90 Days in 90 Seconds: Life on the Mekong River

David Guttenfelder is a National Geographic photographer who is used to spending countless days on the road. While most people think of it as a dream job, the reality can be a lot more complex. So to share what it actually feels like to be on assignment, he made a video with a unique approach.

The whimsical 90-second video (at the top of this page) captures both the excitement, and the doldrums, of his three-year assignment exploring the impact of dams along the Mekong—showing one second of video per day. Conceived by Guttenfelder and his editors Pamela Chen and Sarah Leen before he embarked, it’s full of tiny visual trinkets that individually might not mean much, but together tell a whole story.

“It was a long journey, and I was trying to find a way to make people feel what it’s like to do [an assignment] and invest so much time,” said Guttenfelder.

“I tried to shoot video of things we ate, and people we met, and getting stuck in the mud, and swarms of bugs dive-bombing your lunch, and all the mundane and difficult parts of being in the field.”

While he initially thought he’d shoot the video on his iPhone, a few tests made him realize his regular camera was a better choice. He could shoot images for the magazine, then switch to video mode and capture the same scene in motion. For Guttenfelder, one of the hardest parts was just remembering to shoot something every day. For his video editor, Pamela Chen, it was a different challenge.

“After every trip, David would send in a hard drive containing the bounty: one to thirty individual video clips per day, every day while on assignment,” she said.

“We realized that one-second-long video clips are a lot like still photographs: a glimpse of a deeper story, contained in one quick moment. A card game played in the summer heat, a local stranger making the universal gesture for ‘please eat,’ balancing on a narrow log above the raging rapids. A piglet sniffing, a translator singing in the rain, endless airports. Adding one new day’s clip to the sequence meant revisiting all the other clips from the days before it, to better reveal what an endurance race it is to be in the field for National Geographic magazine.”

And the ups and downs of that endurance race is exactly what Guttenfelder wanted to show. Not just the moments of beauty, but also the moments of boredom. Saying good-bye to his daughters. Coming home. Saying good-bye again.

“I tried to shoot the same scenes that would ultimately end up as still photos in the magazine, and then all of those weird photos along the edges,” he said.

“But I like the [moments] that don’t have much to do with the story, but with how it feels to be out there in the world.”

The final result is a (mostly) chronological, fast-paced, fascinating look at a very long and complicated journey. And it’s almost impossible to watch just once. Each viewing reveals a different overlooked moment—a gem of joy. And it’s not just a voyeuristic exercise for anonymous viewers—Guttenfelder says he loves watching it too.

“I look at the video and think: ‘That was so great. Why was I so miserable out there?’ When you are doing the story, you are so freaked out that you are going to blow it, you forget how wonderful it is.”

“This was an issue that I really cared about and took deadly seriously for the magazine, but the video will always remind me of the adventures and experience I had,” he continued. “It was so magical, and it was so great to be able to report on the story, and my own life.”

“Everyone always says: ‘It’s my dream to be a National Geographic photographer.’ And it’s my dream too. It still is.”

*****

David Guttenfelder’s photos exploring the impact of dams along the Mekong are in the May issue of National GeographicMay issue of National Geographic.

Guttenfelder is a National Geographic Society Fellow who has spent all of his career as a photojournalist working and living outside of his native USA. He recently moved back to the States, and is working on a story about Yellowstone National Park for National Geographic. Check out his website and his ever-popular Instagram feed.

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