In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Evan Sung.
Evan Sung didn’t set out to be a food photographer. After graduating from New York University with a degree in psychology, Sung was planning to go for a doctorate in comparative literature when he was sidetracked by photography. His first job shooting a restaurant came as an accident, too. But it wasn’t mere chance that turned Sung into one of the most respected photographers in his field, shooting for the New York Times, Vogue, and award-winning chefs like Paul Liebrandt. It was a combination of talent and what he describes as pure stubbornness that made Sung stand out in a competitive freelance field. Here now, Sung explains how he made it all happen.
Eater: What does your job involve?
Evan Sung: Lots of eating. Just kidding. On the most basic level, I’m a photographer, and my job involves photographing food and beverage, restaurants, personalities, and sometimes architectural spaces. But on a deeper level, I think my job really revolves around making people feel seen and understood. At least I hope I achieve that. Making busy, stressed-out chefs feel confident that I will depict their work in a way that respects their craft, making staff in a restaurant feel comfortable that I won’t be in their way, that I’ll make them look good (or at least interesting!), and in the case of some of my travel work, digging into the culture in a way that hopefully reflects what makes it unique and exciting and how it translates into the cuisine.
What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
Originally, I thought I was going to do environmental portraiture. I was a psychology major at NYU, and when I started to work with a camera, I loved the idea of portraits and people in spaces as a reflection of their psychology.
Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?
No culinary school here. College, yes. NYU. Personally, I would recommend college, but I can easily make the case for another path. But my college experience was valuable for the person it made me, rather than anything to do with how to do the technical aspects of my job.
What would you have done differently at school or paid more attention to?
No regrets at school.
Student loans are such a part of the conversation around higher education right now. Has your career trajectory been impacted by debt in any way?
No. I’ve been fortunate to have had very supportive parents, and the student loan that I did take on I managed to pay off from temp work and jobs right after college. Then when I really started my career, I was always very concerned with keeping my costs under control, so I managed to save more than I spent.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
If you mean first job ever, probably a coffee shop barista. If you mean first photo job... that’s hard to pinpoint. I’d say it was a studio assistant at a stock photo agency back in the day called Comstock. I learned a lot there about studio lighting and photo production.
If that wasn’t a restaurant or food-industry job, how did you get into the industry?
Very much accidentally. I was doing freelance work for the New York Sun newspaper. They assigned me a restaurant story — I think their usual person was unavailable or out sick. I did the assignment, found that I enjoyed it, they liked the results, and then I started doing more of that kind of work.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
The challenges were less related to the food industry and more just related to the nature of being a freelancer, and more than that, a freelance photographer. I was always very stressed out about where the next job was coming from! But early on, I was temping and shooting as much as I could, some free work for an online magazine and some paid editorial work for the newspapers and the rapidly growing online food journalism world. But yeah, just making ends meet, making sure to keep busy, that was challenging.
When was the first time you felt successful?
For sure there were lots of victories along the way. Just learning new things at that stock photo agency was gratifying, or being trusted enough to actually shoot a few conceptual images for the agency was also a nice recognition. Seeing my work in the New York Sun for the first time was great. But without a doubt, my first restaurant review that I shot for the New York Times was a huge milestone. As a native New Yorker, seeing my byline in that paper was incredibly moving.
Did you have any setbacks? What were they?
The life of a freelancer is basically just a constant string of setbacks! The critical thing is working through them and finding enough victories to offset the setbacks. But yeah, anytime you don’t get a job you hoped you would, or if a shoot goes south in some way, just because you’re a bit green, or you knock on doors with your portfolio and it goes nowhere — that’s never fun. But it’s part of the process and hopefully you learn from it and you persevere.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
I was originally going to get a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Photography was not part of the plan in any way. But I had my heart broken very badly (setback!), and it made me question a lot of things, and eventually got me to take a chance on photography as a career. Then, once I was working, the one project I always cite as an inflection point was working with chef Paul Liebrandt on his cookbook To the Bone — that led to both good friendships and also a turn in the work I began to get and a rise in visibility.
What were the most important skills that got you there?
Stubbornness? I think it’s my ability to generally put people at ease. Just gaining trust and access is enormous. But yes, I also don’t like to give up.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field? How has that made a difference?
I’ve had some great mentors. My friend Brett Friedman taught me so much about photo production and lighting. My friend Giacomo Bretzel, who I worked for in Paris, showed me a very fun and exciting life based around the camera — we traveled, met amazing people, had great experiences, ate and drank very well… It showed me that it wasn’t just a job, it was truly a lifestyle. And he was and is a joyful guy, so it made me think of the work that way too.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
All of it.
What would surprise people about your career, or is there something you didn’t know going into it?
Running a business — it wasn’t a surprise per se, but it’s not why I got into this field. So it’s a big push to learn how to do business intelligently.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do?
The one that jumps to mind is flying a propeller plane over Reykjavik while I was shooting chef Gunnar Gíslason’s cookbook North. But there’s been a ton of cool stuff. I’m very fortunate.
How are you making change in your industry?
I think the industry is changing plenty fast without my input! I get inquiries from younger photographers who want to have coffee and talk, and I’m happy to do that. I feel like all I can do is share my experiences and my thoughts on the business and hope it makes sense to others. I value professionalism, and I hope I can effect some change just by how I comport myself and do my job.
What would you have done differently in your career?
Nothing, really. I do wish sometimes I had had the experience of being on a few massive photo productions — like being 15th assistant on an Annie Liebovitz shoot or something. But no biggie.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
I don’t know if I’ve ever been given “advice.” I think I’ve just observed the people I work with and respect, and then internalized what I think they are doing well.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Shoot. A lot. Be considerate and professional. Show up. On time. Answer emails and messages. Don’t give up.
Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.
Photo of Evan Sung by Alex Ulreich.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: Camera by Dhika Hernandita; Covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; handwriting by Pongsakorn.