Documenting Ancient Realms with Photographer Ken Garrett

National Geographic photographer Ken Garrett knew from an early age that he wanted to make a living taking photographs, but it was his anthropological studies that put his career in focus. An expert in documenting the remnants and relics of early civilizations, Ken travels the world in pursuit of images that illuminate ancient realms, including the fascinating archaeological sites of Egypt. He’ll be joining National Geographic’s inaugural voyage along the Nile River in 2020. We recently caught up with him to get his take on this incredible journey.

What, for you, are some of the highlights of National Geographic’s Nile River Cruise: Treasures of Egypt?

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This trip carries the traveler to many of the highlights of ancient Egyptian civilization. Starting in the Old Kingdom with the Pyramids at Giza and the Great Sphinx, we see the Egyptians’ first efforts to build stone structures. Moving south, we encounter the New Kingdom in Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Boarding the riverboat for the Nile portion, we add in the later periods, mooring in Aswân for the Ptolemaic, or final phase. We then head back to Cairo to review the whole progression in the Egyptian Museum. The true highlight is how we voyage through 2,500 years of Egyptian civilization in sequence.

What makes Egypt an inspiring place for photographers?

Photographically, Egypt is an incredible canvas. The land and the people, the art and the architecture—everywhere you look there is something new to document and capture.

Tell us about your most memorable National Geographic assignments in this region.

My first National Geographic assignment in Egypt was to document the Old Kingdom (circa 2686–2181 B.C.), so I still have a particular affinity for that period. I enjoyed collaborating with National Geographic archaeologists who were doing innovative research around the Giza Plateau. I learned about the workers who built the pyramids, how the pyramids were constructed, and how the valley temples functioned. My next big job was the entire Valley of the Kings—a massive project for one story, but it allowed me to learn about the workings of the New Kingdom. With those two stories finished, we picked off a dozen more in-depth and targeted stories, which continue to add to the knowledge base as we unravel the secrets of Egypt’s past.

How do you hope visiting Egypt will change travelers?

Visiting Egypt is magical. How did they produce this incredible civilization and its rich artistic expressions? What was the glue that held it all together? And what caused the intermediate periods of decline, only for the civilization to come roaring back with renewed vigor in near 500-year cycles? There is mystery. There is beauty. If we are lucky, we can learn from the tapestry of the past and enjoy new insights into our lives at home.

What motivates you as a photographer?

What motivates me as a photographer is simple: I want to understand the civilization, its people, and its history. Then, when I understand the sequence, I set out to illustrate it in such a way that the reader can access the subject more easily through my images. I try to tell enough of the story that the reader will feel inspired and want to learn more.

Why is it important to travel?

When I am trapped in a crowded, dusty city, I feel the modern stresses. When I step out onto the open plains of the Serengeti, I feel a relief and a freedom with the world of nature (with an awareness that a hyena might be thinking I would make a good dinner). Perspective is the secret—we all gain perspective when we get out and travel. So, favorite anecdotes aside, the unknown adventure that awaits around the corner is always there to lure us out into the field each day—a new cloud, a new sunrise, a new bird for our life list. Every day that we travel, we see and learn something new, and learning is what makes life exciting.

Do you have any other thoughts you want to share with prospective travelers?

Modern Egypt has something for everyone—from desert wilderness to golden palaces, ancient treasures to contemporary art, medieval marketplaces to shopping malls. Bring your sun hat, your camera, and your curiosity, and we will all have a great trip.

Learn more about National Geographic's inaugural river cruise along the Nile, and join Ken to document Egypt's ancient treasures.