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Online to In-Person: Building Community Around Photography

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Photographers at a Your Shot Meet up in Brooklyn on June 14, 2014

Surrounded by changing leaves and the crisp bite of the autumn air, 68 members of National’s Geographic’s Your Shot community and staff gathered at National Geographic’s headquarters this past weekend to walk the city and share in their love for photography. From photographers outfitted with the newest and most extensive gear to those more comfortable with their smartphones, they were emboldened by their fellow photographers and freely photographed the neighborhoods of Northwest D.C.; a place we see so often we forget how unique it really is.

For photographers who’ve gotten to know each other virtually, meeting each other face to face literally made the community come to life; creating a dialogue that went beyond the “likes.” It also provided access to professional photographers who shared their expertise with aspiring photographers and gave in-the-moment feedback and shooting tips. Keith Jenkins, General Manager for Digital and former photographer for the Washington Post, led one of our photo walk groups. He has been a champion for building communities around our passion for visual storytelling, emphasizing a need to connect with our audience. I sat down for a conversation with Keith to talk about his photo walk and get his insights on the future of digital storytelling.

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This photo was selected for Your Shot’s Daily Dozen on June 18, 2014. Photograph by Sarvady Matyas

JEANNE MODDERMAN: Your Shot is a diverse community of photographers. They have the opportunity to have their work seen by National Geographic editors and their images published in the magazine. For a long time people thought of “user-generated” as a dirty term. How have you seen that change?

KEITH JENKINS: I don’t use the term “user-generated content” anymore because it does have its connotations. I just view it as photography. I use the term “aspirational” more than anything else. They aspire to create content that they have seen growing up in the pages of National Geographic, and we, at the same time, aspire to help them reach their goals by giving them feedback, giving them assignments to work on, creating a platform for them to share their pictures and learn from each other. For me, it’s less about users and audiences, and more about community. And I think that’s what we’ve created and how we should view the work of the community.

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Three Your Shot photos that have gained extensive exposure from outside the Your Shot community. From Left: Photographs by Jason Neely, Brew Er, and Melissa Brandts

Learn more about the stories behind the above photos: Leaping Dog, Biting Shark, and Photo-Crashing Squirrel

JEANNE: Tell me about the photo walk. Why should we do these?

KEITH: The Your Shot platform is our petri dish to really try and figure out what community can be at National Geographic, which historically has been a membership organization with the primary benefit of membership being the printed magazine. But as the universe changes, what are the other things that make people stick with our brand? With Your Shot we’re figuring out how to build a community around our content. I think the most interesting aspect of any community is when you can get the members together and have them interact with each other. Even though they’ve been doing it virtually, the pleasure of providing them an opportunity to do it in real time and real space is, I think, the type of thing that can reinforce the connection to the community and to National Geographic.

Watch: Keith Jenkins leads a Photo Walk in D.C. on Saturday, November 8, 2014.

JEANNE: There are so many platforms to share content and interact with people. What else are we doing? Where else do we go?

KEITH: We’re just at the beginning of trying to figure that out. Instagram is a good natural fit for us, but how can we do better visual storytelling on Facebook? We have a lot of followers, but we’re not sharing as much of our content or storytelling as we should. Twitter is another place where we have a sizeable following, but how do we tell stories on that? And obviously other smaller platforms, like Storehouse, which is brand new but is being adopted by a lot of visual storytellers, is an interesting place to share stories. A few years ago, places we might have considered to be competitors are those places where we could be reaching new audiences with our content. We’re entering an age of less competition and more cooperation between publishers, and I think that’s a space we want to play in more with what we have, which are amazing visual stories that pretty much no one else can do.

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This photo was selected for the “How Close Can You Get?” Your Shot assignment, curated by Ed Kashi. Photograph by Debasish Ghosh

JEANNE: You started your career in print and have since watched the photography world evolve and change. How should we approach visual storytelling in the digital realm?

KEITH: You know the core of storytelling is going to stay the same, but we need to constantly look at what’s available to use to do the storytelling. The last ten years have seen tremendous change, and that’s accelerated even in the last five years. So it becomes, in some ways, less important what the tool is. Several years ago there was a lot of consternation about photographers being replaced by reporters with smart phones, but when you take a look at things like the National Geographic Instagram feed you see how great a smartphone can be in the hands of a professional photographer. So that’s become a tool that professional photographers are using. We have to be flexible enough to adapt or adopt whatever the best tools are at any given point in time, and, at least for photographers, that’s always been part of our DNA. Technology, whether it was 19th century technology or 21st century technology, has really always been a part of how photographers do their job. We’ve always been on the cutting edge, and our storytelling needs to keep up.

Your Shot has held six photo walks this year with more planned for 2015. To see photos from our D.C. Photo Walk and keep up to date on upcoming events, go to the Your Shot blog.

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