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What can a photographer bring to an image?

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

"Being a photojournalist is like being Zelig, or Forrest Gump, or Walter Mitty: You aren’t the important one, but you’re right there with whoever or whatever is," writes photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg.

This week, we look more closely at this photographer, whose work made our top 100 images of the year, and what Max brings to the field from his life experiences. After a hiatus studying medicine, Max returned to photography, more prepared than ever to tell stories about the human condition. Here is Max’s first-person account:

I was in med school when I got the call

I stopped receiving calls on my cellphone while I was training to be a doctor. My friends knew better. My life was not my own. As a resident I sometimes worked nearly a hundred hours a week, overseeing as many as 18 patients at once. Even my mom stopped calling me. I used my phone instead for medical apps—the one that could tell me which antibiotic to prescribe for which bug, the calculator that helped me determine treatments, the app that stored lab values I couldn’t remember.

Then one day my cellphone rang. I was on rounds seeing patients and stepped out to the hall. I didn’t recognize the number, but the area code was Washington, D.C. This call, I thought, must be important. “Yes?” I whispered.

“Hey, Max,” the voice boomed. “It’s Todd.” Todd James is a photo editor at National Geographic. I hadn’t spoken to him in 10 years, certainly not since I’d left photography to become a doctor, but I recognized his Oklahoma twang. “I’ve got a job for you."

Read about the job in Max’s full essay here.

Below are two of Max's Nat Geo images, of pathological specimens in Boston (left) and the application of electromagnetic pulses to a cocaine addict’s prefrontal cortex in Italy (right).

Today in a minute

Long before the war: Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Ukraine has left part of that nation in rubble. Photographer Samuel Eder discovered hundreds of discarded rolls of film in April at an old Soviet photo lab that became part of that rubble. Restored, the images tell of a different, loving, even whimsical, era in Ukraine, the Guardian reports.

In living color: If you find yourself in New York City this weekend, catch the final days of the Garry Winogrand exhibition at the Brooklyn Art Museum, the first to focus on his nearly forgotten color work.

Photo booth: The pay phone once occupied a central place in American life, and legendary street photographer Helen Levitt captured that in a 1988 photograph. In the image, now at Pérez Art Museum in Miami, two children squeeze inside a booth on both sides of a heavyset woman, who appears to be conducting urgent business on the phone. Critic Sebastian Smee calls it “a wonderful, pomposity-puncturing picture that looks caught on the fly, but it’s also beautifully composed.”

‘Our Songs From The Forest’: That’s an exhibition by Nepalese photographer Uma Bista running though December 17 at the 15th Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Riep. The Cambodian festival is free and includes workshops for developing photographic talent throughout Asia.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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Blast off! There’s something gorgeous about this moment of temporary flight, says photographerNichole Sobecki. In this small apartment in Zimbabwe’s Mbare township, three generations of women and children gather in the room where they study, laugh, and sleep. The mother and grandmother did laundry to support them all, but through a child's imagination this green washing pail had been transformed. Gone were the suds and dirty clothes—this was an airplane going to a destination unknown.

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Overheard at Nat Geo

Fireball: It was a quiet night in February, and Northwestern University astronomer Shane Larson was at home with his cats. “I was grading, and right at the right moment, I happened to look up, and there was this enormous fireball ... a super-bright meteor streaming across the sky. You could see it right out my window, and I freaked out.” So began a search for the meteor off the shores of Lake Michigan, recounted in our podcast, Overheard. To hear other behind-the-scenes stories from Nat Geo, subscribe here.

The big takeaway

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How’d you get this shot? It looks rugged, huh? For photographer Konsta Punkka, getting to this 11,745-foot-high carbon-measuring weather station in Switzerland involved, well, rugged wear ... but also an ice palace, a chocolate shop, and the highest train station in Europe. It also involved a drone, and a rare self-portrait of Punkka, on the upper deck, flinging his arms into a “V” in the air. “I wanted to highlight the station,” he said, “to watch the mountain with the sunrise light.” Minutes later, a storm erupted.

Photo tip of the week

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On Monday, Debra Adams Simmons writes 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 Baleon animal and wildlife news.

One last glimpse

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From the archive: Winders of silk at the Tombs of the Caliphs. Cairo, Egypt.

Our senior photo archivist, Sara Manco, calls this century-old image one of her favorites using a difficult early photo-making form. “The process of making an autochrome was cumbersome (glass plates are a struggle), and because the shutter speed was slow, people in a group are posed facing the camera and often sitting,” Manco writes. “However, there is a more candid feel to this photo. Egyptian sun is so strong that maybe Jules Gervais Courtellemont was able to use a faster shutter speed for his exposures, making his interactions less formal. The composition is so unique with the line created by the four boys. ... I love the way Courtellemont used the shadow and tomb in the background to round out his composition."

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Eslah Attar selected the photographs. Have an idea, a link, or an old photograph from Egypt? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.