Beyond Graduation: Thomas Simonetti

A RECURRING SERIES

In an August 26, 2019 email interview, Thomas Simonetti, a 2009 WKUPJ graduate, took a break from his busy schedule as the sport picture editor for The Washington Post and reminisced on his past and how WKUPJ set him up for his career in the photojournalism business.

Photo editor Thomas Simonetti in the headquarters of The Washington Post. (Photo by Marlena Sloss)

 

Where were you born?

Well, I was  born in Long Island, N.Y., where I lived until Age 7. That’s when my family moved to sunny Tampa, Fla.

 

What High School did you attend?

I went to Brandon High School in a suburb of Tampa. Go Eagles.

 

How did you end up at WKU?

It was my last semester at The University of South Florida. I was getting a degree in mass communications, was the Sports Editor of the college newspaper, and was working as a freelance reporter for the (then) St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) and MLB.com.

One of my final classes, an elective, was Intro to Photojournalism. I got hooked! With enthusiasm, I took a (terrible) collection of photos to a photojournalist on staff at the St. Pete Times named Daniel Wallace for a critique. His advice: consider more school. He suggested WKU, where he has gone, and the rest is history.

 

Immediately after graduation I …

I started a six-month internship at the Dubois County (Jasper) Herald. It’s a special place. The small newspaper has a decades-long tradition of running a Saturday weekly feature, ad-free, across the first several pages. The vibe in this small town is midwestern and polite and the people really appreciate the way the paper tells the community’s stories. Getting that internship should be a priority for every photojournalism student.

Later I was hired as a staff photographer at the Midland Daily News in Michigan – a small-but-talented photo staff of three.

 

Who do you currently work for?

I am a staff photo editor at The Washington Post. My first three years here I embedded with the financial and politics teams, working with a small team of photo editors. Now I am the lone Sports photo editor. Before The Post, I worked at the New York Times on the Metro desk for a short stint.

Thomas Simonetti, left, with the photo crew from The Washington Post at the 2017 White House News Photographers Association annual awards at The Ritz Carlton in Washington D.C. in 2017. WKUPJ 2014 graduate Jabin Botsford, back right, can also be seen here.

What is it like editing and working with other WKUPJ’ers?

There are three dedicated sports photographers at the Post, and two of them are WKU grads: Toni Sandys and Jonathan Newton. I’ve worked with WKU alumni in almost every job and internship I’ve done. When I worked on the politics desk, I interfaced daily with photographer Jabin Botsford. There are multiple WKU grads at the New York Times. Former Midland Daily News photo editor Nathan Morgan (2.0) hired me on the staff there. I worked with WKU grad Krista Schinagl while interning at the Jasper Herald. We are everywhere.

 

Since graduation, tell us about some of the more interesting places you may have visited as part of your work being a visual story teller?

For me, the most interesting places were always behind the scenes of regular people’s lives. For instance, while at Western, I spent countless hours documenting the lives of a single mother of three named Dawn and her young family. I was with them in the evenings when they ate dinner and mornings getting ready for school. Literally, hours and hours of time was spent with them. Recently the mother reached out to me on Facebook. She told me that she was glad I was doing well and wanted to inform me that she was now married and happy and that all the kids were growing up.

Doing what we do, you become a part of people’s lives, and it’s really special.

 

In hindsight, is there anything you learned while in a PJ class at Western that has resonated with you now?

Another story I worked on at WKU, a man had both his legs amputated and wasn’t sure how long he had left to live. The assignment was to do a semester-long story on someone who was imminently facing death. Heavy stuff. A year or so later, he passed away and his family reached out to me for photos they could display of him at his funeral. It was the least I could do.

The work we do is important in ways we don’t realize when we are thinking about exposure, cleaning up backgrounds and looking for light. That’s something I never forget.

 

What has changed in your professional plans from the time you enrolled at WKU until know? Did you ever expect to be where you are today?

You learn pretty quickly there is no “normal path” in photojournalism, at least anymore.

On the first day of my first class at WKU, we were asked to write down a goal on an index card. The class was taught by James Kenney. I wrote “Work for The St. Petersburg Times.” Though I would have loved to be on staff at my home town paper, I’d say I landed at a pretty nice spot.

It would be way too long of a story to explain the winding path often filled with self-doubt that led me to the New York Times and now The Washington Post. The bottom line is you have to strive to be your true self in job interviews and with relationships you cultivate in your career.

Oh, and you also have to be extremely lucky.

 

Do you have any immediate future work plans that you can disclose? What awaits you in 2019?

Next up for me, a season of NFL live-editing at Washington Redskins games this fall. And perhaps Washington Nationals baseball playoffs (if they can continue on pace the rest of this season).

 

If you could have any “dream” freelance assignment what would that be?

More than anything, I look forward to a lifetime of documenting my son Gabriel’s life. He’s 17 months old and keeps me on my toes.

 

What is your favorite memory from WKUPJ?

Every morning, when possible, I’d wake up and meet my best friend Daniel Johnson at the Starbucks on Campbell Ln. We alternated who bought the New York Times. We’d sit there and drink coffee and read it cover to cover.

 

What advice might you give for anyone considering to pursue a career in the journalism industry?

Something that’s been on my mind lately, and something I tell emerging photojournalists, is that if you want to work in news it’s important to not post online anything that could be perceived as a bias. The New York Times recently published a story detailing efforts to comb the social media accounts of working journalists in a campaign to discredit the media.

Oh, and when you get a job, put money into available retirement accounts early. I am a dad now, so I’m obligated to say that.

 

Beyond Graduation: Naomi Driessnack

A RECURRING SERIES

In an April 5, 2019 email interview, Naomi Driessnack, a 2016 WKUPJ graduate sat down for a few moments and told us about her path from the classroom at WKUPJ to her current position at Apple. While Naomi cannot disclose exactly what she works on as a photo editor with Apple’s Media Content photo team, she finds the job extremely rewarding and fascinating. 

Where were you born?

I was born in State College, Pennsylvania.

What High School did you attend?

I went to Virgil I. Grissom High School in Huntsville, Alabama. My dad was in the military and we moved around a bunch growing up, but I claim Huntsville as my hometown.

Is there an interesting story that brought you to WKUPJ or photojournalism in general?

Hmm, actually it is a pretty good story. I had expressed to my dad that I was interested in photojournalism. I had just watched a documentary in high school called Born into Brothels and was completely blown away with the impact of photojournalism, the reach and the opportunities. My dad, being the researcher that he is, found WKU among the top schools with photojournalism programs, and he also found that they had a workshop for high schoolers during the summer. He immediately signed me up.

When it came time for me to go, I refused. I was nervous to be in a strange place, surrounded by people I didn’t know, focusing on a subject that I did not feel confident in. I distinctly remember crying in the car (I’m a drama queen). My dad told me that I did not have to go, but that I had to call the workshop coordinator and let them know I would not be attending. The idea of confronting an adult and telling them I didn’t want to go because I was nervous was so lame that I couldn’t do it.

I attended WKU’s high school workshop and I loved every second of it. I met amazing people, made lifelong friends, became acquainted with the school I would later choose to attend, hung out with the professors and learned how to use a freaking camera.

After attending the workshop, I knew that I needed to be at WKU and I really wanted to be a part of WKUPJ.

When did you start attending WKU and what year did you graduate?

I started attending WKU in the fall of 2011 and graduated in the spring of 2016. Just one victory lap. [smiley emoji]

Why did you require the “victory lap”?

I took an extra year, which allowed me to study abroad for a semester in Harlaxton (England) my sophomore year. I was also able to complete a winter term in Cuba and a Summer term in Germany. Having an extra year gave me the flexibility to take advantage of these programs. Another bonus of having a victory lap year meant that I had more chances to take internships before graduating. During my time at WKUPJ I interned with TIME, CNN.com and InStyle.com leading up to graduation. I also worked as a freelance photo editor for InStyle.com my senior year, working the morning shift 5 am to 8:30 am Monday through Friday. My extra year was extremely worthwhile, giving me work experience and a definite edge to separate me from other recent graduates.

Naomi Driessnack’s life as a photo editor finds her in exciting spaces and places, like here in 1 World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan in a conference room at GQ, an incredible view of the Hudson River over her shoulder. “No, I’m not cruising my Instagram account during a meeting,” Driessnack said. “This is a pretty accurate picture of what it’s like to be a photo editor – buried in my phone answering emails every chance I get.”

Immediately after graduation I …

The day before my graduation I flew to and from NYC for an interview and started at GQ as a photo assistant a week after. I mostly assisted the magazine’s director of photography (who is still my boss – now we are at a different company), but also was able to edit a small section of the magazine. I worked for GQ and GQ Style magazine for a year as a freelance photo assistant and then one year as a full-time assistant photo editor for GQ and GQ Style magazine as well as GQ.com.

Who do you currently work for?

Currently I work for Apple as a photo editor on the Apple Media Content Photo team based in Cupertino, California. Unfortunately, I can’t talk more about what I do at Apple. I know, it’s silly, but I can only mention the team that I am on.

Since graduation, tell us about some of the more interesting places you have visited as part of your work being a visual storyteller?

Maybe not so much as “places” that I have visited, but as a photo editor I am able to assign photographers to cover stories. A few of my favorite commissions have been commissioning Grant Cornett to photograph the two highest rated American restaurants, Devin Christopher to photograph the culture around “Donks,” in Miami, Grant Hindsley to photograph Steve Aoki’s workout routine while on tour and Wayne Lawrence to document New York City’s beachgoers.

In hindsight, is there anything you learned while in a PJ class at Western that still resonates with you now?

WKUPJ taught me to constantly be searching for the beautiful and unique parts of people. Everyone on this planet has a story if you listen well enough. The unique, wacky parts of people are what is fun to photograph, but the best part of storytelling is discovering the similarities that connect us all.

What has changed in your professional plans from the time you enrolled at WKU until now? Did you ever expect to be where you are today?

I always thought I would be working in journalism, specifically breaking news. Now, I work in tech (ha!), an industry I never thought photojournalism would take me. I definitely did not expect to be where I am today while I was in school.

Do you have any immediate future work plans that you can disclose? What awaits you in 2019?

I cannot disclose. [smiley face emoji]

If you could have any “dream” freelance assignment, what would that be?

I would like to curate a gallery show of photography that focuses on niche culture studies.

What is your favorite memory from WKUPJ?

An amazing benefit of being in WKUPJ meant that I had the opportunity to work as a staff employee for student publications, including our campus yearbook The Talisman. Working with a bunch of weird, talented, hardworking people who cared about creating meaningful and honest work that represented WKU accurately was a dream. I made my closest friends and my favorite memories brainstorming ideas to capture our campus in unique ways and helping students discover what set our school on a hill apart, both good and bad. I cannot stress enough how significant the experience was. I do not think our student publications would be as highly regarded without strong programs like WKUPJ equipping students with the technical skills needed.

A close second favorite memory would be pulling all-nighters and staying on campus over Thanksgiving break to work on a documentary I made alongside my short-form documentary class called Beyond Breath. Because we were documenting our subject’s Thanksgiving, we all missed the chance to celebrate on the actual calendar day. Instead, a day later after we were finished documenting, we all pitched in and cooked a HUGE Thanksgiving meal and ate together. WKUPJ was and continues to be my family. [smiley face emoji]

How can we see more of your work?

My website is mainly work I produced or shot for GQ before joining the team at Apple. You can find mostly pics of my dog here and some lame jokes I make here.

 

Beyond Graduation: Emilie Milcarek

A RECURRING SERIES

In a March 25, 2019 email interview, Emilie Milcarek, a Flemington, NJ native and a 2018 graduate, provided us with her story about her time here at WKUPJ.

 

Is there an interesting story that brought you to WKUPJ or photojournalism in general?

Prior to attending WKU,  I was at Wesley College in Dover, DE working towards a degree in Exercise Science. I had become very sick with an autoimmune disease that kept taking me out of school for a semester at a time. I found myself in a position where I had to relearn to walk every time I got sick and I needed to find a way to push myself.  During this time I picked up a camera I had not used since I was a photography student in high school and I loved it. I then went back to school at Wesley, changed my major to Media, realized I needed a school that was more specialized and enrolled at the New York Film academy. While there discovered that I loved what I was learning, but not what I was doing. I was creating scripts and storylines when I was truly passionate about sharing stories that already existed in the world.  I started going to workshops and talking with professionals in the field who spoke highly of WKU and how it would be a great fit for me. They were right.

Immediately after graduation I …

… started working for NC2 Media in Franklin, Tenn. working for their Lonely Planet Digital Platform team, making text-led videos for social media.

Who do you currently work for?

I am still employed by Lonely Planet, but have expanded my responsibilities within the digital platform team. As the demand for all things visual got greater, we started creating videos for clients and partnering with other countries as well. I’ve since taken assignments on all levels of platform videos and assignments as a camera operator and assistant producer.

Since graduation, tell us about some of the more interesting places you may have visited as part of your work being a visual storyteller?

The most interesting place I’ve been so far has been Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. I traveled there in August for the Beluga whale migration and then again in November, as you see me above, for the polar bear migration onto the ice. Both trips felt like I had traveled to two different locations because of how drastic the seasons were. The stories behind this town, which is so tiny and remote, and their lives co-existing with these incredible animals was truly life changing. I want to go back because there are so many more stories to be told.

In hindsight, is there anything you learned while in a PJ class at WKU that has resonated with you now?

Keeping to deadlines and never having excuses are the reasons I keep being offered more opportunities. I’ve proven myself to be a very reliable employee in every aspect and that is something that was instilled in us as WKUPJ’s. Never miss a deadline, no excuses.

What has changed in your professional plans from the time you enrolled at WKU until now? Did you ever expect to be where you are today?

Honestly, I always saw myself as a photojournalist and particularly a sports photographer. As I completed my senior year I realized how much I cared about storytelling and connecting with people. Now, my job most of the time is editing. My favorite thing to edit has been videos called “Just Back From.” It’s an interview with the writers of Lonely Planet and making use of their mobile phone content. Being able to listen to them and figure out what they’re trying to communicate through their on camera interviews (as they’re not on camera personalities) is challenging and rewarding to me. I never thought I would love the process of editing, this came as a surprise to me. It goes to show that life plans can change.

Do you have any immediate future plans for work? What awaits you for 2019?

My plans for 2019? I plan on staying with this company as long as they’ll have me and keep advancing within the company. I also have decided that giving is as important as receiving and am seeking out non-profit clients that represent similar beliefs as mine and give back to their cause by donating my skills as an editor and visual story teller.

If you could have any “dream” freelance assignment what would that be?

My dream freelance assignment would be to produce, shoot, and edit a series of short docs.

What is your favorite memory from WKUPJ?

My first year as a participant at the Mountain Workshops in Franklin, Ky. I was the only time-lapse participant with Grant Kaye as my coach. Years later I still talk about that experience. It was the first time I pushed myself to tell a story in a medium that doesn’t usually do that. I pushed myself as hard as ever in every possible way. I remind myself of that feeling whenever I’ve hit a wall with my projects.

Where can we find you?

www.emiliemilcarek.com

Instagram: @emm_milcarek

LinkedIn: Emilie Milcarek