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. A regular contributor to National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler magazines for years, her work has been exhibited throughout the world and recognized with numerous awards.
Toensing’s assignments have also taken her all around the world. She has covered stories from places close to home—Maine, the Jersey Shore—to places on the other side of the globe, including the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea and the Australian outback. To be sure, traveling has made its mark on the award-winning photographer, and now she shares what she’s learned along the way.
Here’s a look at the world through Amy Toensing’s unique lens:
Leslie Trew Magraw: Where do you call home? Why, out of every place in the world, do you choose to make your home there?
Only 100 miles from New York City, it’s the rock-climbing epicenter of the American Northeast, close to mountains, trails, and swimming holes. We live to be outside.
LTM: You recently shot a National Geographic Traveler feature story about America’s last, best beach towns, which was centered around Orleans, Massachusetts, Manzanita, Oregon, and Boca Grande, Florida. Do you have a personal connection to any of these places?
AT: My husband’s aunt and uncle live in Orleans.
Orleans is a place where people have really invested in the community, and so experiencing it with our family was a perfect, real connection. Everyone in town knows them, and his uncle took us out at sunrise to get shots of the day’s first light.
We also went to outer beaches where locals hang out and barbecue clams. Watching many generations play together in the surf was beautiful.
LTM: Can you remember any memorable moments from the shoot there?
AT: I’m still laughing about a lunch I had at the Land Ho! restaurant in Orleans. The “hangover cure” tradition here is to order “a bloody and a stuffy,” which admittedly sounds pretty gross but is a bloody Mary and an incredible stuffed clam.
LTM: Have you been on any assignments since then?
AT: Most recently I photographed Aboriginal Australia for a National Geographic feature as well as for a forthcoming book. I’m excited to share these people’s deep and profound connection to the land.
LTM: How long were you there?
AT: That was a lot of trips. I worked on it over four years. I guess it amounted to a couple of months, probably. And I’ve gone back since the story was published, too. I just got off the phone this morning with two friends I made working on this assignment about trying to do something else. It’s kind of become part of my life.
It’s a very slow-moving culture; you really have to pitch your tent and stay for things to happen. I was with people for the whole routine of life—breakfast, lunch, dinner, going to sleep and waking up—and that was really a gift.
LTM: How does being on assignment change the way you experience a place?
AT: Being on assignment changes every place. I find it completely forces me to engage in a place in a way I would never engage as a visitor or a tourist. You really have to get under the skin of a place when you’re on assignment, which is hard sometimes. It’s challenging, but it’s wonderful.
LTM: Is there a place in the world that draws you back again and again as a photographer? Why?
AT: There are two places. India is the first. The reason is probably pretty obvious for anybody who’s been there. To me, India has the whole of humanity. It’s got the beautiful, the heartbreaking, there’s a lot of drama, there’s a lot of humor, it’s very colorful, it’s vibrant and alive. India always surprises me. Always.
The second place would be Australia. I don’t know what it is. It’s a place I’ve done a number of stories on for National Geographic, and I find myself wanting to keep expanding on. The landscape is very wild and mysterious. It’s not very populated, so there’s a lot of room to breathe and be. It feels kind of on the other side of the world, which it is.
LTM: In your opinion, what’s the most misunderstood place in the world?
AT: That’s an interesting question. I only have my limited experience with where I’ve traveled, but I would say Pakistan. It’s one of those places that I think many people just write off as radical and forget that there are people there who, just like you and me, are trying to have a good life. When Matt, my husband, and I went there to train young locals in photography, we traveled all over the place [in Islamabad]—city parks, everywhere. People were so welcoming and generous and gracious.
I’m not saying Pakistan doesn’t have security risks for travelers—but it’s more complex than how it’s portrayed from this side of the world. I feel lucky to have had the chance to go there.
LTM: Why is travel important? How has it changed you?
AT: Travel is really important because we, as humans, can get too comfortable in our own little worlds. I think if you don’t meet people in other places, other cultures, [the world] becomes something that you’re ignorant about, and it becomes easier to treat people like “the other,” and that’s dangerous.
When you travel and you share food with people, and learn about their culture, it’s a lot harder to fear or dislike them.
LTM: In your mind, which city has it all?
AT: Portland, Maine. In the last decade, they’ve had a large influx of African refugees, and before that immigrants from Asia, so it’s this incredibly diverse city with different cultures and foods. In addition to the international diversity in Portland, it has the distinct culture and landscape of Maine. It’s beautiful and interesting on many levels.
LTM: Are there any must-go places in Portland that you can recommend?
AT: Becky’s Diner is a great place. It’s this classic Maine diner, and if you get there really early in the morning, you can be around the lobstermen.
There’s also a great place on the wharf called Harbor Fish Market where you can go get lobster and mussels and take them home and cook them.
LTM: What do you never leave home without while you’re on the road? Obviously, your camera…
AT: A Petzl headlamp. I’m always in a new place and find myself in situations where there isn’t a lot of light; I might end up camping somewhere or having to sleep on the floor. When you’re sleeping in some random place you don’t always know where the lights are! I actually keep it in my toiletry bag. If you’re in a new place you know that that’s your light and you can get to it.
Of course, as a photographer you can put it on your head and work your gear if you’re shooting at night.
LTM: Speaking of, what made you want to become a photographer?
AT: I didn’t want to become one; it just kind of fit. It was just really natural to use a camera; it felt very second-skin to me. It’s such a cliché, but it’s a passport to anywhere and everywhere.
In a weird way, [being a photographer] engages me in the world more and sometimes it disengages me in the world as well.
It engages me because it allows me to freeze the fleeting moments of life and celebrate them in a still image. But then sometimes you feel like you’re not getting to engage in life if you’re always [behind the camera]. After being on assignment for a while, I just want to put it down. Instead of photographing somebody doing something, I want to be doing it.
LTM: Good travel photography captures the true essence of a place. How do you connect with locals and seek out authentic experiences when you’re out in the field?
AT: Doing your research is important when you’re coming to a place and want to engage with it. It’s not like you have to be an expert on a place, but it helps to do some research about it before you get there, so you know what questions to ask that might get you to a deeper understanding. That gets the conversation going.
I find that the depth of my perceptions about a place informs how I’m visually documenting it. It truly does help to understand a place better, to learn and know about it. I think you can honor a place more when it comes to getting the pictures; you see it. So if you know something specific is important, when it walks in front of you or it’s on the street you know “Hey, that’s an important picture for this place.”
It’s an investment. You have to cultivate a relationship with that place and the people that are in it. And the more you know about those things, the more you honor that relationship, and the more it will give back to you.
Katie Knorovsky, associate editor at National Geographic Traveler, also contributed reporting for this piece. Connect with her on Twitter @TravKatieK.