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American Photography Open 2020: Meet Judge Polly Irungu

By David Schonauer   Thursday August 20, 2020


Polly Irungu has a number of job descriptions.

She’s a journalist and photographer whose work has been published at The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, CNN, HuffPost, OkayPlayer, and OkayAfrica.

She is also a Digital Content Editor at New York Public Radio, where she is responsible for managing social media for The Takeaway, a nationally broadcast NPR news program show with over two million listeners,

And she’s the founder of Black Women Photographers, a global community and online database of Black women and non-binary photographers launched earlier this summer. The database now includes some 300 photographers. “It’s been growing quickly and organically through social media," says Irungu. “It’s been great not only seeing people use us as a resource, but alway seeing photographers getting to know each other through the community.” 

Ahead of the launch, Irungu spoke to a number of Black women photographers and found that about 71 percent of them had been adversely affected by the covid-19 pandemic, which prompted her to organize a covid-19 relief fund through GoFundMe. Since then she has launched other Black Women Photographers programming initiatives, including portfolio reviews with Nikon Ambassadors. “We’re hoping to do more of those before the year ends,” she notes.


On August 27, Irungu will be bringing together five Black photographers who have been covering protests across the country to speak in a virtual forum. Called “Capturing the Uprising," the event is being held in collaboration with Adobe Lightroom and will take place beginning at 5:30pm EST on Zoom. (RSVP here.) “They will be showcasing their work and they will be talking about their experiences and how they mentally prepare themselves to cover the protests,” she says.

Irungu was born in Nairobi, Kenya, but at age three she moved with her family to Topeka, Kansas. Later they relocated to Portland, Oregon. “I grew up in a really, really traditional African home, so I was expected to pursue a career in medicine or engineering or academia. Journalism was not on the table,” she notes. Nonetheless in 2017 she graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She describes herself as self-taught photographer. “At the suggestion of one of my counselors, I got involved in the yearbook as a creative outlet,” she notes. “I realized I really enjoyed storytelling and capturing the moment.”

On top of all her other work, Irungu is also one of the judges of the American Photographer 2020 contest. She recently shared her thoughts about what kinds of images move her, and what she will be looking for in contest entries.

“I’m drawn to any kind of expression. I want to look at an image and sense an emotion — joy or pain,” she says. “Images like that are the ones that make me stop and think and wonder about the moments that led up to the photo and what happened after it was taken. But I’m going into the judging with an open eye.”

Get your entries into the contest now—the deadline is August 31.

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