Working for National
Geographic Magazine

by Joanna Pinneo

I subscribe to various online editorial photography list-serves. Usually I scan the subjects and keep quiet. Several months ago ABC's Nightline aired a program about photography at the National Geographic Magazine. Discussion about the program on one of the list-serves sparked some debate. Some photographers seemed quite taken with the idea of shooting a thousand rolls of film on assignment, coming back with 40,000 pictures and narrowing that down to just 22 for use in a magazine article. Here is a sample of a couple of the posts:

"I have always said that, given that amount of time, film, expense money, transportation and other support, few working photojournalists could not come back with a photo package for National Geographic," and "But ponder this, if you let an amateur with 1,000 rolls of film and huge zoom lenses wander around Africa for a few months... couldn't they come out with 22 great pictures?"

As a photographer who has completed a number of articles for the National Geographic Magazine I had to speak up.

First, to set the stage, I recounted a few logistical things that happened to me on assignment that can make you crazy and stall progress. These things happen to everyone and if you work for a paper perhaps you don't get a second chance. But, often you don't with the Geographic either. I did a story on Climate Change in 1997 that ran on the cover in May 1998. I did have 14 weeks in the field to complete the assignment. I covered 5 continents, including the countries of Mali, Brazil, India and the Philippines. These are not countries known for efficient travel and communication.

First I did a month's research on where to go and why and when and what would happen where and gathered a box full of material on a variety of science-climate ideas. I tried to determine how people are affected by climate changes; today, yesterday and tomorrow and then looked for a photographically interesting way to express these changes.

In the Philippines I went to photograph Mount Pinatubo and its destructive lava slides. I had to schedule quickly because the rainy season was almost upon us. The rain wasn't supposed to start for at least three weeks. I scheduled 7 days in the country, to do aerials and to drive around the area looking for lava slides and their consequences. It takes at least a day to fly there from the USA; then a day to get from Manila up country; then some time to arrange for a helicopter to fly from Manila to the location. I thought I had arranged this before I got there, but it fell through. Find another helicopter. They charge two to three times more than in the USA. This has to be considered, even on the Geographic' s budget. So, how long to fly and when? It rained every single day, the mountain was totally socked in.

One day it partially cleared. I went up, the clouds closed in, and I had spent thousands of dollars for nothing. I drove around the area looking for lava-related photographs. Some luck here but nothing really compelling, the lava slides do not happen until after the rainy season, but I couldn't wait until the next year for that. In this case I did have a pretty tight deadline for the assignment. I was due the next week in Utah for three days to photograph a scientist. I had to cancel that to stay in the Philippines to hope for better weather. Finally got a clear day on the last day and I got the picture. (BTW, the Geographic didn't use the photo in the article).

I was so stressed out while I was in the Philippines I got huge stomach cramps staring at the rain. It was enough rain to put me out of business but not enough for lava flows. The scientist I planned to photograph in Utah would not be at that particular visually interesting location after that week so I had to figure out when and where he'd be in the next few months that would make interesting photos. And when could I get there? I still had to travel to Mali and photograph the encroaching desert.... try traveling in Mali in a timely fashion. Usually planes are really late. Mine was late getting me to the location, but then it came back early (by several days). I had to catch it because there would be no more planes for another week, maybe, and I had to be in France to photograph the Loire River Valley and nuclear sites where it was feared the river might be getting too shallow from drought to cool nuclear reactors.

I love working for the Geographic, but it's just not as easy as "wandering around with a 1000 rolls of film and looking for good pictures of whatever you come across." You are photographing a story, often very specific. You need to be in specific places at specific times to photograph specific things. You have to figure out when to be there, how to get there, who to talk to, who and what to photograph, how to get access, all in many different cultures and languages. Travel conditions are often horrific. And I go to easy places compared to photographers like Nick Nichols and Frans Lanting. What if gear breaks down? No local photo store around to help. Often you cannot even get such simple things as AA batteries, much less film and digital things. Computers, think again. How do you carry all the stuff you need? How do you get it into the country? Some places have lots of restrictions.

At the National Geographic the photographer is responsible for determining the visual direction of a story and conducting exhaustive research before arriving on the field to shoot. You manage a budget of six figures, often juggle personnel in several different countries, and meet a number of deadlines that are tightly constructed and cross numerous continents. The photographer has to negotiate with officials in all the countries, sometimes with world leaders, to coordinate coverage. Photographer Reza recounts an amazing story about covering Libya for the National Geographic and his crafty negotiations with Muammar Qaddafi to make it possible. Your pictures must be "something new, not seen before, 'surprise me' kind of photographs" and more-than-likely the Geographic has covered this same subject several times in past decades by superb photographers. For example in 1994 I photographed a story on the Basque country. I had to follow the 1967 defining essay on the Basques by Bill Allard, one of my all-time personal favorite photographic essays ever.

About 25% of the time (photographer Jim Richardson estimates 20%) is spent actually taking pictures. The remaining 75% is in the details. Always in the background is the knowledge that failure is not an option. One failed assignment and that job is your last at the Geographic. It is a different kind of stress from a newspaper.

There are some wonderful photographers who have tried and failed. But I'll add that these photographers are great at other kinds of photojournalism that I wouldn't do as well. Working for the Geographic means considering that your story won't be published for over a year at least. Somehow you have to be ahead of the curve, anticipate the future and keep the pictures interesting, current, but also timeless. What is a good news photo today might mean very little a year and a half from now.

Since I have done a number of assignments for the National Geographic Magazine, I am often asked to look at portfolios of photographers at all levels. You'd be surprised by the number of really bad portfolios I have seen from photographers who have good jobs and travel opportunities. I have seen marvelous portfolios from photographers who work exclusively in their own neighborhoods. A good photographer knows his/her subject and has a sense of who they are and what is important to them. You need more than an exotic place to take good photos, in fact, at times that can be a hindrance.

In response to the newspaper photographer that wrote, "I was taught to pick your shot, frame it in your mind before you shoot. This philosophy has always worked well for me. I work for a newspaper and you need to make every frame count in most cases you only have one chance to get it right." I told a story about veteran Geographic and Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey. I remember Harvey, a former newspaper photographer himself, telling a group that when he first started with NGS, Bob Gilka, the famous tough-as-nails-heart-of-gold former Director of Photography, looked at his film and asked him time after time, "Why did you shoot this frame? This is not a picture" and so on. Harvey learned a lot from Gilka and he still shoots sparingly with only Leica range finders, 2 bodies, and 2 lenses usually. Everyone is different in how they create. Cartier-Bresson once wrote something to the effect of, "sometimes you must produce a lot of milk to make a little bit of cheese," even though he was known for shooting quickly in the blink of an eye before anyone was the wiser, a style one would suppose would encourage the economical use of film.

Finally, I recommended a really great little book with no pictures but many words of wisdom on the craft of the photojournalist called "On Being A PhotographerÓ by Magnum photographer David Hurn, in conversation with Bill Jay. Hurn is a great storyteller and teacher. He explains his approach, his work style and thought processes. I also put in a plug for a book the Geographic recently published called "Women Photographers at the National Geographic. " Besides beautiful and moving pictures by a number of wonderful women photographers, the text by Cathy Newman with interviews about what it is like to be a woman photographer for National Geographic is very revealing.

I am still looking for someone who will give me a few thousand rolls of film and some extra money. I'd love to go out and wander.

Joanna Pinneo

Women Photographers at National Geographic
is available at