This article is an adaptation of our weekly Photography newsletter that was originally sent out on September 18, 2021. Want this in your inbox? Sign up here.
By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences
“Sharks are the least of it,” says longtime National Geographic photo editor Kathy Moran when asked about the challenges of photographing underwater. “In fact, you hope for sharks if you are making photos!“
And Kathy should know. For more than four decades, she has been collaborating with the best underwater photographers in the business: National Geographic Explorers Thomas Peschak and Emmy winner Brian Skerry. Also among them: duo Jen Hayes and her husband, David Doubilet, whose National Geographic career has spanned more than 50 years. Both Tom and David have books on underwater photography coming out. (Pictured above, blacktip reef sharks in the Seychelles from the cover of Tom’s book, Wild Seas; below, harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and gentoo and chinstrap penguins on an ice floe near Danko Island in Antarctica.)
The biggest challenges are the things that people rarely consider: depth, clarity, currents. “It can be a beautiful day on the surface,” Kathy says. “But a little breeze can kick up a chop that makes photography impossible.”
So, what makes a great underwater picture? I ask.
“Light–and an understanding of how to use it,” Kathy answers without hesitation. “So basic, but it sets the stage for everything.” (Below, humpback whales bubble-net feeding in the waters off Alaska.)
But story comes first. “It is easy to dazzle with a set of underwater photos,” Kathy says, but the most important thing is to keep narrative in mind. “David and Jen, Brian, and Tom are photojournalists. This is what sets them apart.
Tom brings his signature research skills to every story that he proposes. The same rigor goes into his fieldwork. “He literally never got out of the water,” Kathy observed from one assignment. “It was fascinating and exhausting to watch him work.” (Pictured above, a tourist on a boat off Baja California’s Laguna San Ignacio reaches into the bay in the hope of petting a gray whale.)
David and Jen aren’t interested in making beautiful photos. They look at biology and coral decline. They document how people fit into ecosystems and what co-existence looks like, as in David’s photo (below) from Papua New Guinea. “Together they bring science and art to every story,” Kathy says. A group of such photos, which split the perspective above and below the surface, form the backbone of his new collection, Two Worlds: Above and Below the Sea.
Brian, whose Secrets of the Whales documentary series just won a Primetime Emmy, goes after the stories that others run from. He did not pitch a story on humpback whales; instead, he pitched a story on whale culture–“something hard to quantify and almost impossible to photograph,” says Kathy. “He chases ghosts and ideas.” (Below, beluga whales in the Canadian Arctic.)
With so much of the ocean unexplored, what picture remains out of reach? Tom is chasing “an underwater mural of South African kelp forests, showing the verticality and density of the ecosystem,” Kathy tells me. And David “never stops scheming on the best way to document a reef in its totality.“
She continues: “Those are the two Holy Grails.”
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TODAY IN A MINUTE
Upstaging the Met Gala: Covering one of the biggest fashion nights of the year, Vogue photographer Hunter Abrams ended up dominating social media mention, too, with their Willie Norris dress (and Nike shoes). Hunter was caught off guard by the attention. “I didn’t think anyone would care enough to pay this much attention to what I was wearing, especially since I was working,” they told Vogue.
From pain to strength: At 14, the sudden, severe pain in Rikke Mathiasen’s back was diagnosed as scoliosis—and permanent. Over the past decade, she had turned to photography as a visual retrospective of the surgeries, the adjustments, and the loneliness she has weathered. She says her remarkable photo series, shown in this Washington Post feature, “is also a way for me to work with this psychological pain.”
Finding fame abroad: Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Henry Ossawa Tanner had to leave the United States for his art and his reputation to flourish. Until he left for France, Tanner, found many art classes and teachers wouldn’t accept Black students. In France, the successful and internationally known artist once said, “nobody knows or cares what was the complexion of my forebears." Recent X-rays and infrared photography of his work have revealed surprises and insights, NPR reports.
Award season: Dutch photographer Jasper Doest has won a special category of the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. Jasper, a frequent Nat Geo contributor, won this year’s Fritz Pölking Prize for his project on the traditional cricket hunt in Uganda, the judges announced. Here’s Jasper talking about his work process at the National Geographic Society’s Storyteller Summit in 2020.
INSTAGRAM OF THE DAY
All in one: Bodyguard. Alarm system. Best friend. Workmate. That describes Remo, a Malinois breed dog shepherd, shown above with her caregiver, Spanish farmer Jenifer Santos. In the Canary Islands, the southernmost region of Spain, farmers have long been awaiting subsidies from Europe, but the response has been slow. The Canaries are still trying to escape the 2008 economic crisis that hit the region harder than any other place in Spain. This work is supported by the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists.
Dogs and people: A bond that has lasted more than 10,000 years
OVERHEARD AT NAT GEO
Breaking the rules: While growing up, Hannah Reyes Morales wasn’t allowed to venture out into the rough streets of Manila, but later her work as a photographer would take her there. In the city’s dark corners, she shed light on the Philippine government’s violent war on drugs. In the latest episode of our Overheard podcast, Hannah talks about covering the plight of some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens, such as this young boy pictured above, who lives in a dangerous Manila tenement complex. Hannah, also a Nat Geo Explorer, captures him touching a gumamela (hibiscus) flower that his sister picked.
IN A FEW WORDS
THE LAST GLIMPSE
A blast from the future: While photographing for Nat Geo deep in a North Carolina swamp, Mac Stone noticed something strange and alarming streaking behind the trees Wednesday night. Shouting in confusion to his assistant, he quickly recomposed his camera. For only 30 seconds the latest SpaceX rocket was visible heading northeast across the heavens. He captured that path-breaking flight into space and contrasted it with the Cypress trees that have been anchored to Earth for more than 2,000 years. Mac, also a Nat Geo Explorer, has been funded by the National Geographic Society to document the remaining old-growth swamps and wetlands in the U.S. southeast—and witnessed this wondrous pulsing display of fireflies for us last year.
This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard and Monica Williams, and Heather Kim selected the photographs. Amanda Williams-Bryant, Rita Spinks, Alec Egamov, and Jeremy Brandt-Vorel also contributed this week. Stick with us for Monday’s newsletter, when we’ll document the effort to place 670,000 small flags around the Washington Monument to commemorate the nation’s COVID-19 victims.