“I look back and think I was so naive. But I actually treasure that I had that opportunity to be naive about it. It was beautiful … There was a freedom to not knowing how intense the pressure can be.”
Amy Toensing, an American photojournalist committed to telling stories with sensitivity and depth, is known for her intimate essays about the lives of ordinary people.
Toensing has been a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine for over a decade and recently completed her fifteenth feature story for them. She has covered cultures around the world including the last cave dwelling tribe of Papua New Guinea, the Maori of New Zealand and the Kingdom of Tonga. She has also covered issues such as the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and Muslim women living in Western culture. For 4 years she documented Aboriginal Australia which was published in the June, 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Toensing’s work has been exhibited throughout the world and recognized with numerous awards, including an exhibit at the 2012 Visa Pour L’image, Festival of the Photograph in Perpignan France. Her work has also appeared in Smithsonian, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time Magazine, and National Geographic Traveler. A photograph she took in the Australian outback was chosen as one of National Geographic magazine’s all time 50 Best Photos. Toensing began her professional career in 1994 as a staff photographer at her hometown paper, The Valley News, in New Hampshire. She then worked for The New York Times, Washington D.C. bureau covering the White House and Capitol Hill during the Clinton administration. In 1998, Toensing left D.C. to receive her Master’s Degree from the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University.
In addition to her photojournalism work, Toensing is committed to teaching photography to kids and young adults in underserved communities. This includes working with the non-profit organization VisionWorkshops on numerous projects including teaching photography to Somali and Sudanese refugees in Maine, Burmese refugees in Baltimore, young Pakistanis in Islamabad and children and adults in South Sudan and Jordan.
Toensing lives in the Hudson Valley of New York with her husband Matt Moyer, who is also a photojournalist.
“Everything for me has humanity in it. Even if I’m doing a story on the drought. What’s the human impact? I’m always looking for the humanity in every story.”
On developing as a photographer
“I look back and think I was so naive. But I actually treasure that I had that opportunity to be naive about it. It was beautiful.”
“There was a freedom to not knowing how intense the pressure can be.”
“I try really hard to acknowledge how wonderful it’s been when I have opened up myself to different ways of seeing things. I’ve always been rewarded when I do that.”
“The most beautiful thing about photography is that I’m always rewarded when I put in the time. I think that’s a really wonderful life lesson that I don’t think I’m very good at applying to everything in my life. But I do know with photography that I really trust that – it’s about being present, being there, and giving the time to somebody or something.”
“One way that I’ve been most shaped by another person is when they’re pulling images out that I took, but I didn’t even see it, and it’s like they’re pulling things out of me that I didn’t even know I had. I think that’s probably the strongest way you can teach somebody, because you’re not saying ‘well you should go out and do this and that and you should approach it this way’. You’re actually finding things within them and celebrating them.”
“Whoever we work for, there’s always these pressures, and the real goal is to keep all those voices out and stay true to your artist’s voices.”
“I think the biggest challenge for a photographer is cultivating their instinct to know when you’re in the right spot and when you’re not, and when its time to leave or time to stay.”
“That’s the really, really hard thing, with our work; how do you take information and then get it to a photograph, but in some sort of beautiful, visual way? That’s hard. How do you get your camera out of the way?”
On advice for aspiring photographers
“I wouldn’t encourage people to go straight through and study photography. It’s like writing. What are you going to say?”
“I love teaching, and it also gives me a break from myself and my work. I think that it’s a really great challenge. To try to frame things and get outside of your head to explain your own process.”
“One thing I love the most when I’m doing some of the workshops, especially the National Geographic photo camp, is editing. I really love working with the kids, but I really love just looking at other people’s work. I find that really like a psychological study.”
On shooting for National Geographic
“I think my first few stories at Geographic, I was probably, to a fault, not acknowledging what the formula is for a Geographic story.”