Before the Story With Walter Boggs

“I’m crazy, I know that. But it’s a useful crazy, it turns out.” —Walter Boggs

Walter wouldn’t describe himself this way to me until several months later, but I think I began to understand what he meant the first time we met. I was taken down to the basement to meet Walter in his workshop during my first few weeks at National Geographic, while I was still getting to know everyone. He was surrounded by drawings and scraps of metal and tools that I had never seen before, and he was completely engrossed in a remote-control car he was working on. I would be surprised if he remembers that first meeting—our introduction barely slowed him down enough to say “hello” before he was back to his work and his concentration was completely back on the car.

Walter is a mechanical engineer at National Geographic. Thirty-two years ago, he answered an anonymous advertisement in the Washington Post for an engineer. Unsure of exactly what he was interviewing for, Walter brought along a crossbow trigger he had built to give an example of his capabilities and was offered the job on the spot.

His task is to make the gear that can’t be bought. Photographers come to Walter with a technical problem or need, and he builds the solution—from underwater camera housings to remote-control cars to a life-size hippopotamus. Anything a photographer needs to get the shot, Walter finds a way to make it.

No kits, no directions: Walter throws himself entirely into the project at hand—almost to the point of obsession. He just picks up a pencil and paper, sits down at his worktable, and begins to sketch, as if he has blueprints stored in his mind and is just deciding which to put on paper that day. And from the sketching to the prototype to the finished product, Walter has a singular focus that rarely breaks throughout the process.

Like many people at National Geographic, Walter has a creativity that is completely unique to him. I asked him on more than one occasion what kept him going—why he kept building and creating for all these years. I think the question caught him by surprise, but he thought about it for a while, and the best answer he was able to give me was this: “I just have to.”

Shannon Sanders is an Arkansan at heart, a consumer of all things visual, and a video producer for National Geographic magazine. She enjoys the exploration of culture and is always looking for new ways to share those experiences through visual storytelling. Follow Shannon Sanders on Instagram and Twitter.

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