Episode 43: The people behind the photography

Meet the people who are crucial in helping National Geographic’s photographers out in the field.

Malia Byrtus geared up for managing remote camera systems.
Photograph by Carlton Ward, Jr.

National Geographic photographers seldom do their work alone, especially those who journey out to far-flung places. This week, we’re shining a light on local collaborators—people whose names don’t show up in the credit line for a photo but who are key to helping our photographers get the breathtaking shots you see with our stories. We’ll hear about their extraordinary adventures—which include fighting off an alligator to save a camera—and how they’ve helped photographers navigate and understand cultures that aren’t their own.

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JOHN STANMEYER (PHOTOGRAPHER): I met Heri Yanto on my first visit to Indonesia in 1998.

JORDAN SALAMA (HOST): That’s John Stanmeyer, a photographer at National Geographic. That year, he was covering mass riots in the country, triggered by economic collapse, when he met someone who would change his life.

STANMEYER: I was exiting the airport, and countless men would come up to me and say, “Taxi, taxi.” I went outside the airport and sat on a bench in a little quiet corner and just had a cup of coffee, just sitting, thinking, and up came a very gentle man, very calmly walking, and of course said, “Taxi.” And I said, “No, thank you, sir. I don’t need a taxi.” And he sort of sat at a bench nearby and was very kind, and didn’t bother me about the taxi anymore, and just sat there.

SALAMA: The man paused for a few moments and then gently started asking John other questions.

STANMEYER: Do you have children? Who’s your family? How are you? And no pressuring about a taxi whatsoever. And he said, Well, I’m gonna go now. Nice to meet you. I said, Well, nice to meet you, uh, Heri. I said, But where are you going? And he said, Well, I gotta go and see if I can find somebody to drive into the city. I said, Hey Heri, I need a taxi. And so began a 10-, almost 15-year relationship with this kindest gentleman. Very street-smart, but wiser than wise of anyone I’d ever met, who brought me deep into the Indonesian culture on countless stories with Time magazine and National Geographic.

SALAMA: I’m Jordan Salama, a writer 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.

Today you’re going to meet some of the incredible people who work behind the scenes to make National Geographic’s photography possible. At Nat Geo, we send photographers to some of the most far-flung, complicated locations in the world, and that often means that they need help from local collaborators. They help with things like transportation and translation, of course, but they also do so much more. Imagine: A mountain climber who rigs cameras on a cliff face. An Arctic pilot who flies low across the snowdrifts. A technician who monitors camera traps in the wilderness for rare glimpses of wildlife. These people end up on adventures, give photographers important local context, and sometimes develop close relationships that last for years.

This week our guest is Nat Geo photo editor Jen Tse. And she’s going to tell us all about them.

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SALAMA: Jen Tse, it’s so great to have you here on Overheard. You’re a photo editor at National Geographic, and I’m wondering if for some people who may not even know what a photo editor is, if you can say a little bit about what it is that photo editors do.

JEN TSE (PHOTO EDITOR): So, one metaphor that I like is talking about a photo editor like they’re the midwife to a photo story. They’re really preparing the photographer to enter a situation or to produce work. They’re doing a ton of research. They’re guiding the photographer visually, coming up with visual concepts.

They’re the photographer’s moral support in a lot of instances. When they’re in the field, they’re checking in with their editor. And finally, when all the photos come in, the editor is the one who’s sifting through tens of thousands of photographs and finding the final 40, and then narrowing that down to the final 20 or 10 that will end up being published.

SALAMA: I mean, when people open up an issue of the magazine or scroll through Instagram posts, they might see a byline of one photographer who took an amazing shot, right? An adventure on a mountain or a snow leopard in the Himalayas from a camera trap. But the truth is, they’re almost never working alone.

There’s a team of people behind that photograph. And so you put together a really beautiful story about this on our website called “Meet the Extraordinary People Who Make Our Photography Possible.” Can you tell me about some of them?

TSE: Yeah. So if you look back at Nat Geo’s really rich history of storytelling through photography, which is about 134-ish years, there are so many photographers who’ve worked all over the world for Nat Geo for more than a century. And if you really think about it, there’s no way that they made all of those stories completely by themselves.

They all needed transportation, access, translation, research. They needed someone who could explain cultural sensitivities and customs. They needed risk management. They needed assistance with their equipment. Sometimes they would need a shoulder to cry on. It just goes on and on and on: all the different types of skills and expertise that are involved in making any story. And we don’t get to hear about any of these people most of the time. So for example, there’s Jake Soplanda, who’s a pilot who worked with Kiliii Yüyan in the Alaskan Arctic, and he had the ability to fly a really tiny Super Cub airplane, uh, really low and slow, and be able to land on a tiny strip of land not much bigger than the plane itself.

Or there’s also Mikey Schaefer, who worked with Jimmy Chin on Free Solo, and Jimmy describes Mikey as being a, among other things, a rigger, a logistics manager, a photographer, a cinematographer, a confidant, and an all-around badass. So there’s just so many people with so many skills and types of expertise who are necessary to bringing these stories to life. And every story is really the work of all these partnerships.

SALAMA: Some of these people, from my understanding, are also journalists and photographers in their own right, and sometimes you actually hear them called a term called “fixers.” But my understanding is that you don’t really like that term. Can you talk a little bit about that?

TSE: I only dislike it in the way that it kind of obscures the many, many, many different types of expertise that are needed to make some of these stories, like being able to climb a mountain and set up a camera or understand how a leopard seal would behave in a particular moment if you’re trying to photograph a leopard seal, or being able to drive off road, or just having the language access and the charisma sometimes to connect a photographer with different members of the community.

And also I think sometimes there can be a hierarchy associated with the word “fixer” in that maybe a fixer is not a journalist, or that they’re not perceived as being on the same level as the photographer or the journalist when really they could be a photographer or journalist in their own right and doing that the rest of the time, but just on this particular assignment, they’ve taken on these additional roles.

So I prefer the term “collaborators in the field,” even though it’s not as succinct as the term “fixer.” Uh, but one term really isn’t enough to encompass so many different things anyway.

SALAMA: Absolutely. I mean, it’s impossible to overstate also the value that somebody who has their own storytelling experience can bring to the table in terms of that perspective to assist somebody, like a photographer or a writer or a journalist of any kind. It’s so important because not only are you offering up skills and connections and contextual understanding on the ground but you understand how all of those things could fit in to what is essentially, you know, eventually the final product, which is telling a good story. But because of the nature of lots of Nat Geo stories in particular, I know that these photographers and local in-field collaborators can actually often end up in the middle of some pretty serious adventures together.

One person who comes to mind is Carlton Ward, Jr., one of our photographers, who’s documented wild spaces around the world for decades. So one of the cool things that I’ve learned from your story and from hearing about Carlton’s work is that he relies on these, like, motion-sensor camera traps in large swaths of the Florida swamps. And one of his most trusted colleagues, Malia Byrtus, is a technician of these remote cameras who checks on them every now and then.

MALIA BYRTUS (CONSERVATIONIST): My name is Malia Byrtus, and I’m a camera trapper and conservationist from Florida. In 2017, I interned for Explorer and photographer Carlton Ward, Jr., and I managed a network of remote wildlife camera traps throughout the greater Everglades. And my first week in the field, while Carlton was away, I had to rescue a camera that was in danger of drowning from the first floods of the rainy season.

And in addition to getting the truck stuck, I came across a territorial alligator while I was wading through waist-deep water. And usually they tend to swim off in a hurry once they see a human, but this one would not budge, and so I made a walking stick. Ended up taking a much longer route to the camera out of the gator’s way, knowing that there very well could be many others all around me. But it took me multiple trips to get all that gear safely out. And after that day, I remember thinking to myself, Wow, this is going to be a crazy next few months. And it was. But I ended up falling in love so much with the swamp and all of its creatures, alligators being my favorite.

TSE: I mean, that’s just wild. I can’t even imagine coming face-to-face with an alligator on my first week on the job. I think on the first week at my first internship, I was just trying to make a deadline,

SALAMA: Yeah, I know.

TSE: Or, like, figure out where the bathrooms are.

SALAMA: Exactly. And she’s like, you know, surviving rising floodwaters with a Jeep in the Everglades, like, with an alligator staring her down. It’s just absolutely, absolutely nuts. But you know, as an editor, does this scare you? What goes through your mind when you hear about something like this? About all that could possibly go wrong in the field?

TSE: I mean, you have to be responsible—or, or responsible for someone’s well-being—because if you are assigning someone, you’re sending them into the field and anything could happen. Of course, you’re just, you have to think about the worst-case scenario, and it’s like, it can be a nightmarish situation. Um, but it’s necessary; you have to think about it. You have to plan, you have to know that anything can happen, and you have to know that the best that you can do is to make sure your team is as prepared as they can be before they go out and that you remain available and communicative. So, um, there are teams at Nat Geo that manage the security and risk, and there’s a vetting system for anyone who wants to join on as a collaborator. And there is a check-in system for any assignment. So, yeah, I mean, knocking on wood, nothing ever happens.

SALAMA: Of course. And when you’re talking about this team, of course, then we’re talking about these people, once again, these local in-field collaborators who bring all sorts of knowledge and expertise to the table to make sure that things go as well as possible on the ground. And also that the story comes out really nicely and beautifully in the end.

So, when we come back, we’re gonna talk about some of the other ways that local collaborators help our photojournalists and writers on the ground. Stay tuned.

SALAMA: So Jen, as exciting as it is to talk about fending off alligators in the Florida swamps or climbing a mountain or flying low over the Arctic, some of these in-field collaborators also help to bring stories to life in ways that can fly a little bit under the radar, especially when they are local to a community, helping journalists who are outsiders make sense of their own place. There is a danger, among other things, of something that we call parachute journalism. Can you talk a bit about what that means?

TSE: Yeah. So parachute journalism is when someone is sent to cover a location or an issue on which they have little to no knowledge or experience, and they stay for a really short time, and then they leave again. And it’s problematic for so many reasons. It can produce reporting that reinforces stereotypes or doesn’t reflect certain nuances of the issue. Or it lacks the local context that a person would have from actually spending a lot of time in or being actually a part of a community. And then there’s the potential to inflict harm in the community by telling the story that the journalist had in mind before they even arrived, rather than reporting on the subject deeply, or just by the fact that the journalist can up and leave with no consequences to themselves can make them work with less integrity.

SALAMA: I think a lot about this, in terms of my own reporting, in the sense of the idea that the journalist can always leave and sometimes may not realize the full consequences of the story that they’re telling about a community once they’re not there anymore.

And also the importance of spending just so much time getting to know the ins and outs of a place and its people in order to guarantee that you’re doing a story that is empathetic and sensitive and respectful, but at the same time, sometimes time does not always allow for spending these extended periods, these weeks, months, years in the field.

And so I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit of how journalists and photographers rely on these local collaborators to adjust to these cultural sensitivities and make sure that they’re coming in and doing a good, sensitive, decent job.

TSE: I think it’s just understanding where everyone’s strengths and shortcomings are. So photographers—they might have expertise in creating stories through images. Their eye is really trained. They have a lot of technical expertise, and they have, you know, a passion and a particular motivation for telling a story.

And they also, of course, do a lot of research to prepare for the story that they’re about to tell. But local collaborators, they have their lived experiences, their language access, their community access, and they’re the experts in a whole different way. So sometimes, of course, as we’ve mentioned before, they’re photographers or journalists in their own right, and sometimes they’re not.

And I think really the conversations between collaborators should be about how to combine these strengths, how to acknowledge each other’s shortcomings, and how to work together to produce something that does the story justice.

SALAMA: Absolutely. I mean, for all the reading that one can do to prepare for a reporting trip, we all know that everything changes right away when you get there on the ground. I mean, this has happened to me in places as different as Colombia and Bosnia Herzegovina and Kazakhstan. I mean, you have no idea what to expect, and especially if you’re not a member of that community yourself, you wanna make sure that that unexpectedness does not come back to harm you or the people who you’re working with.

TSE: Exactly.

SALAMA: So in working on the series about the different kinds of people who make our photography possible behind the scenes, you highlighted colleagues Daniella Zalcman and Tailyr Irvine.

DANIELLA ZALCMAN (PHOTOGRAPHER): My name is Daniella Zalcman, and I’m a National Geographic photographer. I’ve spent the last several years working on a project about the legacy of government-run boarding schools for Indigenous children. It’s a project that means a lot to me, but also one where I’m clearly an outsider working on a story that centers a deeply traumatic chapter of Indigenous history.

So that’s why I’m particularly grateful for the perspective, clarity, and nuance that my colleague Tailyr Irvine brought to my work and to the ways in which I understood and engaged with Native history and culture because of her. Tailyr is a brilliant photographer in her own right. She’s also a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes herself.

When journalists work as outsiders, the learning curve can be steep, and making mistakes can mean burning bridges with communities and doing harm. I always consider myself so lucky when someone like Tailyr has the time and patience to help me understand a place more deeply.

SALAMA: It is impossible to overstate the importance of somebody like Tailyr in the context of a project like Daniella’s in this case. They help build trust in ways that are so crucial because trust is the foundation of any good story, especially when it’s a National Geographic story. And so I’m glad that Daniella and Tailyr really were able to make this, um, make this work together.

TSE: Yeah, and it makes the whole process so much less transactional and more of really genuinely connecting with other human beings.

And it’s not just that, but the journalism is better. The storytelling is stronger.

SALAMA: Absolutely. Because it’s richer, it’s more nuanced, it’s more complex. And we, I think, strive to get that nuance and complexity in everything that we do. But it is really easy not to if you don’t do it the right way.

The last part of this equation that I want to talk about is actually something really nice, which is friendship. A lot of times these photographers and collaborators or journalists and collaborators of any kind are out in the field for weeks and months, sometimes even like, work together on a series of stories over the course of years. Jen, have you heard about people who’ve developed bonds that have gone beyond the work itself?

TSE: Yeah, I think it’s just human nature. When you spend a lot of time with someone, especially if you’re going through something really challenging, maybe even traumatic together, I think it’s very natural for you to form that bond that can transcend a typical working relationship.

SALAMA: It’s so interesting because so many of these challenges that we’ve talked about in storytelling—whether it’s going out on a great adventure in the wilderness or working with local communities to build bonds and trust, or being in a difficult situation in a conflict zone—these are things that are challenges that build true trust and bonds between people, no matter the context. And so I think that it makes perfect sense that photographers and collaborators would become friends.

TSE: Yes, absolutely.

SALAMA: That brings us back to John Stanmeyer, who you heard at the very beginning of this episode. Over the course of years and decades, he worked closely with his colleague Heri Yanto, across Southeast Asia.

STANMEYER: We’ve been together even in East Timor during the fight for independence, where it was always crazy and very violent. He took a knife in his stomach for me when somebody was coming at me to stab me, and he stood in the way, making sure that nothing would happen to me. He was my brother. Family.

TSE: Wow. I can’t even imagine being in that situation. You know, the fact that you would go out of your way and take a knife for someone really speaks to the type of relationship that they had and the bond that they formed over so long working together.

SALAMA: Right. And it’s super important to mention also that of course it’s never expected that, that someone’s gonna take a knife for somebody else or, you know, who knows what might go down in these kinds of really difficult situations.

TSE: Just to be clear, it’s a really extreme example of what could happen in the field in a very specific place, a very specific moment, a very specific situation. No one should ever have to risk their safety or their health. But the reality is that anything can happen in the field. When I see stories like this or when I hear about stories like this, I think it’s just so important to acknowledge that sometimes the people who collaborate with our photographers go above and beyond to do extraordinary things because they take part in extraordinary work.

And it’s amazing because we never get the chance to hear about these people, and for all the roles that they take on, among those roles are sometimes to be the hero. Not that they set out to be that, but sometimes these people are heroes, and they should be celebrated for that.

SALAMA: For sure. Um, and one thing that I like to think about too with all of this is that over the years, if you are indeed working together with somebody for years, if you’re keeping in touch even across distance and time, you can pick exactly where you left off, and these relationships, these bonds, these friendships can endure for, in this case, with John and with Heri, over the course of decades.

TSE: Yeah. And this wasn’t always the case. Technology wasn’t always available for people to come to a country and connect with their local manager or a translator or driver and spend a lot of time with them on this assignment. And then, you know, back then they could leave and never hear from them again. And now there’s the potential for these connections to last a lifetime. And you always have this person who experienced what you experienced in the field. Uh, if it was something really traumatic, you have someone who understands what you went through; if it was something really special and unique, you also have someone who shares that lovely experience.

SALAMA: And one of the things that we learned from Daniella and Tailyr, for example, is that the deeper the connection goes, the deeper the bond goes, the better the storytelling will be as a result.

TSE: Absolutely. I think storytelling is about human connections, and it makes it a lot less transactional when the people you’re working with, uh, want to be part of the story and they can help you tell it and do it justice.

SALAMA: We only had time to talk about just a few photographers and their collaborators. Take a look at Jen Tse’s article on the subject to read about other amazing collaborators in the field. Curious why Malia Byrtus was out dealing with alligators? Florida has some amazing plants and animals. Check out writer Douglas Main’s story on Florida’s wildlife corridor to learn more about the quest to protect them. Plus, Daniella Zalcman’s reporting on Indigenous people in North America paid off in her project, Signs of Your Identity. Learn more about the legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools in her article. And John Stanmeyer has an amazing treasure trove of photography, covering Indonesia and beyond. Check it out at stanmeyer.com. And you can follow me on Instagram @jordansalama19. That’s all in the show notes, 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 John Stanmeyer, Daniella Zalcman, and Carlton Ward, Jr.

Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Jordan Salama. Thanks for listening. See you next time.


Want to meet more photographers and their collaborators? Take a look at Jen Tse’s article on the subject to read about other amazing collaborators in the field.

Wondering why Malia Byrtus was out dealing with alligators? Florida has some amazing plants and animals. Check out writer Douglas Main’s story on Florida’s wildlife corridor to learn more about the quest to protect them.

Plus, Daniella Zalcman’s reporting on Indigenous people in North America paid off in her project, Signs of Your Identity. Learn more about the legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools in her article.

And John Stanmeyer has an amazing treasure trove of photography, covering Indonesia and beyond. Check it out at stanmeyer.com.

And you can follow me on Instagram @jordansalama19.