Photograph by Brian Finke
Read Caption
Picture of meat and a temperature gauge
Photograph by Brian Finke

Grilling Out Got This Photographer His First National Geographic Assignment

“Eating meat is so satisfying,” photographer Brian Finke tells me with a certain understated passion, a smile spreading across his face.
We’re sitting on a couch at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. just after the final review for his first ever National Geographic magazine storyfirst ever National Geographic magazine storyfirst ever National Geographic magazine story, which is about, that’s right, meat.

A lot of people find their way into the family of the beloved yellow border by trekking snow-capped mountains or wading through rivers in the rainforest. Finke took a subtler approach. He caught the attention of our photo editors by barbecuing in his backyard.

The native Texan moved from Houston to New York City in 1994 to attend the School of Visual Arts. Despite being raised in the Lone Star State, Finke’s love affair with barbecue began much later when he moved to Brooklyn in 2009 and got a backyard where he could keep a smoker (and an inflatable pool for his two little boys). “We weren’t a big communal cooking family growing up, but I’ve just kind of grown to appreciate all of that stuff—how nice it is to share and eat together. I didn’t start [cooking meat] until after [art school], until freelancing and going from being super busy to not so busy and having the time, finding other things to enjoy outside of just taking pictures.”

Finke takes barbecue seriously. I asked him about his favorite thing to prepare, and his answer sounded like a parody of a high maintenance Starbucks order, “a two-inch, bone-in, 28-day, dry-aged ribeye,” he says. “I also love smoking baby-back ribs. And I grill a really good chicken. I would love to smoke a whole pig, but I haven’t yet.” He’s clearly spent time thinking about this.

As a professional photographer, it’s natural that he would document his adventures with meat. If you follow him on Instagram, you can see bacon bubbling in grease, close-ups of marbled steaks, and speckled sausages in varying shades of tan neatly lined-up on butcher paper. “I like sharing food. And I like sharing the experience with my community through Instagram,” he says. That is how Sarah Leen, the Director of Photography at National Geographic magazine, found the perfect person to shoot a magazine story on Texas beef. “I first became aware of Brian’s interest in meat as I was following him on Instagram. So when we had this idea come up to shoot a meat story for the magazine, I thought he would be the perfect candidate. Then I found out he was also from Texas, which made it an even better fit,” she explains.

“It’s such an enjoyable thing to do—it’s like pure pleasure. That’s what was amazing about this job [with National Geographic]. It’s something that was so close to home, and being able to go and work on that. Being from Texas I’d been wanting to do a story about Texas, and I just wasn’t sure what that was. And then this presented itself. That felt very rewarding to be able to go back and visit,” says Finke.

Finke’s editor for the upcoming magazine story, Todd James, jokingly refers to his love of meat as a “pre-existing condition.” It’s a silly statement, but it says a lot about the depth of Finke’s interest. He really likes meat. It’s not the just the finished product that he enjoys, but the whole process—conversations with butchers, trying out new cuts and new recipes, and the community that comes together to share the food. This story is a testament to the power of personal passion.

As Finke and I are talking, an alarm on his phone goes off, reminding him to check up on his grill. He’s heading back to Brooklyn, and he’s ready to cook-out. “It’s that time of the year to experiment,” he says. “When I know I’m going to be in town, I know I want to throw a barbecue and hang out and relax. I can’t wait to grill this weekend for Memorial Day, just for me and my kids. My youngest loves to work the grill.” He might be done shooting this assignment, but that doesn’t mean he’s finished with barbecue.

More of Brian Finke’s photographs of meat will be featured in an upcoming issue of National Geographic magazine. To see more of Finke’s work now, visit his website and follow him on Instagram.

The May issue of National Geographic magazine, kicked off an eight-month series about the future of food. As part of that effort, Proof is highlighting projects that look at food production and consumption.