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What drives a photographer to document history?

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

It is a thankless and often dangerous job in many fractured societies around the world: tracking the victims of violence that is occasionally sponsored by the state.

It falls to the photographers to bear witness, to document. At the same time they rankle authorities because they are truth-tellers, showing an unflattering side of a nation.

In the following essay, I'm focusing on what a group of photographers in the Philippines have been doing since the election of a tough, authoritarian-style leader in 2016. These photographers, fighting grief and withstanding pressure, are the subjects of a searing new National Geographic documentary, The Nightcrawlers.

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The work of "The Nightcrawlers"

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A woman cradles the lifeless body of her partner at a crime scene in Manila.


"When I drive around the streets of Manila, I don't remember by place, landmarks. I remember crime scenes," says photojournalist Raffy Lerma in the opening minutes of the documentary The Nightcrawlers. This evening, he arrives at a wake for a 15-year-old boy, shot twice in the head and once in the neck the night before. The boy's father and uncle stand grieving over the open casket as neighbors mill around. "Every day you cover these scenes. It chips away at your humanity. But it's more important to cover these killings than to do nothing at all."

Lerma is one of a small group of journalists, known by some as the Nightcrawlers of Manila, committed to documenting the drug war in the Philippines. Night after night, they rush to document the crime scenes before the authorities arrive to clean up the site. "In photojournalism I believe that you have a purpose ... of documenting history unfolding before your eyes," Lerma says. ... Read Whitney Johnson's full essay here.

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A pregnant Elizabeth Navarro, 29, cradles her one-year old baby during a wake for her five-year old son Francis and husband Domingo Mañosca who were killed in their home at Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines on December 11, 2016. The gunman, who aimed through the window, missed Mañosca with his first bullet, hitting Francis on his forehead.

Today in a minute

What is home? A refugee girl recovering from the ravages of World War II was asked to draw her response to that question. David Seymour’s photograph of her, before her chalky swirls on a blackboard, became famous. But until recently, writes the Washington Post's Sebastian Smee, we knew little about the subject of the photograph.

Photobook of the Year: Sohrab Sura’s The Coast took the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation award, with judges citing its dark, vibrant look at the undercurrent of violence along the Indian coastline. “Almost like a novel or a thriller in its format, cover, and design, it’s a photobook that works on the same level as a challenging work of fiction,” said publisher and juror Nina Strand.

London Calling. Pennie Smith captured the anger of The Clash in her images of the English punk legends. Her black-and-white, guitar-smashing photo was chosen as the cover of the group's classic "London Calling" album. Now Smith's work with The Clash is a centerpiece of an exhibit opening today at the Museum of London, The Guardian reports.

World’s best: They were chosen from 78,801 photographs submitted from 129 countries. And now the World Press Photo Exhibition 2019 is on tour in the United States, through December 8 in Washington, D.C., and then in Phoenix. Here are the winning images.

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From refuge to home. Three years ago the area containing the Bidibidi refugee settlement was a forest in northwestern Uganda. Now it’s a makeshift home for a quarter-million refugees who fled the civil war in South Sudan. Most of Bidibidi’s residents are children, who attend school and congregate on playgrounds like this one. As Bidibidi transforms into a permanent settlement, nearly all of its schools have been rebuilt with brick.

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Overheard at Nat Geo

A flamingo in my bedroom. At Nat Geo, our celebrities tend to be animals, like Flamingo Bob, a rescue who's become an emissary for conservation on his island of Curaçao. I recently asked Nat Geo photographer Jasper Doest why he decided to chronicle Bob's adventures, and he told me it hit him when the animal sauntered casually into his bedroom one morning at his cousin's house on the Dutch Caribbean isle. Seeing a "flamingo completely out of context," Doest said, "triggered me to document his life." I'll tell the story about this avian superstar in the February issue of National Geographic, but in the meantime, check out Doest's portrait of Flamingo Bob.
Christine Dell'Amore

Catch additional Nat Geo stories on our podcast, Overheard. Subscribe here and/or get tickets for our live podcast Dec. 5 in Washington D.C.

Photo tip of the week

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Come back Monday for Debra Adams Simmons on the latest in history. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Victoria Jaggard on science, George Stone on travel, and Rachael Bale on animal and wildlife news.

One last glimpse

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Innovation by desperation. Last Friday, a copper-colored box marked “Central Tibet” in Russian sat on a desk in our archive. Inside were photos taken of the “forbidden city" of Lhasa, Tibet, including this photo of the 600-year-old palace of the Dalai Lama. A National Geographic editor, desperately short of copy, slapped the palace image and 10 other photos onto 11 full pages of the January 1905 magazine. The issue was a hit with readers, "who stopped him on the street to express congratulations," wrote magazine biographer Robert M. Poole. The photo spread, Poole wrote, pointed the way for the Nat Geo’s image-rich future. Our senior photo archivist, Sara Manco, said the Tibet series had the kind of impact on pop culture that LIFE magazine photo essays by W. Eugene Smith would have in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard. Have an idea or a link for us? I’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com.