Every year, National Geographic rolls the year into a collection of photos for its “Pictures of the Year” issue. It’s a mysterious process, and we’re about to share it with you. We’ll see what baby carriages are like in Greenland, witness the moment SpaceX burst into a cypress swamp, and make a new four-legged friend as deputy director of photography Sadie Quarrier shares with us the choice photos for this year.
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SADIE QUARRIER (DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY): I had just arrived. And I’m breathing hard—17,500 feet is no joke. I mean, I had gotten sick. All of us had kind of gotten sick on the way up. I’d gotten particularly sick. I can barely get my breath.
PETER GWIN (HOST): That’s Sadie Quarrier. She’s National Geographic’s deputy director of photography. And she’s talking about the time she went on assignment to Mount Everest with photographer Cory Richards.
QUARRIER: We arrive, and that day something was happening, something I heard. We heard over the radio, “Cory needs to be evacuated.” And Cory kind of comes into the center of Base Camp, which is like a huge city. He’s, like, light jogging with an oxygen mask on, and here I am barely able to talk.
So anyway, I hopped on and helicoptered, really not planned at all. I didn’t have money with me or a cell phone or my contact lenses. I just signaled to him. We couldn’t even hear each other over the helicopter, but I thought I’ve come all this way from the U.S. to be with this photographer, to work with him, to produce content for the magazine story and the iPad and the Instagram. And he’s in a serious, I thought, potentially near-death situation. So I just hopped into the helicopter and boom. Down we went.
GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic, and you’re listening to 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, Sadie talks about the challenges of choosing the photographs that appear in National Geographic. What makes a photo stand out from literally the tens of thousands of frames a photographer takes on assignment? And which special photos stood out for her in 2022?
More after the break.
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QUARRIER: Hold on. Gwin, we’re getting paid to hang out!
GWIN: Yes, indeed. Yes. It’s been too long, right?
QUARRIER: No, I know. I know!
GWIN: The adventure team …
QUARRIER: podcast …
GWIN: reunited in the podcast house!
QUARRIER: That’s right.
GWIN: All right, so you’ve been at Geographic now, how many years now?
GWIN: Twenty-eight. Are you serious? I know it was 20-something. I didn’t know. It was almost, you’re almost three decades.
GWIN: But I know that one of your early jobs, you worked for this legendary photo editor named Susan Welchman, and what did she tell you as a brand-new photo person?
QUARRIER: Susan always said, “Trust your instincts.” She’s told me that my whole—for three decades about everything: about life, about photo choices, about, um, the right thing to tell a photographer. So it comes down to “Trust your instincts.”
GWIN: So, OK. Well, so when you’re looking at photographs of photographers out somewhere in the world in the Arctic or in the Amazon, how do you listen to your instincts when you’re looking at the photographs? What are you looking for?
QUARRIER: I am looking to be moved by an image. I used to be a photo editor for almost 20 years, and I would receive tens of thousands of images. We would go through maybe 30,000 images on average for a story, and you’re moving through pretty quickly.
You’re just assuming you’re gonna pick something with good composition and the right light, etc. But beyond that, you’re looking really to be moved by the situation, by the emotions on the faces, by the moment. Maybe there’s some element of surprise.
GWIN: Right, right. So here’s the thing: When you’re seeing tens of thousands of photos a year, what surprises you anymore?
QUARRIER: I think it helps to be a little bit jaded as a photo editor and to have seen your fair share of penguin pictures, or, you know, amazing drone shots from above, of mountaintops or, as you and I have worked together on, a lot of adventure stories. It really helps to have seen all the expected pictures, because then you really can encourage that photographer to go beyond that. And you recognize it when something special comes in. And you try to pregame that with the photographer, talking about your shoot list: OK, what are some—you can’t anticipate surprises, but you set each other up with the proper research and familiarizing yourself with what other people have shot there.
You don’t wanna go in blind. If you’ve never been to India before, you don’t wanna be so dazzled by the color and the commotion that’s going on in the streets that you’re shooting everything, because it’s really gonna look like everyone else’s Delhi picture. So what is it that’s gonna make this story and these images special?
GWIN: OK, so I’m a young, brand-new National Geographic photographer—or I had my first assignment, and you’re my photo editor—and I’m going off into the world. What do you tell me?
QUARRIER: Well, like on the adventure stories, we want a sense of place, but we want the emotions. We want the downtime, you know? On the adventure stories, the biggest mistake is the newer photographers will shoot all the key moments, but they’re not when they’re totally exhausted after 14 hours on the mountain and cold in their tent. I want those pictures too. I want just the heating of the water, and I wanna see the chapped lips and see the exhaustion on their teammates’ faces.
So that’s really challenging, because a photographer has to have a lot of stamina. And this goes far beyond just adventure photographers, but they have to continue to shoot when they think they’re done. And for the photographer shooting people-culture stories, it’s so important for them to feel embraced by the communities that they’re in.
Sometimes if it’s a sensitive situation, the camera isn’t even out yet. And they’re just getting to know the people and become accepted by the community, the family, if they’re in a small living room. It’s getting to know—building that trust and then starting to work the situation and staying. Sometimes it’s staying another day or few days past when you think you have it all.
And it’s that. Then you catch the serendipity. Or you see a certain scene, a certain … If it’s an urban setting, you have all the elements in place, but you just need, as one photographer John Stanmeyer likes to say, “That needs a pterodactyl flying through the frame.”
So you see the scene, you see the buildings, the light. In the morning, the light comes up a certain way, but it just needs the kid going by on the bicycle with the dog chasing it. It needs something else to kind of bring it to life.
GWIN: Well, you know, one thing, too, like I’m curious about this, ’cause I remember back in the day, like, you know, anytime you wanted a big landscape shot, you had to get a helicopter, right? And getting helicopters in places—sometimes it was just either crazy expensive or illegal. And now, it’s like every photographer travels with a helicopter in their back pocket, it seems like. So, I mean, like in terms of that, like drones and some of these new tools, like, how has that … do you feel like we’re getting to see more? Or …
QUARRIER: I’m a huge drone … I have my own drone.
GWIN: I kind of set you up with that, because I know that you, like, love the drones.
QUARRIER: I think the drones are really empowering. I think a lot of the photographers have embraced getting the skills to use it, and they have a lot more control about what they’re shooting. You don’t have to pay for gas. You don’t have to; it’s cheap. You know, you buy your drone and you fork out the thousand dollars or a few thousand dollars, but then you’re in complete control of where you are. I mean, there are definitely advantages to having a helicopter or a fixed-wing plane, etc., for certain situations. But I think it’s really thrilling for photographers to be able to shoot their own and control it. And that goes for stills and video from the drone.
GWIN: Are you seeing pictures that you never saw before because of technology like this? Either the drone or, I don’t know, GoPros or underwater drones or …?
QUARRIER: I do think yes, because the sheer cost of having a plane. If you have a drone with you for the six weeks, you can pick and choose and have it at any … Oh, you see it, you see at three in the afternoon: We’re gonna get a great storm this evening. Then you can, you’re prepared, and you can get that.
GWIN: And you don’t have to be in it.
QUARRIER: And you don’t have to be in it, though your drone might get spun around a little bit. I just love aerial photography and shooting it myself. So I’m psyched that the photographers have, a lot of them have embraced this skill.
GWIN: Well, let me ask you this. So, like, the photography education of the public seems to have completely gone a whole other level. I mean, my kids are on Instagram, they’re focused on camera angles and filters and everything, but that’s almost worldwide, right? Is that having an effect on what you guys do? Or do you think people are just, there’s more of an appreciation of what you guys do now, because people are doing it themselves?
QUARRIER: Probably both. I think it’s really turned up the heat. There’s a lot of people who can take a single great image. You know, obviously what National Geographic does is storytelling, visual storytelling. And that is a … You have an elite group of people, not just limited to National Geographic, but professional photographers know how to tell a story. And National Geographic photographers know it as much as anyone. The neat thing about what our social media has done, I heard one photographer—it was actually Joel Sartori, who said his Photo Ark project that he works on, he can put out information about a species that’s endangered and convey that information through a compelling video or a still, and that can see exponentially more—
QUARRIER: You know, eyeballs—
QUARRIER: Or that can be shared with. Exponentially more people than he ever could have hoped for back in 1995 or whenever he started the Photo Ark series, or whenever anyone started shooting something when it was just print. And so that’s really exciting, especially for those who are trying to effect change and those who are passionate about conservation, environment, anything that’s … Really we can just reach so many more people, and we’re reaching all ages. The TikTok audience is looking at, we have—we have a new TikTok account as of two years ago now.
GWIN: I got to be on our TikTok account when we did Endurance. It’s the only thing I’ve done at National Geographic that my kids have ever paid attention to: “Hey, Dad’s on TikTok!”
QUARRIER: He’s done finally made it!
GWIN: It’s a big deal in our house.
GWIN: So I know you’ve been hole up in a secret location, Sadie, working on our “Pictures of the Year,” which is a collection of the best pictures of 2022 that we’ll have in our year-end issue.
I mean, these were already sort of the cream of the crop pictures selected out of thousands for each assignment, and now you’re picking sort of from that group. So, OK. So this year, like, roughly how many pictures do you think—I mean, ballpark figure—do you think all the photo editors here looked at total?
QUARRIER: One second. I’m just gonna do quick math.
GWIN: She’s got a calculator. She’s like, adding. Let’s see. Uh-oh. You didn’t know math was gonna be part of this, right?
QUARRIER: I bet we’re at two million or more.
GWIN: So this is like the, really, this is like the Beatles’ greatest hits.
GWIN: I see you got a photo here from Kiliii Yüyan. We actually caught up with him this year for the podcast, and he talked about his project with Indigenous people in California, burning their lands to promote a healthy ecosystem.
KILIII YÜYAN (PHOTOGRAPHER): When we got out of the car, we’re looking at this devastation, this burned-out hulk of a wreck of a vehicle. And nothing left of a structure, except some tin sheets on the ground that were all burned up. And the first thing she did was she hauled out a bucket from the car. And I asked her, well I didn’t even ask her, I was just watching her, and I was like, “What’s in the bucket?” And she started tossing acorns around, and she said, “This is an opportunity. This is an opportunity for me to heal the land by planting these acorns here. Right here, in this place originally, there weren’t that many oaks; this is a chance for us to heal the land. And she said also that in healing land and planting the acorns and doing cultural burning—all of this is also a chance for me to heal myself.
GWIN: So Kiliii: You guys sent him to Greenland on a different assignment. So what’s this picture that you’ve chosen of his from Greenland?
QUARRIER: Yeah. So he is on, this big grant project on Indigenous conservation. And Greenland was one of about five locations he’s going to. This project is ongoing. And the pictures are just starting to roll in. And the photo editor Mallory Benedict sent me this frame. And what is so interesting about it is you have two people pushing their strollers in snow. You cannot see a road. Everything is icy and snowy. You have a couple of, you have a pickup truck and an SUV in the background and a couple of ATVs.
And the gentleman is at the front pushing one stroller, clearly baby inside, and everything looks a little chilly. And then a woman is behind him—whether it’s his wife, I’m not sure, it might be his wife—is behind him just kind of watching his progress. And I guess he’s not moving fast enough, because she’s not moving,
But what’s so interesting is that, I would not have expected people to push strollers in the middle of Greenland on snow. You actually have no idea. It’s almost white-out conditions in the distance. You can barely see the mountain range. There’s no roads that we can see. The stroller is probably only moving, you know, an inch at a time.
GWIN: It’s got big knobby tires too, I see. It’s like big arctic tires on the stroller.
QUARRIER: But the neat thing about this picture is that it just makes you stop. At least someone like me, who’s from a farm in southern Virginia. We probably wouldn’t be pushing strollers on ice and snow. But anyway, it stops you. And that’s the whole point. You want a picture to stop you in your tracks for a split second, read the caption, take it in. It turns out they are on their way to an annual dogsled race. So anyway, these are the—
GWIN: Family outing. This is a family outing in the remote ice of Greenland.
All right. So moving along here, with this next image. Can you tell me a little bit about that one?
QUARRIER: So Mac Stone was shooting a cypress forest in Florida at night, and this is a beautiful shot that he has lit. Gorgeous trees, mossy. You’re in a cypress swamp. Gorgeous kind of purply blue tones to the sky, a little bit of …a few clouds in the sky, and suddenly, totally serendipitously, he did not know this was happening, SpaceX was launching a Falcon 9 rocket. And it streams through his frame. So he has three frames—boom, boom, boom—of this rocket going through. And when I said that I love it when an image has a little extra something going for it—and this would’ve been a gorgeous, quiet, beautiful nature scene without the rocket.
But to know that he didn’t even plan that. And to be honest, we chose the picture and had it in the mix for two months before I fully read the caption. I thought it was a shooting star or, you know, I thought it was really cool! But the fact that it didn’t even plan the rocket to go through is crazy.
And it’s perfectly in the middle of the, you know, and it’s just above the tree line; it’s this amazing moment. And you have an osprey. If you look really closely just to the left of the rocket, high in the trees, above the greenery, just perched and completely unbothered, is this little dark gray. And it’s an osprey sitting on the top.
GWIN: And it looks like he’s watching the rocket. He’s just kind of sitting back. It’s like, this is the classic pterodactyl, right? You have this beautiful cypress, and there’s your pterodactyl, except for it’s like a ginormous rocket-propelled pterodactyl.
QUARRIER: Yes. And just as a little side note, Mac said that this is the second time that SpaceX has photobombed something that he was shooting. I guess that’s what happens when you shoot things in Florida.
GWIN: Hey, man, you gotta be prepared for whatever transpires. All right. So our last picture we’ve got a good friend of mine, Katie Orlinsky. She’s got a picture of a tapir. What’s a tapir? I don’t know what a tapir is. (Laughs)
QUARRIER: It’s a four-legged gray thing.
GWIN: I’ve stumped the director of photography at National Geographic.
QUARRIER: Cute nose. (Laughing)
GWIN: But no, kidding aside.
QUARRIER: Well, it is sort of boarlike. Little longer legs than pigs, dark brownish with a gray face. It’s got a longer …
GWIN: It kind of looks like a pig. I guess I could see that, the family resemblance.
QUARRIER: Yeah, not quite as fat as a pig, little longer legs, and certainly a much longer snout. So almost not quite like an anteater, but it’s got this kind of strange-looking head.
GWIN: Yeah. It definitely feels like an amalgamation of other animals I’ve seen, maybe. That’s not fair to the tapir. No disrespect to the tapir lovers out there. But this is a beautiful picture, though, actually. I mean, this is a lovely representation of a tapir.
QUARRIER: It is. It really is beautiful. So this picture was taken at a national park in Brazil. And what I love about it is it looks like a diorama. There was this very heavy fog that day. And the tapir is … you can’t tell if it’s real or fake. It’s standing on the orange dirt, which is right in the foreground of the picture. And you have grass right behind the tapir. And then we just have, yet again, nearly white-out conditions with fog and a little spot of sun in the distance. And the tapir has just one hoof raised, one leg raised, and really you could be in a museum exhibit. Like you don’t know: Is this real or stuffed, you know?
And there’s just something lovely about the quality of light. The face of the tapir is kind of a light gray, and the rest of the body is dark gray. It’s just a moment frozen in time. And Katie said she had this amazing experience, where this tapir came through the mist and followed her down this road. Like, you know, Alice in Wonderland or I don’t know what. I kind of wanna be there with that experience, but anyway I’m so glad that—and this is a lady tapir—I’m so glad that this tapir paused for a moment for Katie to make this frame.
GWIN: I think that’s kind of maybe the interesting thing, too, when you talk to photographers that are photographing animals, and I think that’s the thing as a viewer, too, that when you feel like you’re in the world in that way, and the animal’s connecting with the photographer, they’re connecting with all of us in a way.
And I feel, I sense some of that here. The tapir’s looking at us not in an aggressive way but in this almost sort of, like, regarding, Who is this person with this strange device pointed at me out of the fog?
QUARRIER: I think that’s a really great point. And I hadn’t thought about it with this picture, but you’re absolutely right. I think just like with photographers who are building trust with communities, I think probably next level is photographers trying to build trust with animals. Because there is just that: Animals reading other animals, reading humans, reading your behavior and whether you’re threatening or accepting.
Katie had to—you know, I don’t know how skittish tapirs normally are. But Katie’s just a warm—you know who Katie is. Katie is just a warm, lovely person and would not have presented herself as threatening. And I think, you know, when we think about our photographers who are so gifted with shooting natural history, how they have to stay so quiet with their body language, and even, I remember again, Nick Nichols talking about how he had to bow his head around gorillas and show subservience. And you wanna indicate that I’m not a threat to you, and please let me take your picture, just like you do with humans. That’s pretty cool.
GWIN: OK, so you’ve seen so many great photographs in your career. But is there one photograph, one National Geographic photograph, that sort of is the quintessential—like, I mean, when you close your eyes, if you sort of … is there one picture for you that you think about, like, that sort of stands kind of in for the phenotype of National Geographic photographs?
QUARRIER: I think the picture that resonates for me the most, just because I have, because it’s not only a great image, but I have a personal, emotional connection to it. Which is always what you want. It’s a picture that I have on my wall at home, was shot by Wes Skiles.
And it’s this incredible scene underwater, of this cave, and it’s this beautiful mix of blues, and the water is just so clear. Blues and greens. You have these stalactites, these giant columns, you know, at the top of the frame, going from the top to the bottom of the frame, and four dark silhouette divers kinda sprinkled throughout the frame.
And the neat thing about this is, Wes described how he choreographed this, because it’s really challenging to work with divers who—these weren’t photo assistants. These were scientists and other divers on this expedition. And we were doing a whole story about this group of scientists and divers working in the “blue holes.”
And so up above on the boat, before they all went down, Wes basically walked them through what the scene was gonna look like and told everyone where he wanted them to be. So with a normal photo assistant, they’ll stay put for a couple of hours with a light and light the stalactite and whatever.
I mean, you’re talking, it’s kind of pitch-dark down there. So you really do need them to hold the lights in certain, specific ways. And so he choreographed it, and then they all go underwater, and he said, “Oh, you know, then, they’re sort of short attention span.” You know, five minutes in, one is forgetting where to point the light, and it’s no longer highlighting the stalactite, and it’s off over here … So It’s kind of a miracle that he pulled off this image.
GWIN: So one of the challenges on this was these guys weren’t using normal scuba gear.
QUARRIER: So Wes and the entire diving team were using rebreathers, which allows them, it’s like a diving apparatus, a breathing apparatus, rather, that allows you to stay underwater longer, because it takes your recycled exhaled air and turns it back into oxygen that you can breathe in again and reuse. You still have to watch how fast you’re going through it, but you can stay under longer.
The tricky part is that they often malfunction. And I remember distinctly at our final show of images, when Wes said he had had over 20 friends, it might have even been close to 30 friends, die using rebreathers.
GWIN: Oh my gosh.
QUARRIER: Both he and the expedition leader, Kenny Broad, have lost many dear friends using rebreathers. So there were multiple instances of near-death experiences on this story.
You’ve probably seen in movies and know—maybe you’re a diver, I’m not a diver—but where you’re holding onto a line, and you’re going deep into a cave, and you have this guideline just in case you get disoriented. Really easy to get disoriented, especially if you trigger something, and you disturb the water so that you can literally not see.
And then you’re very disoriented. You don’t know up, down, left, right. So what happened to Wes is he thought he was exiting, and he was going further into the cave. And his teammates, including Kenny Broad and at least I think two others, were starting to run out of air. So they literally were writing on whiteboards back and forth to each other. “How much air?” “I have a third of a tank.” And there’s rules with diving, and you know, I’m not a pro diver, but you can’t stay; for your own safety, you have to start heading back up. And Wes and Kenny had known each other decades, and they’re all very tight friends, you know? You’re in this unfortunate situation of having to communicate with the team about who’s gonna go after Wes. “He’s clearly disoriented; something’s happened.” What has happened? “We don’t know.” Who has enough air to do that?
Luckily, Wes got oriented and came back out and survived that.
And we had an amazing story in the end. I mean, the pictures were so interesting and surprising, and Wes was like a kid in a candy shop or like Santa Claus. He was bringing us pictures that we would never get to see, that most people would never get to see. And he was so excited. I mean, Wes was probably mid-to-later fifties. And it was like he was a 12-year-old saying, like, you know, “Look at the big fish I caught!” or whatever. He was as thrilled about getting to share these pictures. And we were as thrilled to get to edit them and work with them and figure out what was gonna be a two-page spread and a half-page spread.
So it was really neat for him to be shooting for National Geographic. He was so dedicated and wanted to really hit it out of the park for us. So I think he was, I know he was very proud of that whole story.
It’s just incredible. And then what makes it even that much more special to me is that the day that … Wes received the advanced copy of the issue, and about a day later, he was on an easy dive, and he had a rebreather incident and he passed away.
So he was such a special photographer, and it was such a special story. And then we have this crazy, amazing picture. And so for me, it just is, like, the penultimate for me, the penultimate photo because of that personal connection.
GWIN: After hearing about so many amazing images and the stories behind them, I’m guessing you’ll probably want to see what we’re talking about. Check out our 2022 edition of “Pictures of the Year.” It’s available on newsstands starting December 15.
Are you interested in learning more about Kiliii Yüyan? Well, we’ve got an article for you that explores his path to becoming a Nat Geo Explorer and photographer.
To see Mac Stone’s photos, take a look at his website, macstonephoto.com. He specializes in photographing swamps, the Everglades, and Florida Bay.
Katie Orlinsky’s photos go far beyond tapirs—way far. You can check her work from around the world at katieorlinskyphoto.com.
That’s all in the show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.
This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Ilana Strauss.
Our producers include Khari Douglas.
Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our photo editor is Julie Hau.
Ted Woods sound-designed this episode.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorers Kiliii Yüyan, Katie Orlinsky, and Mac Stone.
Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.
Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.
And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.
Interested in learning more about Kiliii Yüyan? We’ve got an article for you that explores how he became the photographer he is today.
To see Mac Stone’s photos, take a look at his website, macstonephoto.com. He specializes in photographing swamps, the Everglades, and Florida Bay.
Plus, Katie Orlinsky’s photos go far beyond tapirs. See some more of the photos she’s taken around the world at katieorlinskyphoto.com.
See how we summed up 2022 in the “Pictures of the Year.” It hits newsstands in December.
Fuel your curiosity with a free one-month trial subscription to Nat Geo Digital. You’ll have unlimited access on any device, anywhere, ad-free with our app that lets you download stories to read off-line. Explore every page ever published with a century of digital archives at your fingertips. Check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of the episode misidentified which family the tapir belongs to. The sentence containing the error has been removed from the episode.