If only one word could be used to describe Elizabeth Unger, it would be “eclectic.”
The 26-year-old globetrotter has set foot on all seven continents, studied biology and is enrolled in a food studies master’s program at New York University all while pursuing a passion for documentary production.
She ties it all together with photography.
Between her trips to South America, Asia and Washington, D.C., the JT caught up with her in her hometown of Ellicott City to hear more about her endeavors, both past and future.
How did you get started in photography?
I started a few years ago and became more interested in storytelling. I traveled a lot but never really took photos. I just wasn’t that person, and I never thought I would be a photographer. But I realized photography was a really interesting medium that I could apply to a lot of different things. I enjoyed being able to tell stories and cultivate a narrative. I started assisting wedding photographers and bought my first camera. It really grew on me.
Where have you traveled?
I got a Young Explorers grant from National Geographic to do a project about culture and identity in Japan and Brazil. So I went to both of those countries last year to do a photo series and video project. I’ve also been going to Bolivia for the past year working on a documentary. Technically, I’ve been to all seven continents.
When I was in undergrad, I was studying biology. I worked in a lab with a [scientist doing research about penguins]. He offered to take to me to Antarctica on a grant through the university, and I stupidly said no at first. I thought about it and realized that was dumb. I tried to go back, but [it was too late], so I decided to find another way to get down there. The National Science Foundation has contractors that employ support staff for the scientists, and they live in Antarctica at the research stations. I applied to be a prep cook and I didn’t think I would get it, but I got a call in November 2012 and they said you can fly out in three days. So I stayed there for three-and-a-half months. It was one of the most insane experiences of my life.
Where was your latest trip?
I was in Bolivia shooting a documentary about illegal wildlife trafficking and the people fighting against it. I can’t say too much about it, but I’m going on a two-month shoot later this year, and we’re hoping to eventually raise money to create a feature film. It’s been a long process, but the people are passionate about [ending] illegal wildlife trafficking.
What does it take to be a professional photographer in a world with a camera on every cellphone and tablet?
I think you need a niche as a photographer. For me, I’m still trying to find that niche. I’m in a food studies master’s program so I do a lot of food and drink commercial photography for clients. It’s an amazing niche to have, but I also really like travel, wildlife and documentary photography. I think what a lot of professional photographers do is pick up commercial clients and do editorial and advertising work. Then they have a passion for something that doesn’t pay as much. I’m still figuring out who I am as a photographer; that’s the direction I’m going.