“What’s it like photographing a National Geographic story?”
It’s a question frequently asked and to be honest, a rather intriguing one because a National Geographic story — the process from beginning to conclusion — is not always what we might think.
For one thing, I tend to get very wet and ruin equipment.
Often extremely dirty.
And working 10-14 hours each day for usually four to five weeks straight, utterly exhausted.
In what will become a multi-month series, I’ll try to demystify the experience, sharing insight and nuances on how such long-term projects originate until the magazine arrives in your mail slot, starting now with a latest story I’m about to begin for National Geographic.
But there’s a catch…due to contractual reasons, photographers who work for NGM cannot share the details of stories we’re working on. So this latest story will be nicknamed, White Horse. Like any publication, National Geographic wants to herald the issue being reported. Makes complete sense. These blog postings will only have vague references regarding the next two to three months that will make up this entire assignment, explaining in further detail the processes of an NG assignment using previous stories I’ve done for this amazing yellow-bordered magazine.
Nearly all non-breaking news stories I work on tend to evolve much like this:
A conjecture or notion.
Every photographer needs a file folder in a cabinet or a folder on their computer titled “Story Ideas”.
In mine, there resides around 20 or so subfolders listing various topics of intrigue, interest or importance. Some have languished for years, gathering bits of details here and there if the topic is extremely obscure or not well documented.
Other story folders are chockablock full of research, waiting to be dusted off and turned into a one page proposal.
And there are story proposal which jettison out of nowhere — while sleeping, out walking or sitting upon seat D in row 57 on a long-haul flight trying to keep blood circulating in cramped legs, scribbling ideas on airliners napkins or painstakingly tapped with butterfinger thumbs on an iPhone note until expanding later.
Yet other stories, like the White Horse, arrive as a telephone call or email.
The ones which most often come to meaningful fruition are the notions that never exist on paper or in electronic form. They lay wedged in the subconscious, waiting for events or issues from around the world (or in our own backyards) to transpire, causing a near Vegas Strip of neon to switch on when the moment of solidification happens.
We’ll begin with one such notion that wallowed about in the noggin, evolving months later — and very quickly — into a story for National Geographic that was published in the June 2009 issue.
Have written a bit about this story a few weeks ago from the perspective of a fellow farmer and our collective global connectivity. This time, the we’ll dissect how such a complex story actually manifests.
It goes a bit like this…while living in Asia for over 12 years I would, on average, make one or two visits a year to the United States. It was late 2007 and while visiting either Washington, DC, or the in-laws in Florida, I couldn’t help but notice that the cost of food — both at grocery stores and in restaurants — was getting noticeably expensive, or at least the wallet was feeling pricier foodstuffs. Asking a slew of questions to anyone willing to listen — along with digging for statistics related to the rate of inflation, personal income, fuel prices and other more basic nuts and bolts humanizing questions — I began to see a trend forming; Salaries hadn’t increased in America commensurate to the rate of inflation. Beyond the insane rise in housing prices between 1996 and 2007 (we all know what happened a year later), another item which we cannot live without had suddenly increased — food. That was the first seed to be planted in cranium.
A few months later, riots began to break out in Haiti, Egypt and parts of Western Africa over rising food costs. Second seed or file stored within a ventricle.
Days after returning from another U.S. visit in April 2008 and while jibber jabbering with neighbors, the topic somehow steered to the rising expense of living on Bali, most specifically, the cost of food. Even our friends, Lady Made and Ibu Komang, were explaining that they were having trouble affording meat. And the cost of rice had significantly increased in recent months. These discussions mirrored not only what my neighbors were sharing, they were the exact same concerns my wife and I were experiencing: For the price of foodstuffs on Bali had indeed increased in a very conspicuous way. Beyond my unscientific polling, food riots were also breaking out in Jakarta.
One evening while lying in bed, it hit like a ton a lead; A significant rise in the cost of the most basic needs we as humans require for survival had rather suddenly, and without much warning, spread like wildfire across the entire planet.
In North America, citizens where paying more for food but were able to cushion the blow by using credit or steering away from all natural and premium items, therefore holding back the bane of every governments concern — population unrest.
However in Haiti — already crippled in some of the most brutalist forms of poverty on earth — the population had reached it’s tipping point.
Egypt had also reached such a apex with riots breaking out across the country. By the way, many might think that the revolution which ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was connected to the populations angst against his 30-year reign. Yes, that was a major part of it once 2011 arrived. However it’s roots connect to the Egyptian peoples inability to afford food.
These issues, along with my concerns of how to feed my own family, caused these various story files lodged in gray matter to come tumbling out.
Bursting out of bed, in about three minutes I hammered out an initial story proposal to then director of photographer, David Griffin. It poured faster then pasta strainer releases water.
Normally I’ll read, reread…rereading again and again…any story proposal. For goodness sakes, even for a basic Facebook post, at the very least I’ll double, even triple check, before clicking share!
Not this letter.
When closing the email to David with “All is best, John”, I hit send.
Here is the exact copy of the rapidly penned email…filled with grammar errors, line spacing issues and far too many I’s then preferred (not much into the essence of self):
The next morning, resting in the inbox, was a response from David.
Can’t find that email (had a server meltdown around that time, loosing scores of received emails from 2008) but his response was short and to the point. Will try to paraphrase:
John, how ironic. We’re thinking along the same lines internally. Would like you to do this story. More soon. D
Having a story idea approved is always a stupendous and appreciative moment. Even the most benign and shortest story should be relished as if it were a quarter of a million dollar grant to photograph anything you believe in. No story is too short nor too long to not be utterly committed. Suppose this approach makes sense, especially if you had a mother and father hammer the reality of life at a young age — “Be thankful for what you have, John!”
What begins next in the story process is actually one of the most important and utterly enjoyable bits in the entire process — Research.
Photography on very convoluted stories often flows like this: 70 percent research/logistics, 20 percent serendipity…and 10 percent photography.
It’s one thing to pen up a story proposal based upon research collected from news stories, books, feelings and direct observation. A proposal next evolves into a “Oh shit, now I have to make this happen!”
Some stories visually speak for themselves — war/conflict, social revolutions, famine and other event driven stories are primarily (though not all) about recording the occurrence transpiring before us. Long term photography projects are meditative, layered and protracted.
They can also be riddled in logistics, especially when it’s a story being told from many locations, like the food crisis would become.
With the story approved, heavy pondering began — “How, with all the weight and measure possible, do I tell this story?”
Of utmost important was the need to link deeply layered social issues to the growing food crisis. It spread across many countries and levels of society. The research needed exploring on topics such as health, environment, hope, need and change. Of paramount importance was in making sure the visual narrative expanded upon these various issues rather then repeat a similar theme/issue in each location.
Prior to this stage of the process, it seemed natural and somewhat simple to accomplish what had been penning via the email to David. Now the story had gone full circle, resting primarily on my lap to make it happen.
Cartographers are geniuses. If having not been pre-wired to be a photographer, I’d likely be a musician. But if told to decide what to do in life, it would be a geologist or a cartographer.
Maps are windows into the physical essence of our planet, a roadmap to follow for our imagination and souls. No matter where we come from, no matter what period of history we lived, the same question will have been uttered; What lies over that mountain? Who lives across this body of water? Where does this road lead to?
Maps also show what often divides us.
A few years ago I made the plunge and ordered one of those massive National Geographic wall maps.
Previous to having such a large open wall space in the barn, I used the fantastic National Geographic World Atlas, a book worth every Cent and Rupiah. It’s extremely detailed, large enough to read and still light enough to tot around your home or apartment.
Sarah Leen is a truly magnificent photo editor to work with at the Geographic — and an amazing photographer in her own right, having photographed 15 stories of the magazine. She has one of the best mantras ever: “John, Geography is in the name of the magazine. You gotta get some geography!”
Sarah’s right. And her voice, espousing as a guide, is often rolling around in the head, murmuring — sometimes screaming — while photographing as a reminder to think well beyond just a narrow view of a much broader topic.
So while getting lost within a map (no passport required), geography always ends up playing a key part in every story, especially when paving the foundation on the global topic of food:
Philippines— Unable to grow enough rice to feed it’s population, yet with the rise in commodity prices, I had stumbled upon a small newspaper article about the younger generation in the Banaue rice terraces of Northern Luzon who were actually wanting to be farmers. There was good money to be earned and most in the Philippines needed local jobs — one yellow Post-It.
The Midwest— United States is the breadbasket to the world as well as located in the Land of Excess. Have to highlight the Midwestern farmer as well as food leaving the mouth and into a cars stomach — second yellow Post-It.
Brazil and China — Kurt Mutchler (then the Assistant Director of Photography and now the Director of Photography at NGM) was the editor on this story. Kurt, along with his assistant, Whitney Hall, were brilliant at helping research. Kurt and Whitney, along with the astounding mind of Executive Editor, Dennis Dimick (who is passionate about the topic of food and was the one thinking “internally” about this topic), looked at some of the layers which connected the global food web; Brazil was shipping soybeans to China to support this Asian nation’s rise in economic strength — and meat was on plates more than ever in China’s history. Whitney, via the help of an excellent fixer, was able to find a massive ship in Brazil which was going to take soybeans from the Port of Vitoria to Southern China, an amazing feat to find. While in Brazil, I took the rise in food grain demand further by also focusing on the dramatic increase in the destruction of the Amazon, where new farmland was replacing ancient growth forests — two yellow Post-It’s.
Peru — While in South America, it made sense to look for other aspects on how we feed ourselves. Whitney found an obscure and unique topic: The government of Peru was finding a new and organic way to increase food yields by collecting guano (bird shit) from a chain of rocky islands off the coast near Lima. It was being used in their agricultural industry in replace of chemical fertilizers. A success story, adding something lateral to the narrative — one yellow Post-It.
India — Dennis, the environmental guru master (he writes an excellent blog titled Signs from Earth Notes, well worth reading), helped guide me on the importance — and failures — of the Green Revolution. The Punjab region in the 1960′s and 70′s became the breadbasket for India, allowing the South Asian nation for the first time in generations to be able to grow enough food to feed their entire country. But there was a dark side to this dawn of pesticides and fertilizers…birth defects and lowering the water table — another yellow Post-It.
Bangladesh — Kurt and I had a meeting with a World Bank food specialist who happened to be Bangladeshi. Can no longer remember his name but over the 30 or so minutes we chatted, one word echoed like a tympani: Monga. Monga is a term used to describe a season in Bangladesh when weather patterns change, causing a dramatic influx of water from melting ice in the Himalayas to rush through the northern region of the country, ruining farm land, causing displacement and disrupting the food supply. It was also in this part of South Asia where we could best understand the difficulties of trying to live — let alone feed your family — on just $2 USD or less a day. Combine weather pattern changes and poverty with the rising cost of food and you have this very simple yet weighted understanding that effects over 2 billion — yes, over TWO BILLION — fellow human beings on our planet:
If you earn roughly $2 dollar a day, 70% of that income ends up going to food. When food prices increase by 30-40%, how do you feed yourself?
You slowly start to starve — a depressing yellow Post-It note.
Egypt — The riots in the Middle East had ended by the time I started this story in late June 2008, but I didn’t want to let that important topic go so easily. There had to be lingering ramification on the rise in food costs in Egypt. Kurt wasn’t too keen on the idea but was able to convince him it was crucial to try and would only go for a few days while flying home from India. In my typical approach, I would stay in a shitty hotel to save costs — I despise the idea of spending hundreds of dollars a night staying in fancy hotels just to rest for 6-8 hours. With the help of my friend, Issam, we found a brilliant hole-in-the wall place which was smack up against the amazing pyramids of Giza. Cost $15 per night, con baño. And sure enough within a day, we came upon the opening image of the story, illustrating the reality of what happens each morning when a nation of millions cannot afford to feed themselves — another yellow Post-It.
Ethiopia — The writer, Joel Bourne, wanted to highlight grassroots agro efforts in Timbuktu, Mali. An excellent success story yet visually mute. I’d already chosen to highlight the success of the Northern Philippines, the rice bank of seeds just outside Manila and the rise of organic fertilizers from Peru. Summonsing all the visual mind power possible — no matter how romantic it would seem to visit Timbuktu — I just couldn’t see how to make rice farming in Mali all that interesting. Instead, I wanted to highlight the forgotten: The over half a billion who are surviving on $1 or less a day. Who are the people who simply cannot afford to eat? Hadn’t planned to highlight Ethiopia because the country had made significant strides in feeding its population since the famine in the 80′s. But in the Horn of Africa, weather change was wrecking havoc, causing tens of thousands to go hungry. Under reported and with little knowledge where to go, Kurt said “go visit the new commodities exchange that has just opened in Addis Ababa (a success story) and if there’s time, see what you can find further afield” — last yellow Post-It.
After weeks of reading every document I could get my hands on, most of it blandly scholastic, strewed across a map like notes on sheet music where nine yellow Post-It’s, lacing together what would become the visual narrative of the global food crisis or what ended up in the magazine being called “The End of Plenty“.
What happens next?
Pulling It Off
In a few weeks time we’ll delve into the logistics on how to accomplish such large stories— within budget — using the Sacred Water story which ran in the April 2010 issue. Sacred Water, even more logistically complex then End of Plenty, was photographed in over 12 countries during a 10-week period. Will also highlight the true unsung heros of the photojournalism world, The Fixers, who without their patients, guidance, courage and skills, none of us could ever do the work we do.
Till then, need to get back to researching this latest story, White Horse, that arrived via an email two weeks ago, connecting circumstances which took place around five years ago, 53 years ago, over 300 years and other instances prior. Utterly fascinating though dripping in academic jargon and monochrome graphs.
Gnawing to get out from under the weight of books, PDF’s, websites and more email traffic then can ever be recalled, to get behind the camera next week in a region of the world I’ve never been to before, the Pacific Northwest of North America. Equally romantic and intriguing as if heading to Timbuktu.
But there’s a challenge: How to make the White Horse visually interesting while photographing circumstances which happened eon’s ago?
Have learned over the years that nearly every National Geographic magazine story is like producing a doctoral thesis.
Wouldn’t want it any other way.
June 30, 2011 62 Comments