for how to approach this work, so I approached making the images the same way I always do, as a fly on the wall,” Reefer says. It’s one of the reasons that she thinks trusting your instincts is one of the most important pieces of advice she can offer aspiring creatives.
BORN: Lancaster, CA
RESIDES: Los Angeles
KEY LESSON: “Be assertive. It’s okay to state what you’re comfortable shooting or not shooting. With that comes learning how to say no. If you say yes to everything, you won’t give yourself enough time [for] assignments you actually want when they come along.”
Celeste Sloman wants her photographs to reference the work of master photographers such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Annie Leibovitz, while still being completely her own. Her ability to nod to what has come before without imitating it has helped define her career thus far. “Celeste has developed her style, which is very classic,” says photographer Joe Pugliese, one of her mentors. “But her point of view is so refreshingly coherent and strong.”
Sloman graduated from the University of St. Andrews with a master’s degree in art history in 2013, and immediately began interning for Mary Ellen Mark. After the internship ended, she shot features for The Village Voice, the now defunct publication that Sloman, who grew up in New York City’s East Village, worshipped during her childhood.
Though her father is a photographer, she learned most of her technique through trial and error on the job, and from friends in the industry. Sloman has used Instagram to connect with other photographers, including Pugliese. Once they developed a friendship, Pugliese recommended Sloman to clients and to agent Howard Bernstein, who signed Sloman to his agency, Atrbute, in 2019. “In her, I saw this old school approach that involves taking a lot of assignments, working hard, and sorting out your style as it happens,” says Pugliese.
Sloman has worked steadily for the past five years, for clients including TIME, Elle Magazine, Variety, The Wall Street Journal and Der Spiegel. She photographed a portfolio featuring women in the 116th Congress for The New York Times. But her big break, she says, was an assignment for National Geographic to create portraits marking the centennial of the women’s suffrage movement. The work appeared in the August 2020 issue of the magazine. “National Geographic is a publication I hugely admire, and to be able to do a historic project for them was incredible,” she says.
Part of her role as a portrait photographer, Sloman says, is to make the people in front of her camera feel comfortable and safe. “Having your portrait taken is a hugely vulnerable experience,” she explains. “I make sure to tell my subjects that I’m watching out for them.”
During the pandemic, Sloman has stayed busy photographing everything from Black Lives Matter protests to her younger brother, who is her favorite collaborator for personal projects. “I’m excited to make some work that’s more fine art,” Sloman says of the future. “I just want to keep growing in all different dimensions.”
New York City
University of St. Andrews, Scotland
KEY LESSON: “Mistakes are often made when you try to do someone else’s work, or fit into a trend. I make my best work when I’m honest with myself and the people I photograph.”
Heather Sten likes to take a slow approach to photography—it’s comforting for her when she shoots on film. “I enjoy talking to the person I’m photographing, taking in their physical space, their wardrobe,” she says, “and I try to get inspired by them being themselves.” A first-generation Vietnamese-American, Sten particularly apprecaites photographing people who have never really felt seen. “I think there’s a significant potency in being photographed, and it’s my job to help make that person feel powerful in their skin.”
Her first big assignments happened a week apart from one another: Lena Waithe for TIME and John Krasinski for The New York Times. They were her first celebrity subjects, shoots that she feels pinned her on the map for editors she hadn’t met. TIME hired her after she showed an editor her portfolio. She got her opportunity at The Times, she says, by sending “almost every photo editor there a promo with a handwritten note and emailing them constantly.”
Last year, Sten photographed Charlotte Nebres, who broke barriers as the first Black ballerina to star as “Marie” in the New York City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. The year before, it was a pregnant Amy Schumer running outside in the nude. And more recently, in addition to healthcare workers, The Times had her focus on playwrights of Asian descent whose productions were cancelled due to the pandemic, amid anti-Asian discrimination.
Sten says one key to her early career has been learning to balance being a nice person and standing her ground when she needs to. It’s been challenging to learn to say no, for instance, and to ask clients for more money. “Saying no is a huge privilege, but sometimes it will get you more work that will serve you,” Sten explains. “Being a person of color and a woman in this industry, I’ve sometimes been made to feel like I should feel lucky to get work at all, which was oftentimes underpaid. Asking for more money should be the norm—to ask someone to give what you believe is your worth is existential and necessary all at once.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: ”Time management is a tough one. I put myself in too deep on anything I work on. And sometimes that makes me forget about eating, taking care of my body, my mental health or spending time with my partner. That’s something that I’m actively trying to be more cognizant of.”
Art Center College
When Caroline Tompkins left her full-time job at Bloomberg Businessweek in 2019, it was, she admits, “a scary jump.” She had struggled for months with the confidence to take the leap, but working as a photo editor for five years taught her a lot, including which missteps to avoid once she was behind the camera herself. “One of the biggest challenges I see photographers grapple with is communication—communicating your needs, your expenses, the challenges you face during the shoot,” says Tompkins. “Communicating those concerns [to your client] builds confidence in both parties,” she adds.
In an industry that can challenge one’s feelings of self-worth, she has learned to separate her personal work from the photographs she takes for money. “As a photo editor, I know that hiring can be somewhat arbitrary at times,” she explains, so it’s not “a personal attack” if an editor offers you an assignment that does not necessarily match your understanding of yourself and your work. Tompkins also understands how pitching can lead to assignments that match her own interests. For example, her first editorial assignment came from pitching a story about the Westminster Dog Show to Elizabeth Renstrom when she was at VICE in 2016. Since then, she has landed a diverse range of commissions from numerous pitches, from mushroom hunting in the Czech Republic to shooting for the brand Eckhaus Latta. “The craft behind building a visual narrative, in an editorial context, is no easy feat,” says Eve Lyons, Photo Editor of The New York Times' Style section. “I can always count on Caroline to tell the part of the story that only photographs can capture, and in a beautiful way at that. Her versatility never ceases to amaze me, she brings a unique perspective to every situation and as a photo editor, achieving that goal with a photographer is what makes my job rewarding.”
Tompkins, who has been working on a personal body of work she’s hoping to make into a book, is interested in the ways in which “women, specifically heterosexual women, grapple with desiring men while also fearing them.” She’s hoping to find an agency that can nurture her and help her be strategic about her future. “My biggest goal on shoots lately is to find a way to surprise myself,” she says. “If I feel like I’m innovating, I’m usually in a good place.”
BORN: Cincinnati, Ohio
School of Visual
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “You can lose yourself in what you think the job or the industry wants, and it’s been difficult learning how to navigate the mental gymnastics of this industry.”
As a boy, Vincent Tullo cherished trips to the circus with his mother and siblings. “Bodies soared through the air, horses galloped in synchronized formations, and clowns frolicked around as they toyed with the audience,” he recalls. “It left everyone in awe.” Little did Tullo know, the experience would later play a major role in shaping his photography career.
After graduating from Fashion Institute of Technology with a BFA in photography, Tullo followed The Big Apple Circus around for its last performances before it went out of business. He published Inside the Tent, a small book of the personal project, in 2016 with the help of friend and publisher Ricardo Lozano. Tullo’s photographs of the big show are cinematic black-and-white compositions full of breathtaking shadow and light. He sold the book at the New York Art Book Fair, and then The New York Times licensed the story, which led to frequent assignments for the newspaper.
“Vincent’s work really stood out when I first started working with him; it had a unique quality,” recalls New York Times Photo Editor Laura O’Neill. I came to realize this quality as a love of seeing. It’s the only way I can describe it. The joy of seeing and sense of exploration comes through in his work, image after image.”
Over the past two years, Tullo has moved away from documentary work and shifed his attention to portraiture. He’s also gotten over his strong aversion to color photography. “For years, I only shot black-and-white film and printed my images in the darkroom,” he says. But editors kept encouraging him to start making images in color. “I realized I was holding myself back by limiting myself to a specific aesthetic that isn’t always in the most demand with clients,” Tullo explains. “Now my work consists mainly of color images. That being said, I still have a huge soft spot in my heart for traditional black-and-white darkroom printing, and I often think about it when editing my digital images.”
KEY LESSON: “Be persistent. This is something that I cannot stress enough, and it applies to all aspects of building a career in the photo industry. When you email people, make sure to always send follow ups if you don't get a response at first. When you are trying to make a picture a certain way and it doesn't work out the first dozen times, continue to push forward until it works.“
New York City
One morning, photographer Joseph Rodriguez told Gioncarlo Valentine that “it takes 10 years to be a photographer” and that he shouldn’t “let anyone tell me different,” Valentine recalls. It was a lesson about the commitment one needs to build a creative career. Valentine, who has been working professionally for three years, has been taking photographs for almost a decade. “I’ve made a lot of work I’m proud of, but I still don’t have some of the answers, and I’m still learning, every day,” he says.
Informed by his seven years of social work experience, Valentine’s photographs focus on marginalized populations and the Black community. “I’m not working on a lot of series, so my subject matter is my community and my style is rooted in minimalist, classical portraits” says Valentine. Although he’s “not one for promoting [himself],” Valentine got his first big assignment in 2017 when photographer Brad Ogbonna recommended him to photo editor Andrea Wise, who was working at Newsweek. “I just needed someone to take a chance on me, and I’m happy they did,” says Valentine, who was commissioned to photograph painter Faith Ringgold for the magazine.
Although he was understandably nervous before meeting her, he quickly realized that photographing celebrities is similar to photographing people on the street: “The pageantry aside, you have to have a clear vision, a gentle hand and a love for the bigger picture of your work,” says Valentine, who takes pride in making honest portraits that celebrate and honor a person’s beauty.
Valentine is working hard to build up his assignment work and take on bigger jobs, while staying true to his set of morals and dedicated to his community. A gifted writer, he is also thinking about different ways to grow as an artist and branch out beyond photography. “I want to have eras as a photographer,” he says. “I want to be photographing my favorite musicians on tour as well as helping people to tell their nuanced stories. I want to publish a memoir, write a script, and start a column at a publication I love. I want to do a lot with this short life.”
BORN: Baltimore, MD
RESIDES: Harlem, NY
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “ I’m very protective of my work and want to do it all, but in order to rise to the occasion of bigger jobs, I’ve had to learn to loosen my grip, even in small ways. It’s an ongoing struggle.”
Rana Young says she is inspired by the complexity of gender performance and being raised by a single father. She recognized early on that photography represented more traditional notions of familial “wholeness,” which pushed her to explore her own reality and alternative structures—the ones she didn’t see depicted in popular media when she was growing up. In her breakthrough series “The Rug’s Topography,” for example, Young ruminates on her shifting relationship with her former partner. Through collaborative portraits, the images consider their expectations of romance as their gender identities evolved and the couple began to grow apart. Kris Graves Projects published the series, Young’s first monograph, in 2019.
It wasn’t until her final year as a studio art major at Portland State University that Young felt she could pursue photography—she did not think she knew enough about the potential career paths. But during an internship at Portland, Oregon’s Blue Sky Gallery, she was able to learn from other artists, and the possibilities became easier to grasp. “I researched every artist exhibited during that year,” Young recalls. “I read their CVs, listened to their gallery talks, read their artist statements, etcetera—and synthesized from their various career trajectories what I wanted for my career.” Young decided to pursue her MFA at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, which pushed her creative and intellectual limits and gave her the resources, time, and space to shape her practice.
Young exhibits her work around the world and has been published in VICE, British Journal of Photography, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.
Now an educator herself, Young passes her experiences along to her students, and also shares knowledge through her work with PHOTO-EMPHASIS, a platform she co-founded with Alec Kaus in 2017 to highlight and help up-and-coming photographers. “What I seek or don't for my career is directed by access to knowing the possibilities,” Young says. “I aim to pay forward such a gift!
BEST ADVICE: “My dad encourages me to tirelessly ask myself: What do I think I know, and why do I think I know it?”
BFA Portland State University, MFA University of Nebraska
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