Best of 2014 Honoree: Toni Greaves

by | Aug 7, 2015 | Best of 2014

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Portland, OR

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Toni Greaves has always been interested in storytelling. “Visual narrative is part of my DNA,” she says. Her documentary assignment work and her long-term personal projects often explore themes of ritual, spirituality, community and healing. Greaves has a deep curiosity for how connection and identity are found and formed within these havens.


© Toni Greaves


“I’m interested in stories that touch a very personal level, which I hope can build bridges of understanding,” she says. “Being exposed to positive stories enriches our lives. Perhaps on some tiny scale, this can influence the way we exist in the world. I think there is power to that.”

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ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Toni Greaves: Seven years.

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP in 2009?

TG: I was interested in the educational aspect of learning more about building a photography business, along with being curious about connecting with the photo community here in Portland. I was actually also a Merit Member my first year with ASMP, due to being named one of PDN’s “30 Emerging Photographers to Watch” in 2009.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

TG: The education, along with the advocacy and how ASMP works really hard to protect photographers’ rights. I’ve participated in many of the educational programs, both online conference calls and the local lectures and events.

ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?

TG: I’d say the general connections to the ASMP photo community, in Portland and elsewhere. There are several people so it’s hard to prioritize which ones.

ASMP: Do you have a favorite ASMP-related story to share?

TG: At the Palm Springs Photo Festival in 2012, I had the pleasure of meeting former ASMP President Richard Kelly in person, along with national board members Shawn Henry and Jenna Close. I have great memories of spending a bit of time with all three of them after the awards ceremony (where I was fortunate to be the Grand Prize Winner). Those connections are entirely because of ASMP.

ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business?

TG: The way ASMP works so hard to protect photographers’ rights. Also the online conference calls and local educational lectures are great, and very helpful.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

TG: Documentary photography and portraiture for various commercial, editorial, and NGO clients. My work is generally always about storytelling, whether that’s reportage for traditional media outlets or helping commercial clients build diverse image libraries. Also long-term personal projects, which I ultimately launch into the world in one way or another. These can manifest as a book, exhibit, photo-essays that are published in various places … or all of the above.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

TG: My ability to connect with people, often very quickly, and to find the most beautiful images whilst doing so, in any situation.

ASMP: What is unique about your style, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

TG: I’m very low-key about it all. In every commercial shoot I’ve done, someone will typically comment on his or her surprise that I carry so little equipment; compared to other photographers they’ve worked with. But that minimalism is actually part of my toolkit; I prefer to keep things lean and focus on the relationships. I don’t need tons of gear to do a great job, and my (relative) unobtrusiveness is a benefit to the way I can create images.

ASMP: After 14 very successful years in a design career, you decided to pursue your passion and begin a career in photography. How did you arrive at that decision?

TG: Oh, that’s a difficult question to answer succinctly. There was a lot that lead up to that. Long story short is that I made that decision on the two-year anniversary of my mother’s death. It basically comes down to the fact that when you go through something like losing a parent, you look at your life and really question what you’re doing with it. At least I did. After the initial years of tremendous grief, I came to the conclusion that while I’m on this planet I should at least try to reach for whatever I really want to do in life. I mean, what’s to lose, really?

ASMP: What processes did you go through in transitioning from your design career to photography? Did you have any mentors guiding you or influencing your process?

TG: I went back to school. I decided that if I was going to do this, I wanted to give it everything I could, and at least try to be the best that I could be. The International Center of Photography in New York City has the best Documentary Photography & Photojournalism program in the world, so I applied to that program, and was delighted to be accepted. Within that program most of the education is from working professionals who are world-class in their field. So I have lots of mentors. Perhaps too many to mention here, but they’ve all helped guide me in one way or another. I’m immensely grateful to them all, and especially to the ICP program. It was entirely transformative.

ASMP: Your career is based around shooting documentary and portraiture work for commercial, editorial and NGO clients while also pursuing your long-term personal projects. Those personal projects seem to interact with and reflect your commercial work. Please talk about how the two interrelate.

TG: I’d say one thing they have in common is that there’s always a very personal element to the kind of work and perhaps the feeling of the images. The main difference would be spans of time. For my assignment work, I generally have a very short amount of time. For my personal projects I take however long I need, or wish. Many of those projects span years.

ASMP: You mention that storytelling and visual narrative has always been important to you and is part of your DNA. In your opinion, what are the most important aspects to being a good storyteller?

TG: For me, it’s all about sensitivity to the people I’m photographing, and the subject of the story.

ASMP: Your first monograph, Radical Love, which revolves around a young cloistered nun and her community, will be published in 2015 by Chronicle books. How did you first learn about this nun and what interested you about her story? How long have you been working on this project?

TG: I was interested in the idea of spiritual communities and how people find whatever it is that they connect to, beyond our physical bodies. It’s an ongoing interest of mine, and was in response to things I experienced, and wondered about, after my mother’s death. Because of this interest, as I had been discussing it at the time, I was assigned a small half-day editorial assignment at a monastery in New Jersey. My task was to photograph five young women who had all found the monastery via the Internet. I loved being there, and loved being around the nuns.

So, the following week, I approached the Prioress about pursuing this as a long-term project and continuing to photograph periodically. I was, and am, very grateful for their acceptance of me, as it’s a highly unusual thing for them to allow an outsider in. The project started in a general way, about the life of the community, but eventually I ended up focusing on the one young nun, Sister Maria Teresa. Her energy, youth, and vibrancy are what drew me to her story specifically. I’ve now been working on the project, periodically, for six years.

ASMP: Before you begin a long-term project, how much time do you spend researching the subject matter? Does your research give you specific ideas of what you want to capture photographically or do you prefer to let the photography happen organically?

TG: The photography happens very organically, although research helps me understand what I’m seeing, and often what to focus on. There’s no fixed structure in the way I work on personal projects, other than that I photograph a lot, over time.

ASMP: How long do you spend with people after your arrival in a community before you begin photographing? Are there any particular behaviors or actions you employ to put people at ease and gain their trust?

TG: There are no fixed rules. In all cases, it’s simply about honesty of intention, and openness. I’m very open with people in the way I engage with them, and about my life, and I think that’s part of what allows them to feel so comfortable with me. At least, this is what I’ve been told on several occasions.

ASMP: What type of equipment do you shoot with? Do you have certain go-to lenses and cameras that you feel work particularly well for capturing your vision?

TG: I shoot with a Canon 5D mkIII. I use Canon L-Series lenses, primarily the 35mm and 50mm. Lately, though, I’ve been using the 28-70mm a bit more, just for ease of not having to switch out lenses in some situations. But I work with it in a manner like it’s a fixed lens. Meaning, I basically move between 35, 50, and sometimes 28. My legs are my zoom. I move around a lot, I don’t just stand there and zoom my lens.

ASMP: How much time do you typically spend shooting a story on assignment? How does that differ from your personal work?

TG: For assignments, sometimes it’s an hour or three, or maybe even 20 minutes in a situation. Or perhaps a few to several days. It varies widely. For my personal work, I can have projects going on for years. So far, some have been going on for five or six years. But then, I also started a project in 2012 that may end up being a 10 to 20 year project. I tend to have several personal projects in process, and eventually one will rise to the surface, when it feels ready.

ASMP: Your work has taken you to many places and exposed you to many facets of life. What locale has topped your list of favorite experiences and what brought you there?

TG: In 2012, I was in Afghanistan on assignment for Mercy Corps. In 2011, I was in Paraguay on assignment for Outside Magazine. Both places I loved for the sense of unknown in being there. They were each, in their own way, unlike anything I’d experienced before.

ASMP: What has been your favorite project or assignment to date?

TG: I loved being on assignment in Afghanistan for Mercy Corps. I was sent there to photograph their educational programs for women. I also did audio interviews to help them create a multimedia piece that told this story. Mercy Corps’ educational programs in Afghanistan are truly changing lives, and I was extremely impressed with everyone I met there. The other assignment that I loved, equally, was being in rural Nepal for The Gates Foundation. I was helping them tell the story about maternal and infant mortality rates in Nepal, which are pretty dire. The Gates Foundation is doing a tremendous job in helping educate local communities in the region and things are improving. I feel very honored to have worked with both of these amazing organizations.

ASMP: What do you find to be most challenging about doing documentary type work? Conversely what do you find most rewarding about it?

TG: Challenging would be the unpredictable nature. That can also be thrilling, but sometimes it’s just difficult, and you have to work through it. Rewarding, and part of the reason I love this specific discipline of photography, is the relating to people and the building of long-term connections. It’s tremendous fun, and I get myself into situations that I very likely wouldn’t otherwise be in without the photography.

ASMP: You’ve photographed many disparate groups of people and situations. Do you change your approach to the photography based on the situation or do you try to remain consistent in approach?

TG: I’m just the same in every situation. My approach is simply being open, friendly, down-to-earth, and being kind.

ASMP: What types of technical issues have you faced in remote locations?

TG: I once had to retrieve files from a hard-drive archive at home, while working on a personal project in India. I had someone help me with that, and I learned that Dropbox doesn’t work very well when retrieving files whilst in remote locations. I resolved that by deciding that I only needed a very few of the files. Basically, you just learn to compromise sometimes. Like in life. 😉

ASMP: In what ways has your previous career in design influenced your photography?

TG: I think my career in design has helped me a lot in understanding the business side of things with photography. Also, it’s still all visual communication in one way or another, so that carries through in the way I express my work, and communicate about it.

ASMP: You have a very impressive rèsumé of exhibitions; you’ve received numerous awards and have many grants to your name. What strategies or advice do you have for others about how to cultivate opportunities related to these areas?

TG: Just focus on doing great work. It all starts there. That’s the only strategy that I have. That and working on personal projects, because it all begins with doing a great job on personal projects. The rest can follow from that.

ASMP: What one opportunity or award has had the most impact on your career? What awards top your list of future goals?

TG: Being named one of the PDN30 in 2009 was a big deal, and that certainly had an impact. But I also feel fortunate for many other things that have followed, and all of the recognition in general. As for the future, I have a vague idea of things I may enter some day, but honestly, it’s not really about all that. Right now, I’m just thinking about projects that I either want to pursue, or that I’m in the midst of working on. That comes first. I really don’t set about thinking about awards and such. I just want to create great work. If recognition comes from that, then that’s wonderful, but it is in no way my primary goal.

ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?

TG: There’s a quote that I read ages ago from Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey, where he said, “Everything good that ever happened to me was a result of a personal project.” As you can tell from some of my other answers, this resonated deeply with me.

There’s also a quote from Steve Martin, where he says… “Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ … but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ “ So that’s the goal: Be so good they can’t ignore you.

Those are the things that I think about in my work, and business…. Work on personal projects, because everything else comes from that. And in all the photographic projects that I do, I just try my best for the work to be excellent (which I did in my design career too, frankly). In making this career switch, I only did it with the intention that I would try my best to be very very good at it. So that goal is just applied to all my work. It all begins there.

ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?

TG: To study documentary photography at The International Center of Photography. I wouldn’t be where I am now without everything I learned in that program. Which is less about business, frankly, but more about the drive to create excellent work and everything that that takes.

ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

TG: I’d just offer the David Alan Harvey quote previously mentioned (as I always do to photographers starting out), where he says, “Everything good that ever happened to me was a result of a personal project.” Because that has been exactly true for me. Early on, I listened to what David Alan Harvey said, and it’s true. It works.

Also, I’d add, be (genuinely) nice. And grateful. Both go a long way.

ASMP: How do you see your career evolving over the next five years? Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead?

TG: I have some goals for the years ahead, although nothing I’m ready to talk about publically, as yet. I’m very excited for the publish date of my first book, which will be Fall 2015. So that’s the first step, and there will be many things surrounding the launch of that book. So I’ll begin there.