American Hustle: Iowa City photographer Justin Torner never stops moving

Justin Torner
The vast majority of Justin Torner’s gigs come from word-of-mouth referrals. — photo by Tonya Kehoe

Having left the corporate world behind a few years ago to follow his dream of building his photography career and business, Justin Torner tells me, “If you are not doing what you really want to, life just feels like an uphill battle.”

I first met Justin last year on the 2013 Culinary Ride, where both he and I were covering the event. Since then, I’ve seen him at countless events (including last week’s Pride Parade, where he jumped in my Jeep as it was moving to get a better perspective on the parade with his camera), and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to learn a little more about Torner.

He tells me that the vast majority of his shoots or gigs are word-of-mouth referrals. Torner loves covering sports and food shoots, but also photographs people, events and teams. He tells me he is really happy to have returned to his hometown of Iowa City, for good.

We met at the West High Football bleachers to chat for a bit. Having started his photo career as the West High (class of 1997) Yearbook photographer, these bleachers felt very much like a solid home base.

Little Village: Please tell me a little about yourself…maybe where you attended school, training, height? Just kidding about that one. Favorite flavor of gelato…(not kidding)

Justin Torner: I’m a born-again Iowa Citian; I left after High School to pursue the photo dream via Ohio University, switched majors after a major photo-burnout, ended up “Plan B” in Naples, FL running the corporate accounts at a major rental car company for SW Florida. The economy happened and I ended up “Plan C” in Columbus, OH (thus the dreaded 614 area code in my phone number… I’ve been meaning to fix that). Even more economy happened, a divorce, a hip surgery and I came home to pursue “Plan A.” Turns out the grass wasn’t greener on the other side (even in Florida.) You really have to leave this town to truly appreciate how awesome it is. I began my full-time career as a freelance commercial and editorial photographer in 2011, and the rest is history and in my portfolio.

Gelato: No. So Delicious Turtle Trails soy ice cream? hell yes.

I see you at all of the events I attend…ok maybe not all but many! What kinds of events are your favorite to photograph and why?

Every photo assignment presents its own challenges and joys, but I’ll break from the cliché there and say that I love shooting the finesse jobs, ones that take a little whimsy and a lot of lighting and Photoshop. I love putting the best face of my subjects forward, telling their story, but telling it with polish — not Photoshopped into nonsensical lies. Food, action portraits, sports, and interesting editorials are the top favorites.

When and how did you get started in photography? Do you have a favorite photo? 

It all started at West High under my mentor Ben VanZante, first in the darkroom of the art wing, moving on to yearbook and the West Side Story, shooting on the sidelines of the newly christened Trojan Field and meandering the halls telling classmates’ stories with pictures. I spent time in the summer and other breaks filling the holes in the schedule left by vacationing students at the Daily Iowan. Determined to make a career of it, I went to Ohio, and ended up with a degree in audio production. After about an 8-year hiatus, I brushed off my cameras and fell in love with the craft all again.

I’ve got a few favorite photos, too many actually. My portfolio is out of control on a tangent. I’m also working on a few projects that I’m having a blast shooting and editing lately.

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Who do you work for and how do you manage so much freelance work? Do you have any advice for newbie photographers that you would like to share? People trying to break into the biz? Lastly, if you weren’t one of IC’s busiest photographers, what would you be doing instead?

I shoot it all and for everyone. I have a list of clients varying from newspapers to corporate entities to proud parents, all with unique needs and aesthetics. Listening to what they are needing, and then working to exceed those needs, individually for each client, creating exciting and engaging content that evokes an emotion to their viewers. I’d use that as my slogan if it would fit on a business card.

This works across any business, not just [photography]. Do your best every time for every client and your business will grow organically. Become friends with your competition, and nurture the business community by helping each other be successful. 

In my rare free time, I’m a closet musician. Every time I shoot a concert I get that urge to be up on stage instead… I go home and pluck a few strings, and rock out to an audience of none… and then get back to editing the concert shoot. 

Find Justin at: