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Scripps Career Pathways: Kirsten Elstner

Jan 27, 2014

Scripps Career Pathways: Kirsten Elstner, MFA 90, executive director of VisionWorkshops Inc.

Kirsten Elstner graduated in 1990 from Ohio University with a master’s in visual communication. She is the executive director of VisionWorkshops, Inc., a program that aims to provide educational and life-changing experiences for youth through the use of photojournalism. Kirsten serves as a mentor to aspiring photojournalists through her work with VisionWorkshops and National Geographic Photo Camps.

Work by VisionWorkshops and National Geographic Photo Camp students was recently spotlighted on The New York Times Lens blog. The blog portrayed a 21st century America through the eyes of teens looking at their hometowns. Visit “Looking at Our Hometowns” on the NYT Lens blog to see the entire project consisting of over 4,000 images, or visit the following links to see some of Elstner’s students’ work specifically: My Hometown: CA and My Hometown: MD.

Can you tell me more about Vision Works and how you got started?­
We use photojournalism to work with kids to tell their own story through photography and writing. We have regional programs to work with young immigrants and refugees to tell their stories in their communities. I was a freelance photographer working for The International Red Cross and The New York Times, and some of my photographer colleagues thought it would be a good idea to put cameras in hands of people we were trying to document. I became fascinated with giving young people a voice. I left my work with them and took classes in order to learn how to set up a nonprofit. ­

How do you feel your Scripps College of Communication degree has helped you in your career thus far?
Opened my eyes to the world of photojournalism. I never knew about it before I came to get my degree. During my first portfolio review, I had done a project documentary on young prostitutes in Ohio. The professor was looking at my work and said, “You have a good eye.” These couple words of encouragement pushed me so much. I don’t have enough good things to say (about the people who encouraged me) that started me on my path. I got a joint award of $1,000 from Life magazine and Ohio University, which I used to go live in Brazil and work for a big newspaper, Oglobo. All of my experiences at OU formulated what I do today.

What is the most important thing you believe has helped you secure your current position?
Probably just learning to be creative. Learning to have a goal of what I am trying to accomplish in life and using what I know which happens to be photography to try to get there. I tried to think about what motivates me, and I really cared about young people, and I knew photography. I wanted to be creative with the skills I have and to make a positive impact in the world.

What is the single most important piece of advice you’d like to give to Scripps students?
I would say that I hear a lot of people talking about all the changes in the photography industry; my advice would be to embrace it. It is a golden age for photography in media creation. I created my own life and career out of what I learned at­OU. Don’t get stuck up against the wall and say it’s hard. There are so many people being drawn to this field. Embrace those changes, and be creative with it.

- Katie Quinn, social media intern