Toni Greaves, award-winning documentary photographer, unveiled in Afghanistan (Photo by M. Ashraf Wahidi)
We’re not sure what’s more impressive: her list of accolades or the stunning beauty of her work. In just three short years since being selected as one of PDN magazine’s “30 Emerging Photographers to Watch,” our good friend and documentary photographer, Toni Greaves has graced the pages of TIME magazine, The New York Times, Communication Arts, The FADER, and Marie Clare (to name a few).
She has traveled to Paraguay and rural Nepal as part of projects for Outside magazine and The Gates Foundation. Most recently, she returned from Afghanistan where she photographed for an organization dear to us—Mercy Corps, one of our Partners for Change. We were lucky enough to sit down with the award-winning photog to talk about the art of becoming invisible and what it’s like to shoot behind a burqa.
OTG: You’ve been shooting professionally for a little less than four years and you’ve already won numerous awards and have been published in an impressive list of publications.
Toni: Yeah, I feel very blessed. But I have a 15-year background in art direction, design, and creative direction, so I understood SEEING before I was professionally trained in photography. And I was always doing it as a hobby. But there came a point when I realized that I wanted to make it everything I was doing. So I made some major life changes and personal sacrifices to go back to school. I decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. And I feel very lucky it’s working out.
Can you give us some insight into some of the projects you’ve enjoyed the most?
I have a long term project called Radical Love that spans the course of three years, which is about a community of cloistered nuns. I have spent a lot of time with these women, being in their monastery, being around their lives, and I love it. One of the great things about documentary photography is getting to experience different worlds.
From Radical Love: The Dominican Nuns of Summit, New Jersey are a Roman Catholic cloistered monastic community. In this photo, the youngest nuns enjoy playing basketball during their half hour recreation period. (Photo by Toni Greaves)
So when you’re on assignment, do you have an idea of what you want to see behind the camera or do you let things organically unfold?
The thing about documentary photography is that you never know exactly what’s going to happen and you can’t plan anything. That’s one of the things I love about it—this dance of figuring it out while it happens. There is a kind of magic of getting into the moment of everything…of developing relationships with people you engage with and being able to help them feel comfortable. Because their level of comfort, as well as yours affects the quality of images that you take.
Do you ever coerce your story?
Here’s the thing, in your job as a writer, you’re asking questions right? And the simple act of asking questions, you’re helping to initiate something that helps guide and direct….
Exactly. Like leading the witness.
But in documentary photography, you can’t do that. I get to be aware and observant of everything that is around me, and my job is to take all that in and process it, in order to be in those situations when they happen. Of course, there are different approaches, but from my background and training, if you start influencing things, you’ll lose your credibility and honesty in what you’re doing and you’ll immediately be dismissed.
But you have to make people feel comfortable with your presence, so there has to be some level of influence.
That’s true. But in the same way if you, as a writer, were sitting there watching somebody and taking notes, they are aware of you sitting there, so to a degree that will changes things. However, I’ve also had clients tell me I become “invisible” over time.
From Birth in Rural Nepal: An aid worker examines Maheshwori and determines that her unborn baby is breech. Each year in Nepal more than 6,000 women die during childbirth. (Photo by Toni Greaves/Getty Images)
So there’s got to be this sweet spot in documentary photography where you’re constantly trying to capture the moment, but also have the perfect eye. Obviously, you can’t set up your shot.
No you can’t. So it all comes from your training and background and they way that you SEE. In studying documentary photography you learn to SEE differently. And when you’ve been doing it long enough, it becomes a part of you. Recently, I photographed a friend giving birth. Since I’m close to her, I noticed when sorting through the images, that I had removed myself from the photographer role at times and the images weren’t as strong in those moments. So there’s a balance: you have to be comfortable with people, but you still have to maintain a level of disconnection in a way that you are more active in your SEEING.
So let’s switch gears. You just returned from Afghanistan where you were on assignment with Mercy Corps. How as your trip?
It was one of the most interesting trips I’ve been on. Fascinating, actually.
Did they give you a burqa?
Yes, they did for security reasons. But I always respect cultural norms when I travel. I was in full head scarf, starting from the airport, and only took it off in my room. Whenever we would leave, I would be covered in a burqa. If not, I could put their projects at risk if anyone saw me and my photography gear.
So what exactly where you doing?
I was photographing a women’s and girl’s education program called INVEST. They teach computers, embroidery, sewing, and English. It’s an incredible program that is changing the lives of these girls and also the women who teach there. I interviewed five women who were teachers in this program. In fact, Mercy Corps just put together a multimedia piece of my work that is now live on their website.
A woman takes a tailoring class in Mercy Corps' INVEST program in Afghanistan to learn how to design and sew garments. (Photo by Toni Greaves for Mercy Corps)
You know, most of us only experience Afghanistan through the media as this kind of vapid, hopeless, almost apocalyptic place. What was your experience?
It’s mind boggling to learn about what Afghanistan was like in the 1950’s. It was this beautiful, tourist destination. Then Kabul was severely bombed from the late 70’s. But there’s a sense, with the youth that I was around, that there is potential for something for the future. Nobody wanted to talk about anything being bad. Maybe because there is danger in talking about what is going on or maybe it’s just a cultural norm. But they were very happy and excited about school, about what is to come.
I guess you just never know how a society might react under dire circumstances, eh?
If you’re put in the worst situation, you have two choices: you can give up or have hope. Which one would you choose? These are human beings living in this place of war. And they are choosing to have hope in the midst of often very difficult situations. It’s an incredible demonstration of the strength of the human spirit.
To view more of Toni’s work, visit her website at www.tonigreaves.com.