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Pictures We Love: Pride of the Serengeti Lion

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A male often asserts his prerogatives. C-Boy feasts on a zebra while the Vumbi females and cubs wait nearby, warned off by his low growls. Their turn will come.

National Geographic’s Proof blog invited the photography and design teams of National Geographic magazine to look back through the hundreds of photographs from the over 75 stories published in 2013 and select one photo that spoke to their heart, intrigued them, inspired awe, made them smile—in short, to choose their favorite photo from this past year. Over the next several days we’ll bring you a round-up of the breathtaking, the touching, the extraordinary, the imperfect, and the beautiful. All of the photographs below are by Michael “Nick” Nichols, from the August 2013 story “The Short Happy Life of the Serengeti Lion.”

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Kathy Moran, Senior Editor, Natural History

My favorite photograph of 2013 has to be one of C-boy the lion. I’ve worked with photographer Nick Nichols for 20 years. “The Short Happy Life of the Serengeti Lion” is the 15th story that we’ve collaborated on for the magazine and the one that I have most wanted to do. I love big cats. For me, this image is the culmination of years of research, planning, and advances in photographic technology coming together in a simple yet powerful way.

Lions come alive at night. By photographing C-boy in infrared black and white, without intrusive flash, Nick made the most naturalistic images ever of nocturnal lions. His photographs revealed lions as we rarely get to see them—in the dark, attuned to everything happening around them, in their element. When you look at C-boy, you know that you are playing in his world. It was a privilege.

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It’s hard to pick one. I don’t have a favorite food, song, or movie, so how do you choose a favorite picture? When editing a magazine story, I look at every frame shot by the photographer and whittle down one by one. In much the same way, I approached this exercise by relooking at every image published in 2013 and then narrowed my selects until just a few remained.

There’s a beautiful Abelardo Morell from Olympic National Park that I would love to hang on my wall. Sebastiao Salgados’s Siberian herders stand out because—well, he’s a master. I’m drawn to the subtle cinematic quality David Guttenfelder captured in a picture from North Korea of a woman standing next to a fish tank. Having worked with Ed Kashi on his northern Nigeria feature, I’m particularly moved by his depiction of women running on railroad tracks strewn with garbage.

Nick Nichols’s multiyear opus on lions is filled with iconic imagery. Yet, in the end, reflecting on the merits of each photograph—again and again—the most unusual, for me, is this scene of mating lions. Perhaps Nick’s passion for this project comes through and mirrors the ferocity portrayed. In any case, it’s unforgettable.

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Tess Vincent, Photo Coordinator

Love at first sight. No phenomenon could better describe this image and its effect on me.

When Nick’s assignment images started rolling in, I remember my eyes being drawn to this particular one early and often. I felt like the lone patron of a tiny museum, and, somehow, I discovered something new each time I revisited this piece.

The tale of the Serengeti lion has been one of the most significant stories for me while at National Geographic, and Hildur, pictured here, one of its most compelling protagonists. This still (which is anything but) is a synthesis of beauty and burden, an illustration of the majesty of the Serengeti as well as the hardships of its inhabitants.

When I first saw it, I felt hypnotized by the grace and movement in front of me; I could almost hear the swish of the grass and feel the rippling sinews of Hildur as he ran a punishing distance from one territory to the next. I wasn’t looking at a photograph; I was in it. And I was swimming in the painterly swirl of the Serengeti as it was brushed by the fading light of dusk.

As I came to know this story more, though, I wasn’t only seeing Hildur’s streaked mane and primordial power; I was seeing each rib in his cage, each vertebra in his back, the indisputable evidence of an uncertain life on the plains. This image strikingly brings us into the intricate world of lions and all that makes it so extraordinary.

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A male often asserts his prerogatives. C-Boy feasts on a zebra while the Vumbi females and cubs wait nearby, warned off by his low growls. Their turn will come.

Ken Geiger, Deputy Director of Photography

One of the most amazing stories I’ve seen in the short time I’ve worked here is Nick Nichols’s photo coverage of “The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion.”

Not only is this image hauntingly beautiful, as are many images in the story, but what makes this image gripping is the moment created by the intensity of the lion’s eyes combined with the intimacy of having the camera on the same level as the lion. Those two factors create such a gripping image that I’ve never tired of seeing it.

I also have such an amazing respect for this set of images—they reset the bar for all brilliant wildlife photography. Nick, along with the gift of time on the ground, used and cobbled numerous pieces of technology so that he could capture never before seen images of lions. That kind of dedication to the craft of photography—and using every tool available to tell a story that moves the dial on lion conservation—is a pleasure to behold.

If you haven’t had a chance to see this story online, in all of it’s multimedia glory, then treat yourself by clicking on this link: The Serengeti Lion.

View these photographs and more in our interactive Year in Review.

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