We had the good fortune of connecting with Amy Sussman and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Amy, what role has risk played in your life or career?
I believe anyone that chooses to live to creative life exhibits a sense of bravery and needs to take risks. It takes courage to put yourself out there, to express yourself, to know it might not always work or be positively received. To work in any creative field, I believe the only way to get better and to stand out, is to take risks. To me the essence of living creatively is to push beyond ones’ comfort zone, to stretch one’s limits, to see what is possible in creating something uniquely your own.
Risks, mixed with a little naivety, had a lot to do with my career. It had to, especially as a photographer because photographers don’t sit on the sidelines. No, you have to be right there in the mix of it all and it doesn’t come with do-overs. It is a moment in time captured and preserved but gone almost as soon as it happens. So, there is little room for error yet there is a need to experiment and to innovate, always walking that fine line because in experimentation there are bound to be mistakes. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes I miss the shot. Sometimes there is failure and yet always a push to be better – better than my mistakes, better than my last shoot – and there is no greater feeling when I know, I got the shot. And in my line of work, there’s a lot of people jockeying for that shot, for celebrities’ attention. I have been harassed, picked on, discredited, pushed and yet still I carried on. Sometimes just showing up was an act of bravery.
From the onset of my career, risk was at the forefront. I have been taking photos since I was in second grade with my first polaroid and my early 20s had taken me many places. At one point I had found myself living in Missoula, MT doing traveling sales for a landscape photographer. And it was there in vast landscape of the Pacific Northwest that my love of photography re-emerged, blossom and undoubtably called to me. So, as I traveled selling for one photographer, I took photographs of my own. It was a turning point for me, and I knew if I wanted a career as a photographer, then I would have to make a move. So, I did. I took the leap, packed up my things and film Minolta camera, and headed to New York City, my birthplace. I had answered an ad on Craigslist (yes, craigslist) pretended to know digital cameras and moved to Brooklyn. I knew very little about what I was about to embark upon simply fueled by my love of photography. I arrived in NYC Memorial Day weekend and by June 5th I had a camera in my hand photographing some fancy luncheon somewhere on the east side. It was a far cry from the serene landscapes out West, but I had found my calling and the place I would call home for the next 14 years as a freelance photographer.
My time in New York City offered many opportunities to live outside my comfort zone, to take risks daily and push forward. For instance, after about a year of working tirelessly for little money but in exchange built my portfolio, I picked up the phone and called Getty Images 1-800 number and kept calling until I got a hold of someone, someone willing to meet with me. That persistence led to working with them for 7 years and the start of my career. Then, after a couple years of shooting entertainment, I also wanted to shoot news, but places were hesitant to bring on an entertainment photographer. So, when the economy crashed in 2008 and tent cities were popping up in Sacramento, CA, I hopped on plane and began documenting them. Not knowing what to expect or how I’d be received, yet took the leap, the plane ride and my camera to document. Because of that move and the work I produced, I got to shoot news for Corbis (an agency that no longer exists) for over 4 years, photographing all types of stories from parades and protests to President Obama to feature stories about Fracking in PA and urban gardening, while simultaneously shooting entertainment news. And that work with Corbis lead to working for The Wall Street Journal Metro section, an aspiration of mine.
Another moment of moving outside my comfort zone was shooting celebrity portraits for The Associated Press. They graciously brought me on despite my limited experience with portraiture. Before that, I always saw myself more a documentarian, using the light and atmosphere available to me so, to create that on my own, in the presence of celebrities (and sometimes their large entourage) for, if I was lucky, a ten-minute shoot was terrifying. It took pushing through the fear, a lot of mistakes, awkward moments and some not-so-great portraits, to become any good at it. I also pushed myself to experiment with different lighting and trying to have at least two different set-ups for one shoot. Trying something new didn’t always work, but again, it important to push against the familiar and move beyond what is easy. Those risks offered the greatest of challenges but yet the greatest of rewards and still one of my favorite aspect of my career.
Lastly, I find myself writing this here, in Los Angeles, where two years ago, I packed up my family and left the life I knew to be become a staff photographer with Getty Images. In the epicenter of entertainment, where the sheer size of events trumps anything in New York City, living in a new city, covering all new events and award season, I begin a new chapter brought on by the courage to put myself “out there” and from a decade plus of taking risks and pushing beyond being comfortable.
In every step of my career – from the leap to New York City and photographing events to shooting News to celebrity portraits to living now in LA – all took risk, courage, persistence and the unwavering belief of wanting nothing more than to be a photographer. By boldly following my dreams cross country and back again, I am able to do what I love and none of it would’ve been possible without risks, failures and bravely showing up again and again.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Well, I have only been in Los Angeles for 2 years and with 1 of the years in quarantine, I have limited knowledge, but I do love the beaches.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
There are many people – assignment editors, editors, fellow photographers, publicists etc – that have helped my career along the way, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my assignment editors with AP, especially Kelly Conaty and Carolyn Lessard who were instrumental in my portraiture work. Also, a special thanks to Neilson Barnard, Director of Photography at Getty Images, who is a big reason I have my dream job now. But most of all, I’d love to recognize my husband, Mark Von Holden, who is also a photographer, yet dropped everything – his work, his clients and contacts – to move cross country with me so I could continue to follow my dreams.
Angela Bassett (Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision/AP) Janelle Monáe (Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision/AP) Liam Gallagher (Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision/AP) Mariah Carey (Photo by Amy Sussman/FilmMagic) Lashana Lynch (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images) Cynthia Erivo (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images) Angelina Jolie (Photo by Amy Sussman/WireImage) Jennifer Lopez (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)