4 Million Photos and a Lot of Love: 21 Years as a Photo Editor

In 21 years as a photo editor at National Geographic, Elizabeth Krist has worked on more than 108 stories and edited at least four million photographs. She has been an inspiring mentor to me. Elizabeth is calm, encouraging, and unfailingly kind but also incredibly direct and honest. She is a true champion of photographers, both veteran and emerging. And this year she’s leaving.

I asked Elizabeth to pick ten of her favorite stories from her time at the magazine, then asked the photographers to reflect on their experiences working with her. Beyond being an incredible photo editor, I’d like to remember Elizabeth as photographer Matthieu Paley does: always first on the dance floor!

Below is a selection of these stories accompanied by the photographer’s memories.—Jessie Wender, senior photo editor

Elizabeth and I made a pretty effective team. We’re both perfectionists and always landed enormous, historic stories which required endless in-depth research. I never left Washington without a plan A designed for the perfect world and a plan B for the photo ops that went to hell!

Liz was compelled to stay in touch, and we walked each other through weekly successes, disappointments, and new discoveries. Elizabeth, you are inspiring to work with, not to overlook your being reliable, thorough, and most professional about the product we presented. It’s comforting for me to look back at those projection sessions when, more often than not, we knocked it out of the park, and I always got a big hug!—James Stanfield

It was our first story together as an editor-photographer team. I was sitting in Elizabeth’s office surrounded by a sophisticated collection of prints, monographs, books, and working stories from Asia.

“Nudibranchs? What are nudibranchs?” she asked. I told her, “They’re very cool sea slugs,” and watched her eyebrows rise as she processed the word “slug.” I forged onward, explaining that they’re brilliantly colored snails without shells that live in the sea, tiny billboards displaying color and design and announcing, “Eat me and you die.” I explained (too excitedly) that I wanted to photograph them like fashion models on a runway, using portable underwater mini-studios.

Elizabeth sensed and quickly embraced my enthusiasm for this quirky, unloved story and guided it through the treacherous editorial pathways, defending and promoting it. In the end, “Living Color” was a story about design and natural selection. And it was both a success and a surprise to many readers. Some pictures went viral, many prints were sold, a website called Pimp My Nudibranch went up and quickly came down, and nudibranch plush toys appeared on the market.

Thank you for an incredible story, Elizabeth. It is one of my absolute favorites. I will never swim past another sea slug without thinking of Elizabeth, Queen of the Nudibranchs.—David Doubilet

I worked with Elizabeth on “Russian Summer,” which was a truly delightful story to photograph—a story that was sweet, subtle, and tender, a story that demanded a delicate approach. Elizabeth is just like that in many ways: warm and soft spoken, with great sophistication and an understated humor. But she adds a razor sharp vision to the project, and she really helped guide me through the work. She also has great belief in the photographer’s own visions and works hard to let the photographer develop their own view of the story.—Jonas Bendiksen

The “Escape From North Korea” assignment was like a covert mission: documenting the North Korean defectors escaping through China to Laos and onward to Thailand, with their journey ending in South Korea. I had to stay off all grids, so few people knew where I was, and I could never reveal any of the defectors’ identities photographically. The mission was accomplished, and I’m grateful for all the advice from my editor, Elizabeth Krist, who guided me through the whole journey, mostly with sparse text messages because we were “radio off” nearly the whole time. The enormous help she gave in a meager phrase astounded me—and saved me.—Chien-Chi Chang

We owe our career at National Geographic to Elizabeth. She introduced our work to the magazine back in 1996. At a time when most photographers there were working solo and shooting with 35mm transparency film, she bravely supported a collaborative team who had a preference for medium-format cameras and color negative film. She guided us through the troubled waters that our working methods stirred up and made sure that our first story, on the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, was published.

Many years later, after we presented a personal project entitled “Gardens by Night” at the annual National Geographic Photography Seminar, Elizabeth made a beeline for us and requested to work on the story with us. It wasn’t easy telling other editors who later approached that Elizabeth had already beat them to the punch. That says a lot about Elizabeth: She knows what she wants and how to get it.

Finally, no matter how carefully we edit our pictures before sending them off to Elizabeth, we know she’ll uncover some gems that we’ve overlooked. Her finds always amaze us—we take the pictures but sometimes can’t really “see” them until she makes us look again. Oh, are we ever going to miss working with Elizabeth.—Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

In 2012 I got my first assignment with National Geographic magazine. I was offered work on a story in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, documenting hay culture and the medieval agrarian traditions still preserved in rural Transylvania. I discussed the story with Elizabeth Krist, my first editor at the magazine.

I dreaded the nearly impossible task of finding a bucolic landscape in Europe, still unspoiled by the trappings of modern life. After the initial struggle in the first week of the assignment, I called Elizabeth, asking her to let me explore other locations in the region. I said I couldn’t find what we were looking for and needed to look elsewhere. Elizabeth supported me fully and even encouraged “the enterprising spirit.” Her trust in me and her flexibility put me at ease and made me feel less stressed about the first assignment.

I changed locations and found myself in the pastoral paradise of Maramureş, surrounded by small rural communities that still preserved their traditional way of life. However, even there, the changes were already evident, as more brightly colored cement villas with shiny roofs were perforating a landscape that otherwise resembled Flemish master paintings.

I was inspired by the beauty of the place and the people, the harmony that existed there in spite of all the hardship, since the impoverished farming communities subsisted on their land. The result was what both Elizabeth and I had hoped for: a series of photographs that documented the fragility of a rural landscape, medieval traditions on the brink of extinction, and people still engaged in subsistence agriculture in a region where most youth had left to work in Western Europe.—Rena Effendi

Poison—a subject so rich with story threads that writer Cathy Newman and I were struggling to decide which to follow. How, in a single magazine article, could we lace together tales of Venetian assassins, bathtubs full of rattlesnakes, Nazi gas chambers, self-mummified Japanese monks, India’s royal food tasters, and the mystery of Napoleon’s death? The question remained unresolved as we set off to meet with editor Elizabeth Krist.

Every National Geographic picture editor’s office had a distinctive landscape. Elizabeth’s was like a narrow valley surrounded by high mesas. The valley was a meandering stretch of carpet, the mesas vertical columns of research papers and books supported by chairs. When we arrived, Elizabeth, tiny and elegant, apologized while scurrying to shift volumes so she could offer us chairs. She shared our concerns and suggested a novel solution: Break form with National Geographic’s template and give each subject its own space. The stories were published in the magazine as “Poison: 12 Toxic Tales.”—Cary Wolinsky

Stranded on the Roof of the World” was my first story for National Geographic magazine, and it was set in Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains. I had been going there on and off for over ten years and was already very much connected emotionally to this place and its people. More than anything I wanted to tell their story properly.

Logistically there was a lot at stake: I was going to be on my own and it’s incredibly remote. I wanted an editor who would be “there” but also trust me in my experience in this part of the world. The balance had to be right. Elizabeth was exactly this. You get “engaged” to someone for the duration of the story—very much a yin/yang balance exercise. Her cool-headed decisions were a good match for my sometimes hectic behavior.

From the beginning, she introduced me to the way things work at National Geographic but in a very kind way—nothing was ever forceful. When it was time for editing, she impressed me with her attention to details. I remember once she found a tiny little gray stone in the bottom left of a frame. It bothered her. I loved that much attention to detail and felt honored that this much attention was on that tiny stone. She also found frames that I had completely bypassed. Soon, we had our language of communication. And when it came time to party at the Photography Seminar, she was the first on the dance floor, not the kind to shy away.—Matthieu Paley

North Korea is probably not for everyone. But I found out that Elizabeth Krist had been generally obsessing over North Korea, likely for many years longer than me. Pushing to edit our North Korea story for National Geographic’s 125th anniversary photography issue, she dug into thousands of pictures I’d taken during 15 years of travel to the otherwise isolated country. Elizabeth appreciated the surreal and melancholy beauty of Pyongyang. She looked for real moments that might be funny but were always fair, honest, and humane.

Elizabeth has supported me again and again and always made my dream of working at Nat Geo feel right. I’m one of so many she’s helped during her 21 years. We all love her for her meticulous hard work, kindness, and generosity to those who give their life to photography as she has. Before the editors moved across the street to a new building, we photographers were always welcome to stop by Elizabeth’s quiet, dark, lounge-lit office filled with leaning stacks of photo books, prints, and story notes. Didn’t she even have a lava lamp in there?—David Guttenfelder

There’s something about her diminutive stature. Do not be fooled. Do not assume. As an editor and organizer of visual power, Elizabeth Cheng Krist has few peers. She studies. She ponders. She is as “movable” as a pyramid when she knows which is the “right” frame. And in the trenches, 80,000 images on her computer screen, she brings the story to life, selecting those that vibrate at just the right frequency. That’s Elizabeth the professional. And then there’s Elizabeth the person.

And it was that Elizabeth who was completely present as we worked together on one of her final stories as a photo editor at National Geographic. The working title of the story was “Dying.” How fitting, as one of her passions is volunteer work with hospice. We crafted this difficult story together—she researched, negotiated, worried. I photographed. We talked and texted often, trading emails at 1 a.m., 3 a.m.

At one point, after photographing a vital but elderly woman who planned to take her life as protection against a slow, painful decline, I called Elizabeth. “Elizabeth, please promise me that you will call me if you ever get to this point of desperation.” And she said, “Oh, Lynn, yes, I will, and you promise me the same.”

This is love beyond the frame, beyond the work of story. This is the greatest lesson learned from Elizabeth—that of love. I will miss you Elizabeth. Know that I will be by your side wherever you are.—Lynn Johnson

Read This Next

These ants can shrink and regrow their brains

How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet

‘Tiger King’ stars’ face scrutiny in court

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet