Where are they now?
In the first of a series of interviews with previous winners of the awards, we catch up with Eric Kruszewski, who won the New Talent Award in Travel Photographer of the Year 2010. All images in feature © Eric Kruszewski.
How old were you when you first got into photography? How did it happen?
In 2008 I was 30 years old and working in Central Asia and Eastern Europe as a mechanical engineer. I heard a rumor that our project might end, and I realized that I had been there for three years and hadn’t made many pictures. I imagined sitting with my family and hearing the question – what was life like in Central Asia? So I thought the best way to share those insights was by making pictures and letting them do the talking.
Since I didn’t have access to photography lessons in those regions, I decided to do a 17-day photography expedition in India. I had three amazing instructors during the journey, and I was so excited to learn a new craft and explore the world. By the end of the trip, I was hooked, and I told my instructors that I wanted their jobs. From then on, I worked diligently on my photography and set a course for changing my career.
What was the first camera you can remember owning/using – and the first shot you took that you really liked?
My first camera was a Nikon D80 along with an 18-135mm kit lens that I bought to prepare for the India expedition.
On the fifth day of the trip, one of the instructors was teaching us about looking at things from a different perspective. Later that morning, we approached Jaisalmer Fort as it was bathed in early morning light. Adjacent to the fort, I saw a street performer doing a rope-balancing act. Kneeling on a metal disk, she had a water-filled vase on her head and she used her toes to propel herself across the rope. I lay down on the ground beneath the rope and dissected the composition with the rope and her balancing pole. The fort was illuminated in the background, and then suddenly a flock of birds flew overhead. Everything just came together nicely, but it wouldn’t have worked without the initial lesson from the instructor about perspectives.
Who inspires you as a photographer?
I try to find inspiration from many different media. Fortunately, I work within a wonderful creative community in Washington, D.C., and those members do fascinating work. I constantly watch films, especially documentaries, to better understand how to capture imagery and tell complicated in-depth stories. Being in D.C., I also have access to world-class museums. Periodically, I see photography and art exhibits that inspire me to redefine my current aesthetic or to try new things.
When you won the TPOTY New Talent award in 2010 you hadn’t yet embarked on a career as a full-time photographer. What were you doing instead, and how did winning the award help spur you on to make this your profession?
In 2010, I was working in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Georgia, designing and building laboratories to secure and safeguard biological agents. Each day, I was not only doing my engineering work, but I was traveling to many new destinations, and within those experiences, learning languages, understanding cultures and meeting new people.
Winning the TPOTY New Talent award inspired me in many ways. As an engineer, I was not involved in a photo community. After winning the award, the door to a new community opened, and other participants, entrants, publishers and writers/editors welcomed me. In addition, knowing that an international panel of respected judges acknowledged my images gave me confidence in my work. Furthermore, the award came with a prize – a free trip to India and Nepal – which offered a new opportunity to explore the world, practice my craft and build a stronger portfolio.
Eric’s 2010 New Talent-winning portfolio
Did you enjoy seeing your images displayed in the TPOTY exhibition in London?
I took a vacation from my engineering job to visit London and see the TPOTY exhibition. Seeing the presentation and my images printed in large scale was extraordinary. But maybe more importantly, I met with the TPOTY founders, some of the judges and several TPOTY winners. Those connections and conversations continued to inspire and support me in new photography pursuits.
How did your career progress after you won the award – what were the significant milestones?
After TPOTY, my winning images were published in photography magazines and through online news organizations. Over the next two years, I won several other international photography contests, which also had trips as prizes. Those trips once again offered opportunities to further develop my portfolio. I also attended two prominent documentary photography workshops – one in Toronto and one in New York. Those workshops allowed me to get critical feedback on how to make better images and tell more powerful stories. That advice helped significantly when I finally decided to resign from engineering (in March 2012) and embark on a freelance career. I dedicated much of my first year to developing personal work. I spent several months traveling with a carnival group in the Pacific Northwest, and I documented the story of environmental pollution and its effect on one woman in Canada. Both of those stories were widely published. But more importantly, I was able to show that personal work to prospective clients in order to foster working relationships.
You were already pretty well travelled in 2010, where have you travelled to since then, and which destination has made the biggest impression on you?
Since 2010, I have been fortunate to visit many new locations, including Panama, Costa Rica, Galapagos Islands, Tanzania, Iceland, Yellowstone National Park, Israel, Mozambique, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Serbia, Philippines, Scotland, Newfoundland, Czech Republic, and Italy, among others. It’s very difficult for me to state which destination made the biggest impression, because I try to develop and grow from each new experience. The nature and pristine landscapes of Iceland and Yellowstone are astounding. The warmth and hospitality (and cuisine!) in Southeast Asia are wonderful. History abounds in Israel, and the wildlife in the Galapagos Islands is extraordinary.
What sort of clients do you work for – and do you get the time also to shoot images for you, i..e for the love of photography?
As a freelance photographer and videographer, most of the content I produce now is based on travel or human-interest stories. I have the good fortune of collaborating with respected organizations and media outlets whose missions I appreciate. These outlets include National Geographic, BBC Travel, World Wildlife Fund, Hilton Worldwide, The New York Times and CNN, among others. Throughout the year, I also lead photography expeditions with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions.
When I first got into photography, it was simply for personal reasons – to document my life, surroundings and international travels to share with family and friends. But the more I did it, the more I fell in love with it. And that love stemmed from the pure excitement of just making images for me, not necessarily for a career. Later on, when I was transitioning to full-time freelance work, I would tell myself to make sure to allocate time for personal projects and exploring the stories that fascinate me. Fortunately, I still do that on occasion. At family events, I document the day. When I take a personal vacation, I capture the sense of place and people. And I also develop personal projects to show potential clients in order to get work.
When I was toying with the idea of making my passion my career, so many people asked if I was afraid of losing my passion along the way. Well, it’s been six years since I resigned from engineering, and while making this my career is extremely hard work, I absolutely still love what I do.
What does the year ahead hold for you with your career?
Over the next year, I will teach on expeditions to Egypt and Scotland, and I will also be taking a personal trip to Poland to explore where my family came from. I also plan to continue a personal project, and in between those activities, I hope to continue collaborating with organizations to tell interesting stories and inspire people to explore the world.
Looking back, was it a good decision to enter TPOTY, and would you advise other up and coming photographers to do the same?
Entering TPOTY was a great decision for several reasons. At the time, I was an engineer with no photography community. Through winning TPOTY, I began meeting people in the industry who could share what it’s like to be a photographer and who helped open doors that led to new opportunities. Also, seeing my work recognized by others helped my confidence grow, and the contest prize offered a chance to see more of the world and develop my travel portfolio.
I made the images I submitted to the TPOTY New Talent category during a personal trip to Alaska, and so my advice to up and coming photographers is to make images for you during your travels. Focus your camera on the subjects that fascinate you, and that fascination will show in the content you create. Your work is always better when you’re invested intellectually and emotionally in what you’re creating. Then when you see those cohesive images that you’re passionate about line up with categories in TPOTY, submit them and hope for the best. From years of feedback and experience, it seems that personal, powerful images and stories resonate the most.
See more of Eric’s work at www.erickruszewski.com.