Featured Artist - Tony Eaton
Be warned what follows is the harrowing, yet uplifting tale of Tony Eaton – a remarkable North Shore photographer who has lived through a lifetime of medical impediments in the past year and come out on the other side with a brilliant outlook on life.
This is not the first time Tony’s work has been featured on our blog. If you look closely you’ll notice his handiwork sprinkled within in the features of Derek Warner, Reece Hickman and Tyler Godes. Tony is a mentor to some, a friend to many and an inspiration to us here at UNTC. Hopefully once you get to know him, Tony will be an inspiration to you as well.
So right off the bat let’s get straight into the nitty gritty… who exactly is Tony Eaton? Can you tell us a little about yourself and how it is you happened to get into photography?
Hey thank you guys for having me! My name’s Tony and I am a 24 year old photographer and videographer based in the Twin Cities area. I grew up in Chaska, MN but I recently spent my last three years in Duluth where I found my love of photography, videography, and the outdoors. I am a friendly face that loves family, friends, and his wiener dog, Beans. I’m a pretty mixed bag of a person but you can usually catch me with a camera in-hand, watching Youtube videos, or trying to pick up a new hobby.
How I got into photography: I first purchased a camera called a Canon SL1 the summer going into my freshman year at Winona State as a way to capture some memories with my high school friends before we parted ways for college. I used it for videos in the beginning but it was used very sparingly during my first two years in Winona.
Fast forward two years and I transferred schools for a much needed change so I decided Duluth would be a better fit. I started working at a place called the Multimedia Hub on UMD’s campus my first semester in Duluth. It’s a magical place filled with photo/video equipment galore and iMacs designed for photo and video editing. There, I met some really awesome friends, Chris Wodicka @ccwod & Keegan Burckhard @KeeganBurckhard who inspired me to pick up my camera and shoot. Chris is a photographer & graphic designer who invited me out on my first ever photo shoot up the North Shore where we met up with some other photographers you may know such as, Nemuel @King_Nemuel, & Henry @Hank_is_Crank, and Parker @ParkerMorehouse. I was a giant noob at the time and was really nervous to be around these already established photographers. I ended up loving the experience and I’ve been hooked ever since.
As for videography, Keegan’s a talented videographer & photographer whose work was/is worlds above mine. Seeing his work and hustle really drove me to delve into video and was a turning point for me.
Where did the iconic Instagram handle @fing_dong come from?
First of all… Fing Dong is NOT my real name contrary to what some (dummies) may believe. I seriously can’t even count the amount of times someone has approached me asking, “Are you Fing Dong?” Some of my friends I met from Instagram legitimately thought my name was Fing before I met them!!
Anyway, the name originated from a test in high school. One of my teachers put, “Fing Dong” as a multiple choice answer to a question and my friends took it upon themselves to start immediately calling me that as a joke since I am Korean and they are jerks. Anyway, when I was brainstorming names for my Instagram handle, Fing Dong was the obvious choice and it has unfortunately stuck with me all these years.
Word on the street is that, like many of our previously featured photographers, you too are a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. What impact has living in Duluth for that amount of time had on your work and appreciation for the natural landscape of the North Shore?
Living in Duluth changed my life. My first couple of years in college were really rough and I was so lost at the time. My life had zero direction and I never knew I had any creative ability until I moved to Duluth. My passion for photography and videography would most likely be nonexistent if I never would’ve moved there and hadn’t met the people I did.
All of the factors that make Duluth, Duluth are very unique. The artistic, warm-hearted, & slightly hipster people, the rusticity of the downtown area, the crazy cold-spells & snow storms, Lake Superior (our mini ocean), and being so close to so much natural beauty inspired me. It gave me a reason to hop in my car with some friends and take a road trip whenever I wanted. Having immediate access to that was therapeutic and oh-so necessary. Experiencing the North Shore for the first time was inspiring and it showed me that northern Minnesota is the real deal.
For anyone who is interested in photography, video, or nature in general, I’d strongly urge you to take a trip up the shore and see for yourself on why it has inspired so many other creators to do what they do.
You have an incredible talent for shooting both landscape and portraits… which sounds a lot easier to pull off than it actually is. Which do you prefer shooting? How do you approach the two and what challenges you about each of the different types of subject matter?
Thank you! I really enjoy both but when the weather & scenery are prime, landscape takes the cake.
-My approach to landscape photos is pretty casual. My friends and I would send it up the shore a few times a week to grab some photos where very rarely one of my shots is planned besides the location. It all starts with a hike to somewhere we want to visit and freestyling from there. The biggest challenge for me is finding different locations, perspectives, and angles no one else has used. The North Shore and Minneapolis area have been overshot to death so thinking out of the box to differentiate your work is 100% necessary and something that has always been important for me.
-Portraits are another love of mine! After I began taking landscape photos, I started taking photos of some friends when we would go on hikes and adventures. For me, there’s much more planning involved and every shot you take has to have intention and fluidity in order for it to look natural and not entirely posed. You also have to plan your shot around the sun which is a struggle sometimes. The biggest challenge for me is making people feel comfortable in front of the camera. Most of my portraits I take are of my friends and some of those friends can get really shy when you start shooting. It’s the photographer’s job to make them feel comfortable and confident in front of the lens so the photo looks as natural as possible. Something I’m not bad at but it can be difficult!
You haven’t been quite as active recently on Instagram, can you tell us a little about what has been going on in your life lately?
This is going to be a long story but each event has led to another and added up over the last year so I’m just going to share it all. Here we go!
This past year has been a tough one. I’ve had some pretty serious medical issues that dragged me out of my everyday life and forced me to focus on my health instead. What medical issues you might ask? This will come as a surprise to many because I’ve chosen to keep this sort of private, but I suffered a stroke in October 2018 that forced me to drop out of school and move back home to rehab myself. I woke up in the early morning, tried to stand, and immediately collapsed. When I realized I couldn’t use the right side of my body, I crawled to my living room and called a friend to take me to the hospital. It was actually on UMD’s Homecoming and I was supposed to film the Lizzo concert that night. It was also right before Lizzo got really famous so maybe I could’ve been her videographer and now I’d be RICH. Anyway, I ended up losing my ability to use the right side of my body and it was pretty devastating at the time. This took months of relearning how to walk, brush my teeth, eat, and anything you can think of that you’d need your right side for. I’m recovered now but it took some pretty intensive physical and occupational therapy to get where I am today. The doctors said that they found a hole in my heart that a blood clot escaped through and went to my brain which caused the stroke.
Fast forward to January and I’m back in school to finish out my final semester. Ended up getting a job with the UMD athletic department as a videographer for the semester where I found my passion for sports videography. I made some cool friends & memories, and proudly graduated in 4.5 years with an average GPA and a Psychology degree I probably would never use again! I did all of this while long-awaiting heart surgery in late May. The surgery was to patch the hole in my heart and would be a non-invasive procedure through my leg/groin area. It was supposed to be routine and I was expected to walk out the next day and carry on with normal life but NOOOOPPPPEEEEE!!!!!
Surgery seemed to go fine and I was discharged from the hospital the next day feeling 6/10. I thought I had some grogginess from the anesthesia and played it off like I was fine but as soon as I stepped outside of the hospital to get in the car, I started shaking uncontrollably. I thought I was having a panic attack and laid in fetal position in the backseat for 20 minutes. I fought through it and forced my parents to bring me home instead of doing a 180 back into the hospital. A few hours later, I took a nap and woke up to the shakes coming back, but this time, much much worse. I went to the ER where I had a 106 degree fever and got sent right back to the same hospital that had just discharged me. Turns out those shakes were caused by a heart infection called endocarditis that I got from the initial surgery. Crazy fevers and shakes would spike at random times and I was left incapacitated while this would happen. This infection led to some pretty crazy experiences in the hospital, the latter of which being open heart surgery.
The open heart surgery was not optional and I would’ve died without it. The surgery was very painful. I didn’t know this but they literally have to break your sternum to gain access to your heart of that surgery. Ow. Everything seemed orderly until the doctors told me I was experiencing kidney failure from the surgery and I might have to go on dialysis until/if it resolves.
I was hospitalized for 2 weeks total. Those two weeks consisted of feeling sick 24/7, endless blood draws, tests on tests on tests, painful shots, and some other pretty gruesome stuff I’ll spare you from reading. I waited in the hospital for over a week so the doctors could monitor my kidney function. Every day they’d come back and say it was getting worse which was terrifying. I got to the point where I had to accept that this would be my life from now on.
Finally after a week and a half of relentless waiting around, they told me my kidneys started working again. Hearing that news was the most relieving and emotional experience I’ve ever had, because I realized at that moment... I had a renewed lease on life and get to fight another day..
Fast forward another couple of days of healing and I was finally discharged. I couldn’t drive anywhere for like 6 weeks so I was stuck at home unless friends came to pick me up and bring me places. The no driving part sucked and was by far the worst part.
Anyway, I am back to full health with a pretty crazy looking scar that reminds me everyday how lucky I am to be alive. I learned A LOT from these experiences and how easily life can change in an instant. Ever since the surgery, I’ve been playing catch-up to get back to my daily routine and as of now, I’ve stayed busy making videos and I am busier than ever making Instagram polls for my followers! Sorry to hit you all with this bombshell story but I think it’s about time I let people know what’s been going on and why I’ve been so inactive the last 12 months!! Plus who doesn’t love a good horror story, right?
Having been through something like that, has there been any dramatic change to the way you approach daily life or the way you approach your art?
There’s been so many lessons learned from this whole experience. The biggest change to the way I approach daily life is always trying to be an optimist. When I was in the hospital, I had many reasons to feel sorry for myself and to give up hope. It’s understandable to lament in situations that feel hopeless but ultimately, YOU have to be the one to be brave and battle through whatever it is you’re going through, and truly believe that whatever happens, things will be okay.
As for my approach to photography, I approach taking photos as more of a holistic experience rather than shooting to get Instagram likes or money, which is what I used to always do. Corny or not, you have to live in the moment and really soak in where you are, who you’re with, and how lucky you are to be taking photos with your friends. Not being able to go out and take photos because of my health was tough for me and I feel like I missed out on a lot. That’s why when I shoot now, I make sure I take a good look around and really think to myself how lucky I am to be here and how beautiful the world is.
In addition to still photography your website includes a number of videos. Which medium do you prefer working in and why?
I prefer video in a work environment because I feel there are more unique opportunities available. There’s so many photographers in Minnesota but not all of them do video and that’s the way I wanted to differentiate myself from the crowd. It’s a ton of work to learn and very expensive to buy the necessary gear but it has given me some really amazing opportunities.
I enjoy photography as more of a hobby nowadays even though I’m still open to doing contracted photo work. With video, you’re working with a live motion image instead of a still image which gives you more flexibility to work with. I also think that with video, you have more room to present a message, emotion, and story across to your viewer whereas with a photo, what you see is what you get.
The big caveat when you do work for someone else that requires creativity is it can be very stressful to come up with something on a deadline for x-amount of dollars. When something becomes work, it can drain you mentally. That’s why I try to keep photography as casual and light as possible, so hopefully I never lose the love I have for it.
I also see that your ideal job would be as a videographer for some sort of sports team, either at the collegiate or professional level. What is it about sporting events that draws you to that type of video work?
The constant energy at sporting events is what draws me in. I’ve had the privilege of shooting some really awesome & high profile college games the past year. I recently got to shoot the Penn State vs Minnesota football upset and it was seriously one of the best experiences I’ve had on the job. It’s games like that, that make everything worth it. I still get those ‘first day of school’ jitters every time I shoot a game and I hope that never goes away. I’m not opposed to other type of video niches but I’ve found that working in professional sports is a very lucrative industry and it is constantly evolving in terms of digital media and I want to be at the forefront of it.
What in photography would you say challenges you? What do you see as your strengths? And what resources do you use for improving your skill?
One of my biggest challenges with photography is knowing which photo is, “THE ONE”. What I mean by, “the one” is that I have posted photos in the past that I think are the best I can do. I get so hyped to share them with people so I do... but a few months down the road, I look back and feel embarrassed by how in the moment, I felt like that photo was perfect but at second glance, I realize the photo is lacking something or simply not my best. The fix for that is to sit on your photos for a while and really ask yourself if this is something you’re proud of sharing and is this unique to YOU? This is another big reason why I choose not to just freely throw photos out on Instagram anymore.
My composition on my images isn’t the greatest and is something I have to work on but I would say I’m pretty sound at the technical side of photography. I know the ins & outs of my cameras now and I feel confident in just about any situation.
I think the best teaching resource is Youtube. There’s some really experienced photographers and videographers out there showing the world how to do what they do so that is an amazing resource to use. Plus it’s free! Another is asking friends for help. Experienced friends can give you some insight that you might not have found on your own while browsing Youtube or the web. This advice tends to end up being the most useful.
Besides your amazing work in the photographic arts we know you also happen to be a fantastic fishing aficionado. Where do you like to fish? What is your favorite fish to catch? And favorite fish to eat?
I’m definitely nothing special when it comes to fishing but I grew up fishing with my dad, grandpa, and the rest of my family so it’s always been a big part of my life. My favorite place to fish is Lake Vermillion. I haven’t been up there in a few years but that place is beautiful. There’s a lot of rocky structure, wildlife, and hidden coves so it’s perfect not only for fishing but for sightseeing as well. It’s a far drive but totally worth it. Also, I’m a big fan of kayak fishing. There’s some really awesome lakes in the metro area that I enjoy fishing at, that I’d like to remain nameless ;)
My favorite fish to catch is largemouth bass. I think they’re the easiest to target and the fight is always good.
My favorite fish to eat is either salmon or sunfish. A smoked salmon bagel is heavenly and a greasy fish fry of fresh caught sunnies takes me back to when I was little.
Frankly, and I think this is quite high praise from the people you choose to surround yourself with, but you seem to be a very popular guy to hang out with on a photo shoot. We’ve had no fewer than 3 of our past guests tell us that you are the guy we need to talk to (and let’s be honest… we’ve been well acquainted with your incredible talent for well over a year). What benefits do you think shooting with friends brings to your work?
Thank you Tyler @Godes_Tyler, Reece @Reece_Hickman, Derek Warner @D.R.Warner and anyone else who gave me the referral!
I think shooting with friends is what grows you as a photographer. Friends help you grow as a photographer by giving you feedback, tips, and sometimes a light competitive push to be better. It’s nice to have photographer friends like Tyler, Reece, and Derek who will literally run around a location chasing different angles and perspectives and you have to do your best to get your own unique photo that differentiates yours from theirs. It’s also just nice to have someone that will go with you to shoot to keep you company. I think you’re definitely more inclined to shoot if you have friends who are eager to get out and take photos.
When you go out shooting would you say you generally have an idea of the shot you want to get in your head or are you looking to be inspired in the moment?
There’s times when I have a location in mind and I have a general idea of what I want shot but being inspired in the moment is usually what I end up doing. I think working on the fly is where you really grow as a photographer. Scenes change and you can’t always rely on the weather to give you a good image so that’s when you have to improvise and use your surroundings to be creative.
For instance, when the weather or scenery aren’t the greatest and I want to add more to the scene, I like to put a person in frame to give the viewer a sense of scale and adventure.
What would you say is your favorite season? Favorite thing about shooting in Minnesota? And favorite location to shoot?
Favorite season overall is summer, hands down! Warm weather, ice cream, boating, swimming, and longer days are the best.
My favorite thing about shooting in Minnesota is the seasonal change. I used to hate the seasonal change and wanted to move to California in the worst way but you start to appreciate the summer more when it’s contrasted with bitter & snowy cold, fall allergies, and a rainy springtime.
My favorite location to shoot is Tettegouche State Park. That’s probably the most popular answer but that park has so many different things to shoot. I also really like Two Harbors Lighthouse. It’s really a cool place to watch the sunset and see some ships passing by in the distance. Black Sand Beach is also a hidden gem!
We’ve heard from multiple back channel sources that you are quite culturally diverse in your food choices and enjoy trying all kinds of new places… are there any specific places, restaurants, coffee shops, campgrounds, etc. that you absolutely love or have to stop by when shooting in Northern Minnesota?
I don’t know who’s telling you these things but they are so accurate. My favorite thing is trying new restaurants, breweries, etc. when I go to a new place. Nothing pains me more than to go somewhere with well-known restaurant dives and hidden gems and your friends suggest we go to Applebee’s. Applebee’s has its time and place but I think it’s sinful not to try a more unique & native spot to the area than a big box chain restaurant…
Some places I really enjoy going to are:
- Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors- Grab a beer and order pizza to the brewery from NorthShore Pizza Cafe. One of my favorite spots to grab a brew and za. *Thank you to my friend Allie for that recommendation!
- If you like smoked fish, go to Russ Kendall’s on the scenic route of the North Shore and grab some smoked salmon and lake trout. Northern Waters Smokehaus in Canal Park is also great.
- If you make the trek to Grand Marais, Voyageur Brewing Company has great beer and food.
- Wasabi Sushi in Superior: all you can eat sushi at lunchtime is like $16 and it’s great sushi. I’ve eaten myself sick there every time I’ve gone...
- The Other Place (The OP) in Duluth for wing wednesday. WOWEEEE
- Beijing Restaurant in Duluth. It burnt down last fall but I heard it’s reopening. When you had a bit too much to drink the night before and you need some mediocre Chinese food to fill your stomach for a low price… Go there. Trust me.
Are you a sunset or sunrise kind of person?
Sunset! Sunrise is always worth it when I can get myself out of bed but it’s just too early for me sometimes.
How about dogs or cats?
Dogs! I’m allergic to cats unfortunately :/
This one might sound a little strange, but a good friend of yours who shall remain nameless for witness protection purposes informed us that you have a little man-crush on Kris Lindahl the real estate agent. First of all, would you like to confirm or deny these rumors? and secondly… what’s up with that? Where did the rumor come from (because as Stefon Diggs has well informed us, there is some truth behind every rumor)?
HAHAHAHA!! The rumors are indeed true. I’m fascinated by Kris Lindahl and I’m all about his bold marketing strategies. I started noticing his billboards in the very beginning of his marketing campaign and would always tell people to count how many billboards you’d see from the cities to Duluth. It was INSANE. People get annoyed nowadays seeing his face on every bus, train, billboard, commercial, and hearing his voice on the radio but I seriously respect the man’s hustle that’s led to him being the most successful and well-known realtors in the midwest. Do I know if he’s good at selling houses? NOPE. I just know that the guy knows how to promote his brand and business has inevitably followed. The man is a legend and I strive to be like him one day.
What do you do when you’re not out shooting? (Any hobbies, favorite shows, play any musical instruments, etc.)
I have a bunch of random hobbies! I enjoy fishing, watching Youtube videos, listening to new Joe Rogan podcasts, trying new breweries and restaurants, road trips, hiking, snowboarding, guitar, pond hockey, cooking, and doing hood rat things with my friends.
I really enjoy watching ‘The Office’. Took me a long time to finally watch it my sophomore year of college but ever since, I’ve watched it all the way through like 8 times.
Do you happen to have a favorite photo you’ve ever taken
Bean and Bear Lake- My buddies Tyler, Ike, and I went to Bean and Bear and searched for 30 minutes looking for the trailhead. We did the hike and made it to the overlook right as the sun was setting and it was the most perfect sunset I’ve shot. That hike sucks so being rewarded like that is great.
*S/O Ike for being the model. Also R.I.P. to the photos from this day that were lost when my computer crashed!
Who are your heroes? (Photography or otherwise)
Alex Strohl @AlexStrohl - Adventure and landscape photographer. Go watch his “Behind the Lens” episode on Youtube and try to tell me that isn’t motivating.
Kalen Emsley @KalenEmsley- He’s more underrated than anything but seeing his style and variety was very inspiring to me. He has a great mix of beautiful landscapes and the occasional portrait on his page which is exactly the type of variety I try to emulate.
Dylan Kato @DylanKato- Another underrated landscape photographer who I believe is waaay younger than me. His work is mind boggling to me and his style is unique to him. He’s currently on a LDS mission until 4/2021 though so he won’t be shooting for a very long time though which is crazy to me that we won’t see another photo from him til 2021.
George Ilstrup @GeorgeDuluth, The North Shore GOAT. He has always been an inspiration to me and many other North Shore photographers. His sunrise sea smoke photo of the Tettegouche rock is the sole reason that I went out the next day to see it for myself.
Tyler Godes @Godes_Tyler- One of my best buds and someone whose photography I honestly laughed at when I first saw it (Check out his “Fiery Sunset over Bean Lake Photo from April 2018 OOF). He messaged me on Instagram asking to go shoot in Minneapolis one day and ever since, I’ve watched him grind to improve his skills and it has shown dramatically in his work.
My family. My family has been through a lot the past couple of years and even when the going gets tough, they’ve still managed to make everything work out and provide endless love and support. Through all of my medical issues, career changes, and all of my many mistakes, they’ve always given proper guidance & believed in me.
Any bucket shots on your list?
Too many to count. I would love to go to Mt. Fuji in Japan, Trolltunga & Preikestolen in Norway, Glacier Point in Yosemite, the California Red Woods, and Nebraska ;
What’s one piece of advice you would offer someone who is just starting out as a photographer?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of shooting only for likes, followers, and money. Social media is great and the likes and followers can really boost your mood sometimes.. But don’t be afraid to take photos of your friends, family, pets, or whatever brings you joy. Photography is a great means of sharing your art with the world but it is also great to capture moments and memories with the people you love! I have endless amounts of sunrise and sunset photos but totally regret over the years not enough photos of things that have meaning to me.
This one comes from our previous featured guest the "Girl of 10,000 Lakes” Jenny Anderson who would like to know ... If you could jump into a swimming pool of anything you want (except water), what would it be?
Ehh probably bricks! Just kidding. BUTTER! Then I can finally live out my dream to pretend that I’m corn on the cob!
What one question would you ask our next featured guest? (Anything you like)
What is your biggest pet peeve and why?
Time to pay it forward... who else would you like to see featured on this blog?
@King_Nemuel - the man is nonstop working to differentiate himself and learn new concepts. Originality at its finest with Mr. Nemmy.
@ZachRohweder - most underrated photographer in Duluth in my humble opinion.
Thank you so much for your time
For more great work by Tony follow him online in the following ways...