What It's Like....To Be a Freelance Photo Journalist for National Geographic

Amy Toensing has been a professional photographer since 1994. She has provided content for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and National Geographic.  She has traveled around the world, shooting stories across Australia, India, Africa, Puerto Rico, the island of Tonga, and at home in the United States.  Amy looks into the lives of ordinary people, and with her camera, finds something special.  She is currently working on her 13th story for National Geographic in Australia. In spite of her demanding schedule, Amy (very graciously) sat down with me for a couple hours, and shared her journey.  This celebrated photographer speaks about the realities of an often glorified industry, and how photography is the art that makes her feel 'connected to the world.'

Amy Toensing

I Am: a Freelance Photo Journalist, as well as a National Geographic Contributing Photographer.

I have been working towards this since: 1994.

Originally, I received a degree in Human Ecology, where my main focus was Anthropology and Sociology.  Towards the end of my degree, I took a photography class and attended a storytelling program called Salt, in Maine.  I shot a story on ‘migrant broccoli pickers’ that actually won an award for College Photographer of the Year for documentary work.  I was 24 years old.

After graduation, I worked as a waitress and shot part-time for the local newspaper.  Then, because of the broccoli pickers story I did, I was picked for the Eddie Adams Workshop. This is a prestigious 4-day intense photography experience, where top photographers from around the U.S, mentor 100 up-and-coming photographers.  We teamed up with professionals from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and National Geographic.  My team leader was Nancy Lee, the Director of Photography for the New York Times. For those four days, we lived and breathed photography.

During one of our frantic shooting assignments, our car battery died on the way to the shoot!  Luckily, we were parked on a hill and I knew how to push-start.  It didn’t take long, and we were on our way again; after that, my NYT editor definitely remembered me!

After the workshop, Nancy Lee gave me a few assignments and also asked me to do some work in their Washington DC bureau while I was there visiting my family. Once there, they asked me to stay for a month and help out managing the office.  It was tough, as I had been offered a full time shooting job at my local paper, but in the end I decided to move to Washington.  I covered the White House and Capitol Hill for 4 years before heading back to school, this time on scholarship to receive my master’s degree at Ohio University.  It was here that I had a photography internship at National Geographic.

While interning at Nat Geo, I was encouraged by Susan Smith, the Deputy Director of Photography to submit a story idea for a shoot.  I was one of the lucky interns who actually got the green light, and not only did they let me shoot it, they published it!

I have been full-on freelance since 1999, and am now on my 13th story for National Geographic.  I have also shot for publications such as Time Magazine, Newsweek, the Boston Globe and the New York Times, and do some commercial work.

My responsibilities include:

As a freelancer, I run a business.  This includes accounting, organizing, and marketing myself in order to get more jobs.  Once I have a job, I research the story, map it, and organize the logistics of the shoot; transportation, accommodation, budget and most importantly - I decide where and how to tell my story.  After the shoot, comes all the post-production: ingesting, editing, model releases, and archiving.  I keep 3 copies of each file as backup.

What I love about it:

Photography is the thing that drives me; it’s the art that makes me feel connected to the world.  The act of taking pictures makes me feel centered and good.  Also, something that I love about National Geographic is that hire photographers based on their own personal style; they hire you to be you.

What I hate about it:

I hate the stress that comes with the job.  It’s a battle to keep both the business side and the art side of photography balanced.  As a freelancer, you’re always thinking about where and when your next job is going to come.  Plus, if you’re not in the shooting ‘zone,’ it’s hard to force creativity.  But it’s essential that I find ways to establish a creative environment for myself on every assignment.

Common misconceptions about my work:

I have one of the most misunderstood jobs in the world!  People think that photography is amazing, glorious, and romantic, and that all I do is travel around the world and take pretty pictures - but there’s nothing easy about it!  Photography is not a job - it’s a lifestyle and a huge commitment.  It’s hard work, extremely competitive and not very well paid.  But it’s amazing, fulfilling, and incredibly rewarding.

Is there a special moment that stands out in your career?

There is honestly a special moment on every assignment, and that’s why I’m a photographer.  I get to be in people’s home and share some of their most special moments. I get to witness humanity from the front row. It’s such a wonderfully rewarding career.

Advice to those interested in a career like mine:

It’s a tough time for the freelance photography industry, but I would never steer someone away because of that. If you have a connection with photography, follow your heart.  However, I would tell people to be realistic; it’s going to be hard work, and you have to realize that photography is more of a lifestyle than a job.

Lessons to Learn

These days with digital photography, anyone can pick up a camera and shoot, but in order to be a successful photojournalist you still have to be skilled at telling a story with your images. That’s entirely different than simply taking good pictures. You also have to be good at thinking on your feet, working with people, traveling in difficult places and most important, you need to have a unique way of seeing the world which shows in your images.

To see more of Amy Toensing's images, visit www.amytoensing.com