Pete Muller spotlights societal issues through the lens of individual stories

The photographer and documentarian's unhurried storytelling captures intimate moments that inspire understanding and empathy.

Pete Muller did not want to be a photographer at all. The National Geographic Explorer comes from a lineage of them—including his mother—and his plan was to cleave from this family tradition.

The evasion failed. Since 2005, Muller has photographed the consequences of war and conflict and explored male gender constructs around the world. He stood in Sierra Leone’s Ebola burials to capture chilling photos that tell the story of the country’s deadliest outbreak since the virus’s 1976 discovery. 

Before that, he spent over three years documenting events around South Sudan’s tumultuous transition to independence. His work is in the pages of National Geographic and TIME magazines, and the New York Times, and he has been awarded numerous prestigious international awards. 

From its news photography beginnings, his career has not slowed, though his style of execution has. His characteristically intimate, in-depth storytelling takes time. Sometimes his camera doesn’t come out for days as he takes time to ensure that the people he photographs feel comfortable. His empathetic ethos lends a “humanistic” quality to his work. 

In 2020, Muller co-produced National Geographic's The First Wave with director Matthew Heineman. The film chronicles the first months of the coronavirus crisis in New York City, following individuals navigating the emotional, medical and societal impacts of the pandemic. It won three Emmys, including best documentary. “It was extraordinary to step into the world of film during this crisis,” Muller says. “The circumstances required all of the elements that film provides.” But foundational storytelling elements remain the same from photos, to writing, to film, Muller says.

A character-driven narrative, as Muller puts it, “Demands sensitive consideration for the lives and experiences of those depicted.” He’s applying this approach as he directs his own film for the first time. The documentary is part of his National Geographic Society-funded project titled A Tale of Two Wolves: A Study of Men, Masculinity and Behavior.

Social notions of masculinity have long-fascinated Muller and form an enduring pillar of his work. “Because ‘masculinity’ is generally regarded as an identity of power, it has undergone extensive external critique but men have done little in the way of self-examination,” he says. His work aims to be a step in that direction. 

“My work on this subject men and masculinity is an extension of my own questions and struggles with the role that men are assigned to play,” he says. He’s interested in how characteristics of so-called “masculinity” emerge. His mother was an early example to him of how circumstances shape the process. Her persona was marked by “what we might ordinarily consider masculine characteristics,” Muller remembers. 

“My dad wasn’t around. She had two kids. She was a newspaper photographer, she wasn’t making a lot of money, she was working at night,” he remembers. She was under immense pressure to provide for two children on her own. “One of the toughest and hardest working people I knew was my mother,” he says. 

Muller often accompanied her through a day's work, taking photographs for the paper of the city in which he grew up outside of Boston. In those days, when film was developed in a darkroom, Muller would assist by bathing prints in chemical baths. His mother would explain what they had seen that day. Much of it was tragedy.

“In those hours in the darkroom, as my mother made enlargements and I ran the prints through the chemicals, she did her best to explain to me what was motivating some of the difficulties we'd captured that day,” he recalls. “This was really the beginning of my social education.” 

The town where his mother worked was marred by gang violence and a struggling economy. Muller calls himself fortunate to have lived his formative years in relative peace. But he hasn’t been insulated from extreme violence. After years of photographing war, his understanding of it is layered: 

“I’d venture to say that every act of organized armed violence is an outgrowth of story,” he says. “Competing parties have very different views on the same series of events. Each believes that their telling of history is correct. Very few people see themselves as aggressors. This requires both vigilance and sensitivity on behalf of anyone who attempts to tell the story of conflict.”

If Muller is anything, it’s “thinky,” he says. To him, nothing is too obvious. Becoming aware of his analytical outlook helped shepherd him toward storytelling fueled by his curiosities. From the quick-turnaround nature of news photography, he began to dig deeper. 

“I was a news photographer for many years and I loved that. But I ultimately started to feel like it wasn’t the most natural fit for my temperament.” He wanted to understand the deeper roots of the issues making headlines. In addition to his studies on conflict and violence, he spent two years investigating loss related to changing environments. To do this, Muller traveled to six different places to explore and document a unique kind of grief tied to environmental transformation.

Muller spoke with a pianist in Paradise, California who would perform five nights a week, until his concert room was flattened by wildfires. Members of Peru’s Quechua nations shared in their mourning of disappearing Andean glaciers, which they believe to hold healing properties. And off the coast of Louisiana, as Mexican Gulf waters swallow Isle de Jean Charles, families explained the painful nature of having to choose whether to flee or remain in their radically changed home.

The collection of these testimonies, published in National Geographic, explores a familiar, yet seldom-discussed feeling. In 2003, Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht created the term “solastalgia” to describe the emotional pain that arises from watching one's home place change in negative ways. Muller used this word as a starting point to examine the emotional impacts of major forms of environmental change throughout the world.

“Creating a word for something can be incredibly transformative in terms of our ability to perceive it. Once we can truly 'see' something, perhaps the opportunity to address it increases,” Muller says. As much as the project highlights physical transformation, he’s interested in how external changes affect people on an emotional level. 

The Solastalgia project launched in early 2020. It cannoned into The First Wave film, as the pandemic's lockdowns transformed the world that once was. The erasure of social engagement prompted a longing for more connected times, a form of solastalgia one could argue, Muller says. 

Reflecting on the many human stories he’s documented, Muller says he has come to understand this truth: “Whatever you’re looking at, rest assured it's complicated.” Because of this, he’s deliberate about living in the gray area of matters. He began voicing over his pictures to draw attention to the complexity of issues beyond what can be captured in a photographic moment. 

“We’re living in times where people prefer simple, comforting answers to complex and uncomfortable questions,” he says. “While this approach might feel good, it doesn’t do much to actually address problems.” Muller believes that compassionate recognition of complexity is essential.

“Human beings are flawed and fascinating and filled with layers. If we’re really honest, most of us are scared and wounded and trying our best under imperfect circumstances. The challenge is to tell stories that reflect all of that. Those are the stories that move me.” 

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.

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