In almost every photo from our 1986 family vacation to Washington, D.C., I am showing off the souvenir I picked out from the gift shop at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo—a white, oversize, cotton sweatshirt with puff-paint pandas dancing on the front. I was nine years old, and pandas were cool. Not even midsummer heat could deter me from keeping that sweatshirt on throughout the trip.
I remember very little from the vacation, aside from the thrill of being at the zoo and seeing the giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing—star attractions on the tourist circuit. The following year Ling-Ling gave birth to twin cubs. The babies didn’t survive, but I don’t remember learning that as a kid.
Nearly 30 years later I found myself in the midst of a pool of photojournalists and video crews packed into the panda enclosure. A small cub named Bei Bei was being presented to the world, and I was covering it for National Geographic. The closest I’d come to photographing a subject that generated this level of frenzied enthusiasm was when Angelina Jolie visited the National Geographic Society headquarters for an event. (Read about the newest giant panda born at the National Zoo.)