Eyewitness: The Star’s Jill Toyoshiba sheds light on her work as a photographer

08/18/2014 2:00 AM

08/26/2014 7:11 AM

As a photographer for The Star for 12 years, Jill Toyoshiba has covered everything from the closing of Pinkerton Elementary to poetry slams and a patient's surgery for facial disfigurement. A native of Honolulu, Toyoshiba has traveled all over the world, sometimes with a tent, and always with her camera. We sat down with her to find out what her life as a photojournalist is like.

First, how did you get started in photography?

I always had a camera when I was a kid. I wasn't a good photographer, but I just took a camera everywhere we went, any family thing, and I would harass my family with it. I studied to work in the biotech field but found that although I liked biology very much, I didn't really like working indoors in the lab all the time. I did like photography, though, but didn't think I could have a career in it. But one day, I just went for it, knowing I could fall back on biotech if it didn't work out. I knew i didn't want to do commercial photography; I just wanted to capture things that were real and really happening. I really love telling stories, getting in depth hanging out with people and seeing if I can tell their experience through photography.

How would you describe your personality as a photographer?

I'm kind of an introverted person, but you have to go out there and get information from people. I'm not really a people person, so having to go out there and ask questions and be friendly, it's really helped me come out of my shell to help me be in the public.

You've traveled all over the world, from Bangkok to London and India. What's been your favorite place to shoot?

Probably India. I wasn't really a photojournalist back then, I was just a tourist and just took took scenic shots and touristy shots, it was just the light, everything was really old and wild and upside down from how we know things are here. The colors, the landscape and the unexpected moments make it a really great place visually.

Your work at The Star has ranged from an inmate's exoneration from death row to Grant Vacca's surgery after facial disfigurement. What's your most memorable experience?

Several years ago I covered the Tadlock twins, a story about premature babies. If one of them had lived, she would have been one of the youngest to survive that. I covered the twins for a few weeks after they were born until one of the girls died; that was a growing experience for me to be that close to families going through this experience, it really made me less of a hard person emotionally. It really opened me up.

Ink Magazine sometimes requires complicated photo setups. Describe your shoot involving water and beer:

My role was to execute the concept using a swimmer — someone who can control movements under water — rather than a model. Time was limited, so rather than try to find the housing (leak paranoia) and beg, borrow or steal underwater lights, I went with the time-tested and simple aquarium method. The same tank I bought to shoot hanging off the side of a boat at Lake of the Ozarks years ago, in fact. Two on-camera strobes on Pocket Wizards double-Ziploc freezer bagged (thanks for idea, Keith Myers). Two assistants to point said strobes and two bricks to help make it easier to press the tank into the water. Black duct tape (gaffer tape recommended) around the lens hood to the tank wall to reduce glare (thanks for tip, John Sleezer). And when the sun got too bright to see the camera screen in live view, duct tape also used to attach an umbrella to the tank. The main light with 1/8 tungsten gel over it to get the skin tone warmer, the fill light lower power and/or farther from subject, no gel. Thanks to Tasha's friends for use of the pool and thanks to Ashton for being such a great subject!

You've been in Kansas City for almost 12 years. How has this community shaped your vision or shooting approach?

What drives me is being able to tell the stories of underrepresented people who work through life's struggles and overcome them in amazing and sometimes heartbreaking ways. I thought, if people who are different from each other see who their neighbors are, there might be a 'greater understanding' out there. On a personal level, I think I've grown by seeing how people cope with different things and hearing their stories. Because of the state of the industry though, there are fewer resources to be able to go in-depth with a photo story. Approach-wise, we often have to figure out how to create a storytelling set of photos without being by the subject's side as things are happening — portrait, person doing something related. If I could choose an in-depth topic, it would be about culture, race, identity and change. What are some of the struggles people go through if you don't look like everybody else? What identities do other people lay on you?

When covering an assignment where you have to shoot stills AND video, how do you know which one to shoot at any time?

In a spot news situation, we'll often have to shoot stills, take a cell phone photo for the web, video or sometimes raw cell phone video for the web. Yeah, it's tricky and my answer is, you wing it. However, if there is only one moment, shoot stills for the paper. If it is an ongoing situation, you'll have time to get all of it, including an interview with an authority on the scene. For something like a parade, for me, it's almost like two different tasks: in a still, great moment, energy, composition and light; in a video, movement and representative B-roll, but for me, I don't really always get the best composition in video (other people certainly do, though). I find I'm always scrambling because I keep seeing shots for the other when I'm shooting the one format — it's going to be a compromise always. Learning to ask compound questions so the answer is an explanation rather than 'yes' or 'no' was new for a still shooter, but makes a big difference.

How have you learned from other photographers?

This is a really good place to grow as a photographer, because everybody is really good. I was newer at it and I had to kind of teach myself. I would study people's work everyday: Why did they shoot it this way? What were they trying to say? How did they light this? Why is this the centerpiece today? I just learned a lot from just studying the other photographers' work here.

What motivates you as a photographer?

What I really like about what I do is that everyday is different. The challenges are figuring something completely new out to 'I've covered that a billion times, how do I make it interesting.' On any given day, you could be slogging around in a dairy, and I actually have extra tough galoshes in my car, to that evening covering a business fundraiser at the Hyatt or something. You just have to be prepared.

Of all the photos you've taken, do you have a favorite?

No, I don't think so. It's hard because we're so close to our work. Maybe I haven't taken it yet.

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