Episode 8: Capturing the year in an instant

We revisit 2021 through the lens of the National Geographic photographers who documented California wildfires and COVID-19 among many other subjects, and consider what makes a photo unforgettable.

Relatives pour rose water and offer flowers at a COVID-19 victim’s grave in Cilincing, North Jakarta. Rorotan Public Cemetery opened in March with space for 7,200 plots, but it quickly began filling up as Indonesia suffered a huge spike in cases in July. At the peak, the world’s fourth most populous country saw an average of 50,000 cases a day.

We’ll sift through 2021 with Whitney Johnson, National Geographic’s director of visuals and immersive experiences, as she works on the “Year in Pictures” special issue and shares what makes an unforgettable image. And we’ll talk with photographers who documented the COVID-19 pandemic and the spread of California wildfires among other key moments of the year.

Listen on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music.


LYNSEY ADDARIO (PHOTOGRAPHER): Uh, the fire is approaching. It's making this really loud wind, sort of howling. You can hear the fire coming over the ridgeline. Just in the last 20 minutes, it's become visible. So it's jumped the ridge and getting closer.

PETER GWIN (HOST): That's National Geographic photographer Lynsey Addario. In August 2021, she was on assignment in Northern California, covering the Caldor wildfires by Lake Tahoe. She recorded this audio diary near a ski lodge that's close to the fires. At that time, the Caldor fires had burned over 168,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada mountains and only 13 percent of it had been contained—and Lynsey was focused on trying to show what the firefighters were up against.

ADDARIO: There's a lot of tension. The sky is like yellow amber, and people are super tense because they know that they can't control this, and that the lodge is probably going to burn.

GWIN: Lynsey—along with other journalists and emergency workers—had to leave the ski lodge before the fires cut off the road that was their only way out.

ADDARIO: So it was completely engulfed in flames—the road—and I ended up driving up there a short time after, probably about an hour or two later. And it was like apocalyptic looking; the road up to the lodge was just terrifying.

GWIN: Lynsey knew she made the right call to leave, but she felt like she was missing out on something—something important.

ADDARIO: Of course, I was kicking myself that I wasn't up at the lodge and sort of engulfed in flames, because that's of course the photograph that I want to make.

GWIN: This might be the place where you’re thinking, Wait what? She wants to be in the burning ski lodge … to get a photograph?

ADDARIO: I'm pretty intense when I'm photographing, and I’m never satisfied. I always feel like I'm in the wrong place.

GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic magazine. And this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week we’re asking, What’s the power of a photograph? In an age where we’re inundated with high-tech media, does photography—a 19th-century technology—still matter? To answer that question, we’ll go behind the scenes of National Geographic’s Year in Pictures issue, hear the stories behind some of its poignant photographs, and talk about what makes a memorable image. More after the break.

ELEVATOR: Going up.

GWIN: I'm stepping into the elevator at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. And riding up with me is staff photographer Mark Thiessen.


GWIN: Hey man. How are you?

THIESSEN: Good. I'm going to go down [to the basement lab] and do some welding.

GWIN: Are you really?

THIESSEN: I'm helping Tom [O’Brien, photo engineer] build these elephant-resistant camera traps.

GWIN: Oh my gosh. Can I come down and help?

THIESSEN: I think I got to cut some stuff.

GWIN: With the plasma sword? That's awesome.


GWIN: You know, maybe I'll swing by if you guys are gonna be down there for a while? Yeah, I might bang on the door.

THIESSEN: Yeah, will do.

GWIN: See you, man.

While Mark goes to build elephant-resistant camera traps, I walk through the lobby and pass a large wall covered with dozens of our most iconic photographs. The images here come from all over the world and date back to some of the first photos we published more than a century ago.

I spot one of my favorites: it depicts a female North Korean soldier who reveals just the flicker of a smile. There’s also a broad-shouldered gold miner in Ghana, stooped under a heavy sack of ore. And I can never quite figure out his weary expression—boredom, determination, anger? And a few feet away, two farmers watch a menacing black cloud loom over the prairie, and I always wonder how long they stood there before they ran for cover. Near them is a group of Congolese game rangers, carrying the hulking body of a gorilla killed by poachers.

And then there’s an image that always catches my eye. It’s a little Peruvian shepherd in a patched sweater. He’s standing on a roadside weeping over dead sheep. Every time I walk past this wall, a different image will pull me into its world, like it has its own gravity. And I always marvel at how each of these was captured in a fraction of a second. They’re just tiny slivers of time, but they live forever, like little visual milestones.

And that’s actually why I’m here today—to visit our layout room where photo editors are putting together our special Year in Pictures issue. That's a project where we pull together a collection of the National Geographic photos that represent the newest crop of visual milestones.

Whitney Johnson and Sadie Quarrier are here—they lead our photo team. They stand in a large room with special lighting in front of dozens of printed photos clipped to the wall.


SADIE QUARRIER (DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY): We can get the background, right? ‘Cause is it—can I social media the background? We'll do a tight shot.

GWIN: Over the year, National Geographic sent photographers on more than 300 assignments from Afghanistan to Los Angeles, the Andes Mountains to the Kalahari Desert. And their stories ranged from cheetah poaching in Somalia to penguins nesting in a warming Antarctica, to exploring remote mountains in the Amazon rainforest, and all kinds of other stuff. And the photographers sent back almost two million images, and from these we selected several hundred to publish in the magazine and online. And out of those that were published, Whitney and Sadie are winnowing down the final photos that’ll make it into the Year in Pictures issue.

Here’s Whitney, our director of visuals and immersive experiences.

JOHNSON: So we landed on these sort of four themes that we were going to explore: COVID, conflict, climate, and then also conservation, which, you know, maybe for other publications isn't the obvious thing that would rise to the top, but certainly for National Geographic, it makes a lot of sense. And so we built that kind of framework to encompass a lot of what had happened this year.

GWIN: Among the sea of images up on the wall, I spot one of Lynsey's photos. It depicts a forest of large fir trees, consumed by orange flames. It's been quite a busy year for Lynsey.

JOHNSON: So Lynsey Addario is on a year-long fellowship at the National Geographic Society where she's looking at the intersection of climate change and the impact on women and children. And so that's what had taken her to East Africa, where she had ended up photographing in Tigray. And it's also why she was spending time out West in the United States, in California, documenting the fires that have been ravaging that part of the country again this summer.

GWIN: So like in general, when you send somebody to cover something like this, how does that conversation start? Especially—

JOHNSON: “Are you sure you really want to do that? That sounds like a bad idea. How much experience do you have photographing when the entire landscape is burning, Lynsey? We know you're used to conflict, but seriously.” You know, I think Lynsey is a little bit of a, you know—she's worked all over the world—just a little bit fearless.

GWIN: Lynsey and other photographers are willing to go to dangerous places because they’re obsessed with capturing those tiny slivers of time that document a revealing moment. But the price of that obsession is that they can find themselves in some dicey situations.

ADDARIO: There were embers like the size of golf balls falling from the sky. So big kind of chunks of tree, you know, embers like burning ash, literally falling from the sky. That was crazy because the first time I got out to take photographs, when the fire actually hit, I had sort of like hot embers landing on the back of my neck and I had to get back in the car. Like tuck all my hair under my helmet, try and find—I had a face shield, but I had to turn it around and wear it on the back of my neck.

It was just incredible because there was fire, like huge 2-300-foot flames, just kind of going up on either side of the highway. It's just kind of all-consuming, which is strange to see—to sort of drive down a highway and see giant flames kind of to either side of you is very surreal.

GWIN: Again, this sounds kind of nuts. But photographers know that to get some of the most meaningful and powerful images—the ones we can’t stop thinking about—you have to get really close to the subject. The challenge is to find the line where the risk is acceptable and not cross it.

JOHNSON: But you know, she's also—she takes precautions and she's safe. And I hope that she doesn't push herself beyond her limits—you know, she's got a family back home. But we are really looking for people who are not only capable of making good pictures but are able to work safely and responsibly within the situations that we're putting them—whether that's in a conflict zone, in a fire, in post-hurricane coverage, it doesn't really matter.

GWIN: So after Lynsey finished taking photos of the fire, she sends all of them back to her editor who will look at every single frame. For this assignment, that was nearly 24,000 images. And that’s when the editing process really begins.

GWIN: What kind of pictures do you like? I mean, a fire is one thing. It's sort of like, OK, burning trees, you can sort of expect—but what takes it to the next level? And what separates, you know, fire pictures that we see—we see a lot of those—but like how do you tell a story about the fires beyond just the big orange wall of flames?

JOHNSON: The fire picture that we selected is an image where you see a firefighter, and they are just teeny-tiny in the frame. And then it's just fire raging all around, and it just looks like a completely futile effort to try to actually save these forests. And I think it just gives you a pretty good sense, as a regular person, what these firefighters are up against and what we're—you know, what we're up against in terms of the planet.

GWIN: That's the thing about the photos Whitney and the other editors look for. They're not just pretty—they're mesmerizing.

JOHNSON: I think you're always looking for those images that grab you and do stand out.

And after looking at tens of thousands of pictures—and tens of thousands of pictures and hundreds of thousands of pictures over a career of being a photo editor, you know, you get a sense of when you're surprised by something, right, because it catches your eye.

GWIN: So when you got the photos back, or at least when you saw them, what did you think? What was your reaction?

JOHNSON: I thought, Oh my God, like, this looks like hell, you know. It was really—it's awful. And it was—her pictures are really fully immersive, in a sense where, you know, you can't help but be overwhelmed, I think, by the sheer magnitude and scale of the fire.

GWIN: Whitney knows what it took for Lynsey to get these images, but that’s really beside the point.

JOHNSON: At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what Lynsey went through to get the pictures. It matters what's on the page, and what those pictures convey to anyone who's going to look at them in the pages of their magazine or come across their phone or see them in an exhibition, and how they'll be moved by them in the moment.

GWIN: The Caldor fire destroyed over a thousand homes and businesses and had a far-reaching impact on California. These photos provide a tiny, vivid window into that experience, and long after the homes are rebuilt and the forests grow back, they’ll endure as reminders of what happened. But the California fires were just one of the big stories we sent people to cover this year.

GWIN: So I was starting to say that Lynsey, you know, she's a veteran of National Geographic assignments, but we also worked with some new photographers this year, including Muhammad Fadli in Indonesia. So how did you find him, and, you know, what made his work interesting to you?

JOHNSON: So a few years ago we had published a project that he had worked on personally. And then last year for part of our coverage of COVID around the world, we put Mohammad on assignment in Indonesia where he actually spent several weeks driving around the entire country, really painting a pretty full picture of how COVID was ravaging this island nation.

GWIN: And one of the places he went to was a mass burial site in North Jakarta for people who died of COVID.

MUHAMMAD FADLI (PHOTOGRAPHER): Ah, you just hear the sirens, people crying, and sounds of excavator. You know, the cemetery worker, just try to finish anything as soon as possible because they are so tired at the same time. They—some of them, they work from the morning to very late at night.

GWIN: That's Muhammad Fadli, talking about the scene at the cemetery.

FADLI: The hearse, they just didn't stop to come, like every few minutes. And I think that's for me, like it's almost unbelievable that I was there to see that. You know, the hearse come like every two minutes; and when I come closer, and, you know, the hearse has like not only one casket but it's like four in one car—so you can see the scale of the disaster here. Because, you know, in the Jakarta government, they don't have enough car even just to, you know, to carry the bodies into the graveyard.

GWIN: One picture in particular caught Whitney’s eye. It shows family members kneeling over a freshly dug grave.

JOHNSON: And there's some flowers laying on top. And there's like a great intimacy at this particular piece of the picture. But it's just a tiny piece of the picture because then it expands, and there's thousands of freshly dug graves at the site. And I can't remember—five, seven yellow digger trucks that are digging these graves, as if like the country can't keep up with just the death toll.

GWIN: That picture is doing two things at the same time.

JOHNSON: It has that intimacy of the emotion, but also has this—really shows the scale of what's happening in a way that's hard to forget.

FADLI: I think the news, it show only part of the picture. Even my picture, I think still doesn't really show—to be fair, I mean—still doesn't show the scale of the grief of the people.

GWIN: Muhammad captured other scenes in Indonesia to illustrate the scale of what was happening there. In July, when this photo was taken, only 15 percent of the population had received one dose of the vaccine.

JOHNSON: So one of the images that we've included is an image of the mass vaccination efforts that were happening around Jakarta, and it's just hard not to be moved by the kind of immensity of the people in that picture, and, you know, their kind of like hunger to get vaccinated.

FADLI: It's really loud. People are shouting. The army are asking people, “OK, oh yeah, you will get your turn. Just wait there. Oh, you step forward a little bit. You step backward. Keep your distance.”

GWIN: But there were too many people for Muhammad to capture in his viewfinder from the ground.

FADLI: And I think I need to show it—that how many people are there and how big is the place. So I flew my drone. I capture it from above like the bus station building, and people are more— look almost like, you know, ants, and they are lining up. They are everywhere—scattered everywhere.

GWIN: Muhammad also photographed a school reopening. In one image, there's a classroom of kids.

JOHNSON: And, you know, maybe they're happy to be back in school, but the complexity of course, you know, of wearing masks and wearing face shields and sitting spaced out, and kind of that just like apprehension in this one little girl's face, as she's looking at her teacher of like, Oh, is this what the world is now?

FADLI: I'm a father and I have a daughter who is just now seven years old. And you know, like, since last year it's just been, studying at home. But then to see how kids are going back to school again—I mean like, you see like total happiness in them. They're so happy with it.

GWIN: Muhammad’s road to this assignment began when Jamie Wellford, a photo editor at Nat Geo, sent him an email asking if he could help tell the story of COVID in Indonesia.

FADLI: At that time, I was, OK what kind of assignment is—should I go to the hospital? Because at that time, you know, it's really hard to know. I mean like, ‘cause the outbreak was so new and so many aspect of it that we don’t know yet at that time. So I was really worried. I mean ‘cause I have a family—my wife and my daughter is at home. They are at home. So I was a bit worried when—then I start asking Jamie what kind of a visual that we need.

GWIN: Where do you find your photographers? Somebody like Muhammad, you just described how he showed up on the radar, but where do you guys—where you scout out talent?

JOHNSON: Everywhere and anywhere, truly.

GWIN: But it’s not just about taking beautiful photos. Whitney and her team are looking for people who can tell revealing stories with their images.

JOHNSON: Then we have to really talk to them and say like, how do you work in the field? How do you approach a story? How do you research an idea? Are you just a photographer who can do what you're told to do and can illustrate an idea that's been given to you, or do you have the chops to actually develop a story and research it and figure out where to go?

And that is what makes it—really sort of narrows the pool from the folks who can make a great picture to the ones who can really use a series of photographs to tell a story and who can do all that research and hard work to figure out what the story is and where to go to actually capture this story.

GWIN: And I asked Whitney, so what about the future? Is there a next-gen version of still photography?

JOHNSON: This is happening, Peter.

GWIN: I’m a writer, I don’t know.

JOHNSON: I mean, yeah. I don't think this will be the end of still photographs. You know, I think that we will still have still pictures, but I think there's so much that technology can do to kind of amplify the visual experience. We've been thinking a lot about augmented reality here at Nat Geo.

GWIN: Yes.

JOHNSON: So we've been creating AR experiences through Spark AR, which is a platform on Instagram.

GWIN: This year we featured several augmented reality projects. One was especially ambitious: We wanted to take our audience to space. So we worked with NASA leading up to the Perseverance rover landing on Mars. And we waited for the rover to send its first images and sounds from the planet's surface.

JOHNSON: And we embedded those into our AR experience. So we literally took people to the surface of Mars as if they were there alongside the rover. And then you could do a really like gimmicky thing, which was to take a selfie, right? Because that's what people do with Instagram.

GWIN: Whitney sees augmented reality as a logical extension of photography.

JOHNSON: And I love these experiences because—just like photography, which we've used to really transport people to other parts of our world through the pages of the magazine—these are ways that we're transporting our audience on these different platforms to these places. And we're not limited by the parameters of what you can do on the printed page. We're just able to expand that.

GWIN: And it’s not just AR. Audio recordings from photographers and explorers in the field are also part of creating a more immersive experience. That’s all part of the future. So does that mean still photography is obsolete?

JOHNSON: Still pictures really frame a particular moment. And I think more than that, really sear it in your memory, right, where you can have a picture that I can remember, you can remember. And we're all talking about that same framed moment that may or may not be representative of or related to, you know, the moment just before, the moment just after, but it really sears that particular moment, that particular viewpoint, sears it in time.

GWIN: I leave Whitney and Sadie to continue sorting through all the images—the fires, COVID, Afghanistan, archaeological sites, wildlife, oceans, and on and on—it’s a sprawling visual matrix of the last 12 months. On my way out, I pass the big wall of photographs. And stop at the image of the little Peruvian shepherd. It’s a moving reminder of the power a single image can have.

Unlike most of the pictures up there, I know what happened after this one was snapped. The sheep had just been killed by a speeding taxi when the photographer came upon the scene and found the little boy inconsolable, the taxi long gone. When readers saw the photo in the magazine, they raised thousands of dollars. The family’s sheep were replaced, a water pump was installed in their village, and the rest of the money went to help local school children.

And all of that came from a tiny sliver of time, captured in an instant and preserved forever.

If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and please consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.

After all this, you probably want to see what we’re talking about, right? Meet the female firefighters Lynsey was following around. And writer Alejandra Borunda’s piece on how land managers are using new strategies to help control wildfires.

And to see Muhammad’s photos, take a look at our piece this year on COVID-19’s impact in Indonesia. Subscribers can also see his work in a 2020 article that showed how the pandemic affected communities all over the world.

And you can read about our famous wall of photos at headquarters in an essay I wrote for our photography newsletter.

You can also learn the backstory of eight National Geographic photos that made an impact, including the image of the Peruvian shepherd.

Most importantly, this year’s “Year in Pictures” hits newsstands December 15th.

That’s all in the show notes.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Ilana Strauss, Brian Gutierrez, and Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our senior producer is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.

Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.

And Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music, and also sound-designed and engineered this episode.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, and funds the work of Muhammad Fadli and National Geographic Explorer Lynsey Addario.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

Lynsey Addario followed around a group of women firefighters this summer. Meet them in our article. And check out writer Alejandra Borunda’s piece on how land managers are using new strategies to help control wildfires.

Also explore:

To see Muhammad Fadli’s photos, take a look at our article on COVID-19 in Indonesia.

For paid subscribers:

See how we summed up 2021 in the “Year in Pictures.” It hits newsstands December 15.

Take a look at Muhammad Fadli’s work in a 2020 article that showed how the pandemic affected communities all over the world.

Learn the backstory of eight National Geographic photos that made an impact, including the image of the Peruvian shepherd.

Plus, read about our famous wall of photos at headquarters in an essay I wrote for our photography newsletter.

If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app AND consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.