Behind the Cover: Reuben Wu and Alice Zoo on photographing Stonehenge for National Geographic

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The photographers and picture editor behind National Geographic’s August cover story share their approach to reimagining one of the world’s most-photographed structures

Stonehenge is widely regarded as a British cultural icon. Located in southwest England, the structure is believed to have been built 5,000 years ago during the Neolithic era, but there is no written record of its construction. Explored as part of National Geographic‘s August issue, Stonehenge is one of archeology’s greatest enigmas – and among the iconic magazine’s most popular subject matters.

National Geographic first published a photograph of Stonehenge 100 years ago, in 1922. The black-and-white aerial image “was made possible by the cutting-edge technology of that era: the airplane,” reveals David Brindley in the editor’s letter. “For this issue’s cover story, we deployed the latest tools to bring you Stonehenge as you’ve never seen it.” The cover image is shot by Reuben Wu, who illuminates the stones with LED lights attached to a drone. Inside the August issue, journalist Roff Smith explores recent discoveries of Britain’s Stone Age building boom, as well as the enduring cultural importance of the structure. Last year, a controversial plan to build a highway tunnel underneath the UNESCO World Heritage was halted after a slew of protests. Illustrating the human side of the story, Alice Zoo photographed archeologists, environmentalists, Druids and more, presenting intimate images that explore modern human connections to neolithic sites. 

Sunset brings peace but not quiet to Stonehenge, which is bordered by a busy highway. “One thing that was jarring, even at night, was the constant noise of nearby traffic,” says photographer Reuben Wu. “I found myself imagining how the place would have felt thousands of years ago.” (Reuben Wu/National Geographic; image made with 13 layered exposures)
The autumn equinox brings a folk-festival vibe to Stonehenge as hundreds of visitors gather below its broad-shouldered trilithons. Aligned on the axis of the summer solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset, the prehistoric stone circle has long been a place of seasonal celebrations. (Alice Zoo/National Geographic)

“The biggest challenge was figuring out how to show one of the most-photographed sites in the world in a new and unexpected way,” says Mallory Benedict, Photo Editor of National Geographic. “I wanted the people who saw this story to get inspired to learn more about these ancient structures and the enormous amount of human ingenuity it took to create them…. [and] to find a fresh way to bring this story to the new generation of readers who may be less familiar with it.”

Benedict began working on the story over 18 months ago. Both photographers found the extended timeline to be unusual for an editorial commission. But for Benedict, it is the norm. “Stories at National Geographic can sometimes span several years and several countries, so a year on this project was comparatively short,” she says. “On the visual side alone, photo editors and photographers spend a lot of time researching a story before even making any pictures. Once a photographer is in the field, having time to spend with people and photograph difficult topics or animals gives us the ability to show the world in a unique way, and aim to make pictures no one has ever seen before.”

A sprawling ceremonial complex in its day, Stanton Drew boasted timber circles, two avenues of standing stones leading to the nearby River Chew, and one of the largest stone rings in Britain, some 370 feet in diameter. Today 26 stones remain, and ground-penetrating radar has revealed nine rings of timber posts. (Reuben Wu/National Geographic; image made with 18 layered exposures)

The distinct structure of Stonehenge sits firmly in Britain’s collective memory – whether first encountered in a history book, on a family outing, or as a distant silhouette driving south on the A303. This is certainly true for Wu, who first visited the site on a school trip. “It’s unforgettable,” he says. “It’s always been this distant iconic image, but it has also become kind of unremarkable over the years.” Indeed, as one of the most photographed monuments in the country, it is likely that we have been desensitised to its scale and antiquity. With this in mind, Wu was eager to capture the cluster of stones in a new light, to reignite its wonder.

In his artistic practice, Wu uses drones to illuminate remote landscapes – from Indonesian volcanoes to Bolivian salt flats – rendering otherworldly images that feel unbound from time or space. Wu adopted his usual process at Stonehenge, but he encountered several hurdles. In order to fly the drone, his assistant was required to sit UK drone exams, and then obtain permission from both English Heritage, which manages the site, and the Royal Air Force, which owns the airspace. They were also prohibited from flying the drone directly above the stone circle. Wu improvised by attaching LED lights to a 50ft-long telescopic pole, which his assistant held above the stones. He followed the moon cycle to retain control over lighting, and shot mostly at dawn, dusk, and in the dead of night. The resulting images are ethereal, but also tactile – depicting both the texture of the stones and the its majestic presence within the landscape. 

Stonehenge visitor Hanna Lingard greets the sun as a chilly dawn breaks on the morning of the autumn equinox. To protect the fabled monument from damage, most visitors are not allowed near the stones. But solstice and equinox are open-house occasions, and celebrants relish the opportunity to venture inside the stone circle. (Alice Zoo/National Geographic)
Stonehenge’s uprights bear witness to the long march of time and visitors. Stone 60 appears to melt over a concrete filling installed in 1959 to stabilize the upright. (Alice Zoo/National Geographic)

“When I look at Reuben’s images, they feel really emotional… like bringing to life [what it means to] people who are going to see it,” Zoo reflects. Aside from winter and summer solstice celebrations, in normal visiting hours Stonehenge can only be viewed from behind a perimeter fence. But twice a day – for one hour at dusk and dawn – English Heritage runs a Stone Circle Experience. During this time, visitors can walk between the stones and touch them. “People are having these intimate experiences everyday, and I was trying to get a sense of what that was,” says Zoo. 

During one such visit, the photographer witnessed a newborn baby having her tiny feet pressed against the stones. Then in the evening, a spontaneous wedding, along with a Druid circle to mark the Autumn equinox. “It felt like we were seeing a whole scale of people’s lives and the passage of time,” she says. “It was amazing how much that connection was totally visible, really emphatically… Even though that was part of our plan to begin with, it was still genuinely surprising to me the extent to which that was the case.”

Both photographers describe working with National Geographic as a “dream”. For Zoo, “[the commission] truly came out of the blue, and it really felt like magic.” The photographer had no connections at the magazine, and had never pitched her work to its editors. Wu was similarly surprised when he received the call-up. But unlike Zoo, he was initially in touch with former photo editor Sarah Leen, who he met at a portfolio review in 2017. He caught the attention of National Geographic’s photo editor Mallory Benedict during a 10-minute presentation of his work at the Storytellers Summit in 2020. On first look, the photographer’s artistic practices – in terms of style and subject matter – are not an obvious fit. But for this story, “two really different kinds of images coming together was such a strength,” Zoo reflects.

For more on this story, visit nationalgeographic.com

alicezoo.com / reubenwu.com

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.