Jennifer Whitney is an editorial photographer based in San Antonio. Her love of people, food and the great outdoors inspires her work. Jenn spoke with ILTP over iced coffee on the dog-friendly patio of Spiderhouse in Austin.
Who are your mentors?
I’ve had a lot of incredible mentors… Neal Menschel from the Salt Institute – he always said it’s about imagination, heart, and intention and I’ll never forget that. Rita Reed taught me to be a badass and not put up with anyone’s bullshit basically by osmosis. I look up to Lisa Krantz immensely because she’s not only an awesome photographer but an awesome person. I’m completely in awe of her way of seeing things, her sense of humor, and her incredible patience.
Best career decision?
Sticking to what I believe in and not compromising myself for anything, which led to the decision to go freelance. I never quite fit in at newspapers – too many rules for me and I didn’t like turning work over that quickly all the time because the quality suffers. I have a lot more freedom now to work on projects and the ability to work with clients who expect a higher quality of work. I’ve grown immensely as a businesswoman and have had a lot more space to be creative and find my own groove.
I’ve grown immensely as a businesswoman
Favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
I’m a total sucker for Americana, and I love the quirkiness and the bright, saturated color. Really, its a lot like my home state, Florida, in so many ways but with a bit of a western flair. I love the independent values and progressive thinking that led explorers to the promise of the West, but I’m a true Southern girl at heart. Texas is really the crossroads between the two cultures.
Current Dream Assignment?
Pretty much anything having to do with strong women or wise old people. But I don’t want to limit myself because there are so many things I’m really curious and passionate about. I’m dying to work for Texas Monthly and Garden & Gun.
What’s the weirdest thing in your camera bag?
I try to keep my bag pretty light, but I do carry a purple Leatherman and a tube of Dr. Pepper Lip Smackers, which always brings a little sweetness to a rough day. Also, I carry a stepladder in the back of my truck that was a gift from a good friend. As a small person it comes in handy all the time.
I’m not a gear head. I like to keep it as simple as possible. I couldn’t live without my fixed 50mm lens.
I couldn’t live without my fixed 50mm lens
How do you stay motivated?
I’m the kind of person who functions best when I’m busy, so I’m always juggling a lot of balls in the air. Making sure I always have at least one story going that I ‘m really passionate about is huge.
What was your first big break?
There are so many ways of looking at it. Working on the first project I cared about and making the realization that this is what I have to do. As nerdy as it may be to say it out loud, I remember feeling super excited the first time The New York Times called.
I remember feeling super excited the first time The New York Times called
How you established your personal vision?
Through a lot of hard work, experimentation, and finding inspiration outside of photography like in music, film, literature, and other visual media.
Was there one project that gave you that “ah ha” moment, where you knew this is where you wanted to take your work?
At Salt I did a project on two sisters that did beauty pageants in rural northern Maine. They were 8 and 11 when I met them and we still keep in touch. I’m going back to visit them this summer. It was the first time I really fell in love with a subject and realized how powerful the images become when you make yourself vulnerable to people, and what a gift it is when they give you so much access to their lives. I learned so much from that project, and I’ve pretty much been hooked ever since.
Who are you inspired by?
Erykah Badu, Dolly Parton, Billie Holliday, Yoko Ono, Tina Fey, Kiki Smith, Ann Richards, Alice Waters, Georgia O’ Keefe, Stella McCartney, Annie Oakley, Miranda July, Sofia Coppola, Nina Berman, Lauren Greenfield, Dorothea Lange, Lynsey Addario… I could go on and on…
These are all women, what’s up with that?
I think women have such an important role in society and in our industry and we don’t get enough credit anywhere. There’s such a double standard- we still have to work harder to get what we want. In general, women approach their work with a lot more sensitivity, and that’s important to me
All time fave photo books?
Robert Frank, The Americans
What was the most helpful part of your ‘education’ that wasn’t photo related.
A lot of moving and traveling taught me how to shift my perspective and see things from the outside and how to adjust easily. Also waiting tables for many years taught me a whole lot about people, their habits, and human character in general. Also, I got to try and learn about a lot of amazing food.
How do you define ‘success’ in your own career?
I think with every new project. I try to take it one day at a time and make the most out of everything I do. Being happy in life and finding some semblance of balance is really important to me. Also, I really want to make the people I interact with smile, so I try to be a source of positivity in people’s lives.
Any exciting projects in 2012?
So many great stories, so little time. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Florida exploring how the Gulf Coast commercial fishing industry has changed. Its complicated and exciting to deal with the environment, food, and politics all wrapped up in one package.
Hobbies outside of photography, aka, how do you stay sane?
I’m not: I think its more fun to live a little on the edge and take risks. But I do exercise a lot- I’m a student and teacher of Ron Fletcher pilates which, much like photography, never ceases to challenge me and I need that constantly. Also, I try to spend as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors.
I think its more fun to live a little on the edge and take risks
How do you think you distinguish yourself from the competition?
Relationships. I’m a people person. Being able to make people comfortable and to be present and empathize. Also, exceptional reporting skills and strong intuition: it’s key to being prepared to capture those moments that really push a story above and beyond.
People are thinking of the industry in a very negative way and I think it’s exciting what people are doing, all the possibilities. I feel constantly challenged by my peers and everyone is so dedicated. I’ve never seen it as doom and gloom, I see it as opportunity to make room for new ideas.
I’m a (mostly) vegetarian, but I do like the occasional bite of great BBQ. Franklin’s in Austin is the best hands down, but I sure miss my side of Southern greens.
Favorite breakfast taco?
Taco Haven in San Antonio – Bean and Cheese with Nopalitos and Avocado. It’s not on the menu- I made it up and its awesome.
Rosario’s in San Antonio – The Mexican Handshake.