When photographers talk about their work

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

Peter Gwin, a longtime Nat Geo editor and writer, once told me that in all his travels reporting, no one has ever asked him: “How do I become a writer for National Geographic?” Instead, they ask: “How do I become a National Geographic photographer?”

So how do these people get their start? And how do they sustain their passion?

One photographer has taken a tactic by Bob Marley to heart. Another learned about resilience in a horse-drawn carriage with her hippie dad (above) and mom. One freely admits failure. And a fourth challenged herself to rethink everything she knew about being a photojournalist and everything she didn’t know about democracy.

You learn a lot from outstanding photographers by listening to them. And you can hear the strange and wonderful journeys that led four of our top photographers to journalism—and to National Geographic—in episodes of Overheard, our podcast.

Discovering America: For Andrea Bruce, her foundational work in Iraq and Afghanistan helped her turn her lens on American democracy in a time of upheaval. The photo above, from Baghdad in 2004, shows Halla Hameed receiving a kiss from her son Iaad Hameed, 4, while her two-year-old drinks from a bottle.

Halla’s husband, Walid Hameed, the father of her two children, was shot and killed in the violence surrounding America’s invasion of Iraq, which Washington portrayed as restoring democracy. Halla became a prostitute to provide for her children. Once, Halla asked Andrea: “Americans are always talking about democracy. What does that mean?”

That question stayed with Andrea. For much of the past several years, she has crossed the United States on a multimedia project, asking ordinary people in a polarized time to define democracy. Listen to Andrea’s story here.

Getting better: Well, Anand Varma acknowledges his first solo effort for Nat Geo didn’t cut it, but he was encouraged to keep going. That was solid advice. Over the years, Anand has parlayed a childhood fascination with finding salamanders, snakes, and crayfish in his backyard to a career documenting the worlds of “zombie” parasites, vampire bats, hummingbirds, and jellyfish.

Above left, Anand describes how a female wasp leaves an egg behind when it stings a ladybug. After hatching, the larva begins to eat its host from the inside out. The parasite then spins a cocoon between the ladybug’s legs, forcing the host to protect it from predators. Above right, a flatworm’s larvae burrows their way through the skin of a bullfrog tadpole, forming cysts around the frogs developing limbs. Listen to Anand’s story here.

The rhythm of a story: Photographer and National Geographic Storytelling Fellow Ruddy Roye says that growing up in Jamaica, he had an up-close education in the way reggae superstar Bob Marley reached an audience. Every song had a rhythm that made its way to a person’s heart.

“(He) wants to find your vibration, and it’s the vibration that everybody lives with, the vibration of your heartbeat,” Ruddy explains in our podcast. That lesson, as well as exposure to the nation’s vital social justice movements, set him on his path as a photographer and eventually to the front lines of civil unrest in the United States.

In the photo above, Ruddy profiles Robert Scott standing in a cotton field in Clarksdale, Mississippi. In the image, the 20-year-old laborer, from a southern-style bed-and-breakfast with roots to the cotton industry, raises his hands above his head in protest of police violence against Black men and women. “It is something that has been going on since the beginning of time,” Scott says. “It will never get better; it will only get worse. It has to play itself out. We as Black people just need to prepare ourselves for anything.” Listen to Ruddy’s story here.

Resilience—and change: Photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind, pictured at the top of this newsletter as a toddler, spent her early years in the back of a horse-drawn wagon in southwest England. As a college student, she traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan and embedded with a unit of female Peshmerga soldiers.

One photograph she took on that 2003 trip—above, of Peshmerga soldier Gashaw Jaffar—altered the course of her life. It led her to cover conflicts in Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine and forever changed the way she views war photography. Listen to Anastasia’s story here.

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Today in a minute

Documenting SNCC: A key role in the civil rights movement was played by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. Photographer Danny Lyon, known for more than a half century of coverage of civil rights and mass incarceration, has just finished a 75-minute documentary, SNCC, about the group, the New York Times reports. Lyon’s work is also collected in a new book, American Blood. Says John Edwin Mason, who teaches the history of photography at the University of Virginia: “Lyon’s photographs are going to be looked at by historians for as long as people are interested in looking at the history of democracy in America.”

Eyes on the White House: What has it been like covering Washington for the past three decades as the only woman photographer in the White House press with her own business? Christy Bowe has written Eyes That Speak, showcasing a collection of her images and the stories behind them. They include familiar U.S. policy-makers but range to a declared terrorist and to Queen Elizabeth II.

2020 has been great ... for images of the Northern Lights: Photographers from Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Australia are featured in this compilation of the best images from this natural phenomenon. (Hat tip to the Capture the Atlas photography blog.)

Fantastic Fungi, part II: Our recent newsletter on Dutch photographer Jan Vermeer’s pandemic-fueled discovery of the beauty of mushrooms near his home brought this from like-minded visual artist and documentarian Louie Schwartzberg: “Like Jan, during the pandemic I have been filming micro shots of time lapse flowers at super tight magnifications,” writes Louie, who directed the 3D Imax Nat Geo Mysteries of The Unseen Worlds and the recent Fantastic Fungi. “Because I have been home I have the ability to be more bold and shoot more difficult shots where focus and framing are difficult due to lack of depth of field and fractional movement. It has also opened doors to vistas of landscapes that exist on a flower’s petal, or stamen."

Your Instagram of the day

The weather outside is frightful: Snow falls on the deep black volcanic sands of Reynisfjara Beach in southern Iceland. Visitors to Iceland outside the summer season may encounter subzero temperatures, says photographer Kiliii Yuyan. But he adds: “No visit to this subarctic island would be representative without the experience of winter."

Related: One Icelandic record: Fastest flowing volcanic magma

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On Mondays, Debra Adams Simmons covers 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.

The last glimpse

Hospitality: Thomas Abercrombie photographed Bedouins while on assignment in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. Here, members of the Murrah tribe eat dates and drink camel milk. Abercrombie noted the remarkable hospitality of his hosts, who will “kill his last sheep to feed the stranger at the tent.” Our senior photo archivist, Sara Manco, liked the relaxed and candid nature of the figures in the photo. “It seems they are enjoying each other’s company, and reminds me of moments eating and drinking with my own friends before our current isolation,” Manco says. A hat tip to our photo editing intern, Maya Valentine, for the selection.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this, and Amanda Williams-Bryant, Rita Spinks, Alec Egamov, and Jeremy Brandt-Vorel also contributed this week. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good weekend!

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