atong atem

Extraordinary Routines interview Atong Atem

Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Amelia Stanwix
This interview was originally published in my column for Domain

Atong Atem: Photographer

For artist, photographer and writer Atong Atem, there are three elements to her daily life that help create a semblance of balance: work, socialising and plenty of solitude. 

“I'm constantly trying to figure out how to work as effectively and efficiently as I can, how to be social and show up for the people I care about, and how to do the same for myself.” 

In her distinctive creative work, Atong explores the themes of home, connection and identity – incorporating portraiture, video and hand painting with bold colours and patterns inspired by her South Sudanese background. 

She was the recipient of the inaugural National Gallery of Victoria and MECCA M-Power scholarship in 2018 and has a big year ahead preparing for two major solo exhibitions.

While the sheer quantity of work can be daunting, Atong aims to maintain flexibility in her days to keep work, life and solitude in check.

This requires a mix of both flexibility and control. While days are kept open and flexible to cater to client deadlines, Atong has learned to protect her mornings and evenings. 

“As a freelancer, much of your time is compressed by other people’s schedules and you have to put your feelings aside for someone else’s project or vision, but the mornings and evenings I can navigate for myself.”

Atong reminds us that while might not always be able to control our schedule, we can enjoy the moments we have in between, both at home and in the world.

Extraordinary Routines interview Atong Atem

A day in the life of Atong Atem

Extraordinary Routines Atong Atem

mid morning

My body clock gets me up at around ten, usually. I don't often have to do anything in the morning, so if I've had a late night working the night before, I can catch on sleep. 

I almost always listen to an album I love to gently wake myself up. I do like to indulge in a long shower, too, and also like to dance myself dry – it’s really goofy, but I love that warm, post-shower feeling and like to carry that energy into the day by dancing!

Most of my morning routine is about how to wake myself up and give myself space to re-energise because I had insomnia for many years and would wake up exhausted.

If I have time, I like to make an elaborate breakfasts with haloumi, eggs, tomatoes lightly pan-fried. I used to get up a lot earlier because I wasn't sleeping and skip breakfast and just have a coffee, so now I try to listen more to what my body wants. 

Extraordinary Routines interview Atong Atem


The days are usually spent between production meetings, development of projects, photoshoots and going to artist talks and lectures.

I have a chalkboard with a monthly breakdown of all the things I need to do so at a glance I know whether I have any free time coming up. It also helps to ensure I don't overbook.

For me, part of the fun of photography is the research and conceptualising. I’ll do a lot of thinking as I walk a lot, or reading during commutes on public transport.

This work comes quite naturally ­– when you’re excited about something, you make time for it. If I find I’m having to force myself to find the time to research, then it’s probably something I shouldn’t be focusing on in the first place.

That said, it's really romantic to say I’m only going to make work that I want to make. My base is that I have to pay my bills, eat and survive and being creative is me thriving, which is something to work towards. In Melbourne there are opportunities to do interesting work that still pays, like event photography. 

Extraordinary Routines interview Atong Atem


I love to cook dinner so I try to be home most evenings to do that. I’m close to some really nice supermarkets so I’ll be inspired as I walk down the aisle and gravitate to ingredients I've never used before.

Because I’m usually out and about all day, I will check emails after dinner. I work from the dining table most evenings, editing photographs and attending to deadlines. I find working at night less distracting. Also because I really enjoy my work, it feels like a reward at the end of the day.


When I remember to or when I'm not too exhausted, I’ll do some yoga before bed. I also have a whole beauty routine too, it feels good and it puts me into a really comfortable headspace before going to bed. 

I like to be in bed by 1am, but when I have things due or when I'm stressed I can stay up till 3am to get things done. If it is nearing 4am and I can't will myself to sleep I will listen to podcasts, which for me now feels like the equivalent of having a warm glass of milk.

“It’s really important to take a lot of breaks and do things that have nothing to do with work – such as visiting a friend or going to a café – just to feel like a person in the world.”
Extraordinary Routines interview Atong Atem

Follow @atongatem on Instagram


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