National Geographic: Around the world in 125 years

When National Geographic was first founded, photographers, in today’s sense of the term, didn’t really exist. “Instead, there were explorers,” says Sarah Leen, the newly promoted director of photography at National Geographic magazine. “These explorers would go out and discover the source of the Nile, for example. They would take notes, then come back to this room full of editors and tell them what they had found.”

One hundred and twenty-five years later, these meetings – called Final Shows – still take place, but the explorers are now mostly referred to as photographers. “They are the people who go out and discover these places. They come back and show us the pictures and tell us their stories,” says Leen.


In the industry, National Geographic is often referred to as one of the last bastions of photographic commitment – a place where photographers are respected, nurtured and protected. Yet that commitment to photography only started in 1904, when the magazine’s editor, Gilbert Grosvenor, had 11 pages to fill. “Grosvenor grabbed a package from the Imperial Russian Geographical Society containing some of the first photographs of Lhasa, Tibet, then considered one of the world’s most exotic places,” says Chris Johns, a former photographer and the magazine’s editor-in-chief since 2005. “He selected 11 and sent them to the printer, certain he would be fired and ridiculed. The opposite happened. People stopped him on the street to congratulate him. And so it was that photography, the hallmark of National Geographic and the most immediate means of communicating with our readers, came to the magazine. It was born out of desperation – and risk.”


Leen, formerly a freelance photographer for the magazine, says: “One of the things that is so special for a photographer is how your voice counts throughout the whole process – from the very beginning in the research phase to choosing what to photograph, to the editing and even all the way to the layout process.”

This involvement is key, says Pamela Chen, a senior photo editor at the magazine. “We have a long-term relationship with our photographers. And one thing that surprises many of them, especially when they come for the first time, is that we want to see everything. We want to see every single photograph they’ve taken – even when they were just checking the light or shooting a map. We start from there. In the end, the editor sees everything the photographer sees through the camera, and that’s what makes it so special.”

As National Geographic celebrated its 125th anniversary at Visa pour l’Image in September, Ken Geiger, the magazine’s deputy director of photography, sat down with photographer Paolo Pellegrin for a drink. “Pellegrin had his first show at Visa 25 years ago,” says Geiger. “He did his first story for us in 2010, and that was the first time an editor had ever looked at his entire take. In 20 years, no one had ever looked at every one of his photographs.” For some photographers, that process can be intimidating, but for the editor it’s often fascinating. “Especially when you’re working with someone like Paolo. You get to watch how they form an image. And you can surprise him by finding images he hadn’t thought about. That whole process of discovery is laborious, but it’s lovely.”

For many photographers, receiving a National Geographic assignment is the holy grail – a rare achievement that brings a whole set of daunting responsibilities. But at the heart of that assignment lies the story. “It always comes first,” says Geiger. “The story has to be vetted and researched before a photographer is picked, in most cases – unless, of course, the photographer proposes the story.”

Once a story has been picked, it’s handed over to a team of researchers, who assess its potential before it comes back to the editors to be pitched again, “knowing what we now know about it”, says Geiger. Only then will a photographer be selected. “Photographers come to us in a lot of different ways,” explains Leen. “With some of them, we have very strong relationships. They are regulars, especially when they have very specialised skills, like wildlife photographers – and we do keep them very busy. Sometimes somebody will come to us with a really good idea, or we will find people who are working on a project and we want to continue to support it.”

This is where National Geographic differs from other publications: “We will give them more time and more money to do their stories,” says Geiger. “Our budgets are pretty substantial,” adds Leen. “And as a result you need somebody who is able to manage a project like that successfully and on time. You want somebody who has a vision that excites you and the ability to complete the job.”

For Geiger, getting a National Geographic assignment is similar to getting a loan or a grant from a bank. “A lot of money is going into these stories, and we have to trust that the photographers will be able to pay us back with their images, because if we have to kill a story, it’s really expensive.”

For each photographer assigned to a story, a photo editor is also selected to manage the entire process. “The editor manages the photographer, makes the budget, makes the plan for the coverage, figures out how many trips will be needed, and then sees all of the imagery that’s brought back.” In fact, says senior photo editor Chen, “If National Geographic were the CIA, we would be the handlers and the photographers would be the field agents. They hear our voice in their ears all the time. In fact, our job performance as photo editors is based on that trust, on how we are able to read into a situation and guide things away from disaster, just as much as on how we are able to guide them towards success.”

Final showtime
When the photographers come back to Washington, DC, where the National Geographic Society has had its headquarters since 1888, they will sit down with the photo editor and pore over the thousands of images shot while on assignment (Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols, for example, shot more than 210,000 images documenting the Serengeti lions) to make an edit of 50 images. “That edit becomes the ‘tray’. It’s from that tray that all derivative products will be created,” says Chen. “We will publish a dozen in the magazine, but for any extra picture, we won’t dive back into the entire take; we will dive into the tray we made with the photographer. All the images that will be published online, or in the videos or on our products, will come from that tray.”

And it’s that tray – named after the carousel trays used with old-fashioned projectors – that photographers present in the Final Show before editor-in-chief Johns. “These shows are part of the review process. It’s the chance for the photographer to sit next to the editor of the magazine and show his or her work,” says Leen. “You have to create a narrative, and as an editor it’s something that’s very useful because when you see a show, you can see if there are holes in a story,” adds Geiger.

These Final Shows last 30 to 45 minutes but the photographers prepare for more than a week with their photo editors. “We expect our photographers to be good journalists and experts on their topics,” says Leen. “So when the photographers show us their images, I will ask: ‘Who is this? What’s that? Why are they doing this?’ We need to know these things. We need that information. And as journalists, photographers have to gather that information.”

And this is precisely the type of detail the magazine’s editors will ask for during the Final Shows. “It’s a performance,” says Chen. “The sequence and the pacing are all designed to tell a story, and you have to be ready for it. It sounds easy, but there’s a catch: you donʼt get to hold the clicker. There’s an element thrown in that you do not control. Chris Johns holds the clicker. If you’re going on about an image for too long and the picture is not interesting enough – click. That’s the part that’s scary. That’s the twist.”

Digital future
National Geographic magazine has always been at the centre of the society’s activities, even taking dominance over its digital counterpart. “The magazine and the website worked in silos,” says Geiger. “The online department would take our content and fill the holes on their pages.” But this is changing. In June, the society promoted Leen from senior photo editor to director of photography at the magazine – she’s the first woman to hold that position – and brought in Keith Jenkins from National Public Radio as director of photography to oversee National Geographic‘s online activities.

“Online is changing a lot,” says Leen. “And it’s going to change even more in the next year.” In fact, the magazine has just launched its own photo blog and will redesign its website entirely, bringing its most valuable content – the photographs – to the forefront. “We started doing this with Nick Nichols’ Serengeti lions. Jody Sugrue, our creative director, was really driven by the idea that no longer are we going to put our content into boxes on a page,” says Chen. “Instead, we’re going to build the page around the content, and that means bigger pictures. Pictures that take over your entire screen. And that concept was put into place early in the making of this story.”

“The biggest difference,” Geiger summarises, “is that nine years ago, when Sarah and I started, we would go into a meeting and talk about the text and the photography, and maybe about graphics and maps. Now we are talking about sound, video, interactive maps and graphics, and 3D motion. That whole process is done upfront now – it’s a whole new way of thinking.”

National Geographic has also adapted its policies to the changing media landscape. For example, with Instagram (the magazine has more than 2.7 million followers on the image-sharing social network) photographers are encouraged to share images while on assignment. In the past, the magazine put a strict embargo on all images until publication. “We’re moving towards the point where we will be publishing earlier on the web and building up to that print moment,” says Leen. “There’s no reason why we wouldn’t use social media tools to try to perpetuate the brand,” adds Geiger. “We have to reach people where they are, instead of making them come to us,” confirms Chen.

And even though National Geographic is not a photography magazine – “We’re a magazine that uses photography to tell stories,” says Leen – it has a profound respect for its photographers, dedicating its October issue to the power of photography. “Our commitment to photography has really been shown in this issue,” she says. “We put it together differently with shorter texts, no graphics, with an emphasis on photographers. We did a whole series of interviews with 44 of them, publishing the interviews online and in our iPad app.”

The special issue opens with the following words: “Photographers use their cameras as tools of exploration, passports to inner sanctums, instruments for change. Their images are proof that photography matters – now more than ever.” For the magazine’s editors, that power translates into a privilege. “We get to work with the best photographers in the world,” says Leen. “It’s awesome.”