The Photographers on Photography

The Photographers on Photography

This post was originally published in 2013, the day we launched Proof. We’re resurfacing it for this week’s #ThrowbackThursday to celebrate two years of stories about the power of photography—and our birthday!—The Proof Team

Chances are if you walked past a National Geographic photographer on the street, you wouldn’t know it—and that’s how they like it. As photographer and Editor at Large Michael “Nick” Nichols puts it, “I want people to remember the pictures, not my name or what I look like.” But as part of our 125th anniversary special issue this October, we wanted to turn the camera around on Nick and his fellow photographers.

The photographers of National Geographic magazine come from all walks of life. Their insights about the world are built over lifetimes devoted to documenting the lives of others. Their pictures are proof of their passion. But beyond the photographs, so many of these photographers are my heroes. They are our friends, our colleagues, our community. And with these upcoming videos, we want to share with you why.

This video portrait series is a labor of love. It involved sitting down with 44 photographers coming through headquarters this year to talk with me about how they found photography, and why they never left. From my interviewer’s chair, it felt like traveling to endless worlds without ever moving an inch. These were not your typical interviews; they were shoptalk conversations that didn’t seem to start or end in that room. We recently premiered this first installment, comprised of excerpts, at the international photography festival Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan, France. Consider this a sneak peek of each resulting individual video portrait that is to come.

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Photographs by Pamela Chen

There was a surprise twist in the making of this project. In addition to our dedicated staff production crew of Elyse Lipman, Barbara Paulsen, Spencer Millsap, and Shannon Sanders, we recruited an unexpected army of video editors: an undergraduate photojournalism class at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, led by assistant professor Chad A. Stevens.

In record time, Stevens worked with the school to create a spring semester three-credit entrepreneurial course where we became the client, he became co-producer, and his students became editors. Each student was assigned a National Geographic photographer to study in depth and received raw interview footage. They were asked to craft a video portrait that was true to the photographer’s unique personality and deliver it on a rigorous real-world deadline. And deliver they did. Each National Geographic photographer profile we produced for this month’s series was edited by a UNC-Chapel Hill photojournalism student in Stevens’ class.

We all went into this project thinking that the class would be about video production and the business of client work. “On the surface, you have some great learning happening: very practical, applicable skills,” says Stevens. “But once you go deeper, it was slowly revealed that these students are learning from the photographers’ stories as well. The National Geographic photographers became the teachers.”

Surely we do have much to learn from them. After all, when someone tells you, “I’m a photographer for National Geographic magazine,” it’s hard not to be curious about the life they must lead. What drives our photographers to keep doing this work, and why does this life suit them so well? Everyone thinks they must have the most amazing job in the world, yet there are so many reasons why they would never tell you that. But now that we’ve asked …

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Producers: Pamela Chen, Chad A. Stevens
Associate Producer: Elyse Lipman
Editor: Chad A. Stevens
Associate Editor: Kathryn Carlson
Picture Editor: Ken Geiger
Camera and Sound: Spencer Millsap, Shannon Sanders
Music: Tyler Strickland
Editors, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
Spencer Bakalar
Kathryn Carlson
Mika Chance
Erin Hull
Caitlin Kleiboer
G. Ligaiya Romero
Allison Russell
Julysa Sosa
Michelle Tessier
Carolyn Van Houten
Julia Wall
Ivan Weiss