Frequently asked Questions

How do I become a photographer for National Geographic?

This is the most common question that any photographer for National Geographic gets, and I think it’s because there are so many paths to becoming a successful documentary photographer. Every single photographer making photos for the Geographic goes through a complicated journey in their life and career, and it’s unique to every person. What is certain is that there is no straightforward way to get there. Most photographers at the Geographic began having expertise in other fields, such as in marine biology, environmental justice, or medicine. Many are accomplished with specialized technical skills, such as cave diving, fluency in languages like Arabic, or macro studio lighting. Other have unique abilities to deeply access worlds that the rest of us do not, such as inside the military, Arctic Indigenous communities, or the homeless. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that every photographer at the Geographic can do something that no-one else in the world can do, and present it from a unique perspective that noone else can offer.

My best advice to aspiring National Geographic photographer is this:

  • Become an expert in something that truly speaks to you, and do not just focus on photography.
  • Create photographic stories, not just single images, that noone else has ever seen before. That does not mean it has never been covered, but that the images show us something we have never seen.
  • Expect to be a working photographer for at least several years before working for National Geographic.
  • Master less common technical skills, such as strobe lighting, astrophotography, or aerial work.
  • Do work that you love, and build entire photographic stories even if you have to do it on your dime. It’s difficult to get hired to do work that you haven’t done before.

What is it like working for National Geographic?

Being a photographer for National Geographic is a dream job. But that doesn’t mean it is nearly as glamorous in reality as it seems, and it is not a life that suits many people. Here are some of the less amazing things that are part of the lifestyle.

  • I often have so little time on assignment or am in such remote places to eat that I end up eating terrible food. I often have to live on fast food, Spam and crackers, or on the opposite end, on whale blubber and frozen whitefish (which I love but is not for everyone).
  • It is hard to stay in shape. I often do not get a chance to workout at all during assignments, and staying in shape is critical for the job. At the same time I often have to do physically demanding tasks when I’m in less good shape, such as steep hikes in 100+ degree heat carrying 40lbs of gear, or freedive in freezing glacial lakes when I don’t have the proper wetsuit for the temperature. We also don’t get enough sleep.
  • The pressure to create excellent work can be exhausting. Our editors care deeply about us, but ultimately we have to come home with amazing work every single time, regardless of the excuses.
  • We rarely see home. In many years I am only home about 90 combined days in a year, and this is common among NG photographers, especially early career. This can make it difficult or impossible to have a family, to keep relationships healthy, and keep your mental health in good shape.
  • I don’t make that much money. The days of enormous budgets and sponsorships by Rolex are long gone. Today top working photojournalists make enough money to survive, but here in Seattle, my income is in just the 25th percentile. A big part of our payment is the enjoyment of the work we do.
  • We are all freelancers. Every photographer for the Geographic is a contract freelancer. That means each assignment is potentially our last, so there’s not the sense of stability that salaried jobs can give. We don’t get benefits and have to manage our businesses and do our own taxes. It’s not for everyone.

Here’s some of the wonderful parts of being of the job.

  • I experience and see things that I never would have without being a photographer. For example, I never would have started diving, and now I routinely spend time in the kelp forest and occasionally get to play with seals underwater.
  • I meet amazing people that give me deep insights into culture and life that I never would have otherwise.
  • I get to educate people about issues that I care deeply about. In my case, the issues and stories of Indigenous communities, Asian American communities, the Arctic and wildlife are things that I feel a level of responsibility for, and am so happy when I can tell the stories properly. Sometimes our stories even result in policy change, and that is deeply satisfying.
  • I get to go on adventures and travel regularly. This is, of course, the main thing that most people think of when they think of photography for National Geographic, and it’s true. But if it’s your only goal, there are much easier and simpler ways to go about doing it.

I love my work, and in many ways, it is what makes me who I am. But the sacrifices are real, and although we can mitigate them to some degree, they will always be there. Would I change it given the opportunity? Not a chance.

Shortlist for Leica Oskar Barnard Award

I am excited to announce my fine-art documentary series, Rumors of Arctic Belonging, has been shortlisted for the Leica Oskar Barnard Award!

The Arctic is changing radically. In his impressive series, the American photographer Kiliii Yüyan (born 1979) offers insight into the fascinating imagery of the North. Both the icebergs and the local population are disappearing; within a couple of decades a future Arctic awaits – not cold and unchanging, but living, dying and being reborn.

Leica Oskar Barnard Award, 2021

The award has been around for a long time and is one of the more prestigious awards in photography, covering documentary of all types. Entrants are only nominated by photo editors and curators.

You can see the entire series on my website here. It was on exhibition at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, but due to the pandemic, had few visitors, so I’m happy to see that it’s getting some viewers now. The topic of who the Arctic belongs to, and who belongs to it – is seemingly innocuous – but an enormously deep topic that’s worth talking about in this era of reckoning with colonization worldwide.

On polar bears & fireflies with Outside, Creative Live Podcasts

Polar Bear Attack- Excerpt from Outside Podcast

It’s been a busy month for me, revving into 2021 with a bevy of podcast appearances. First up is Outside Magazine’s excellent podcast, where I get into the details of a polar bear attack and what it’s like to experience that as a photographer in a new environment (the sea ice) for the first time. There’s an excerpt above, and you can listen to the entire episode here.

Next up is my talk with Creative Live’s We are Photographers podcast, which is an excellent survey of professional photographers and what they are dealing with in the world. I spoke with Kenna about the importance of bearing around different cultures, and how cultural bias can poison your photography and journalism. I also got into some talk about animism, or how fireflies are actually fairies. The video above has an excerpt about that. You can find the entire podcast here.

Art in the Plague Year

This was a big year for mind-expanding group exhibitions, and I was honored to be included among three exhibitions, 2 virtual and 1 in person (Taiwan, although I couldn’t be there myself).

The current one is Art in the Plague Year, at the California Museum of Art, which just opened. I thought this was such an interesting idea- what new ideas have we been thinking about during the pandemic, that doesn’t literally picture COVID or its impacts?

We are now engaged with history. In a fog of uncertainty, this alone is clear: history tells us pandemics trigger periods of change. They lay bare social inequities, racial rifts, and economic injustices. They contain the seeds of new futures.

Personally, I had a a powerful moment where I understood the need to branch out beyond my regular work and dive further into animism, the spiritual framework behind my Nanai and Chinese ancestries. And since animism is about relationship to land, it’s a perfect candidate for landscape work.

But the big question was: how to turn something so abstract and beyond normal perception into photography? I didn’t want to stage images, and setup lighting or otherwise manipulate the scene, as I find it too difficult to balance different photographic personalities. I am distinctly a documentary photographer and believe in the power of the journalistic still image.

As soon as I asked the question, the answer appeared in front of me, as the forest I was hiking through transformed into a river of floating orange spirit lights, dancing above my head and on the trunks of the fir trees. I had never seen anything like it before, but I knew that the moment and the particular place had given me insight into how I would approach the idea of animism, now my ongoing project titled, Thin Places.

The first bit of it is online with other impressive perspectives at the California Museum of Photography’s online exhibition.

Exhibition: Rumors of Arctic Belonging

I’m so happy to announce that my photographic exhibition, Rumors of Arctic Belonging, is on show at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, OR. Rumors was in the works for 5 years until finally I understood the through-line that connected all of my work across the circumpolar Arctic, from Alaska to Russia– to see the Arctic as a living and flourishing land. Come for the polar bears, stay for the intimate looks at Arctic life.

Towering icebergs, doomed expeditions in tall ships, desolate landscapes with naught but howling wind– this was the vast Arctic from the paintings of European explorers in the 19th century. That romance carries on in the 21st century, even as the ice vanishes and increasing numbers of people experience the North in person.

When the future has its way with the North, it will leave a radically altered land. The sea ice and its denizens will have vanished.  Contemporary Inuit will be living vastly different lifestyles than that of their ancestors. Future generations will look back to remember a land little understood by outsiders.

September 3-27 at Blue Sky Gallery, Portland, OR. You can visit from 12-5pm, Wed-Sat, with appointments available, or walk-ins. Limited to 10 visitors at once.

You can also check out my recorded Artist Talk with Zemie Barr from Blue Sky Gallery.

Interview with Humble Arts Foundation

Quinn Russell Brown is a friend, fantastic photographer and inquisitive person, so I always love sitting down and chatting with him. Recently, he interviewed me for Humble Arts Foundation, and his questions were illuminating. We had a wonderful conversation, of which I’ve excerpted below.

Brown: Your work is in lockstep with your approach and attitude to life. And when we talk about who should be permitted to shoot a story, I would say it’s bigger than applying a strict equity lens, than simply asking, “Which is the right ethnicity to shoot this story?” 

Yuyan: It’s more complicated than that. There are different reasons to hire for diversity. One of them is for the perspective. Another is to make sure that we’re bringing people in to give them an opportunity. But then there’s one that we don’t talk about much, which is access. Someone like me can walk in and people are like, “You remind us of us.” I understand enough about the culture to know what to do and what not to do. I know how to just hang out with people. I have that slow patience. 

Find the entire interview with Humble Arts Foundation here.

Interview on Indigefi’s Native Artist Podcast

I’m not sure why there’s been so many interviews as of late, but I’m always happy to talk with an Indigenous host. Alexis Sallee is a delightful and super-smart Inuk to hang out with, and we covered a lot of ground about being an Indigenous artist. This one’s a bit shorter too– Alex did a fabulous edit and got it down to the essentials. Check out the Native Artist Podcast.

An excerpt: “So there’s always this sense that whatever [Native community you’re covering], you bring your own bias into it. And so of course, people coming from the outside, who have long have these deep stereotypes about Native cultures are going to bring in their like romantic or a dystopian idea of what subsistence looks like. But you know that I think the thing about it is, I get to spend a lot of time. My process is a very sort of slow, laborious, Indigenous process, which is spending a lot of time with the people doing stuff, and getting to know what’s really going on.”

Feature in FotoNostrum, a Spanish art magazine

There are certain moments when we are caught off-guard, looking at ourselves from another time, another place. Finding myself in FotoNostrum, a Spanish fine-art magazine feature, with a retrospective of Steve McCurry’s work is one of those.

It’s a perfect juxtaposition of the times. McCurry’s work, which remains powerful and iconic to this day, is no longer the paragon of photographic virtue. Instead, magazines like National Geographic (whose cover was graced by McCurry’s work) and the journalism industry have come to recognize the inherent colonialism in having a white photographer be the primary visual painter of India and the Middle East for America. As an industry, and as a society, we are reckoning with the notion of who tells the stories of the marginalized, particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests against the brutal murder of George Floyd.

And yet I find it strange to be in the same magazine as a photographic giant like McCurry. Part of this is probably the feeling of someone who’s been taught to keep their head down and follow mainstream culture rather than rise above with one’s own vision. It’s the impostor syndrome, the self shrinking at the magnitude of inhabiting an influential role. I am sure legendary Black photographer Gordon Parks felt this on the daily when he was working at Life Magazine in the 1960s. I certainly don’t feel like a trailblazer.

But I suppose that also brings me to other feelings, which is to wonder why, in the light of 2020, we are featuring Steve McCurry on the cover of a cutting-edge art magazine! The current mood across the world is one of upheaval, one of social change as marginalized peoples in every country are rising up to demand their place at the table. Is it tokenizing to have my work featured here, as if to check the boxes of ‘Indigenous’ and ‘Asian-Pacific Islander’?

Personally I don’t believe the choice to have the portrait Sharbat Gula, the famous ‘Afghan Girl’, on the cover, was one done with a particular agenda in mind. But it does speak to the notion that decisions like this are accompanied by unconscious assumptions. I for one am in a place where I am reckoning with my own hidden biases– I hope that many across journalism and art are doing the same, and embedding revised practices into their organizations.

In any case, I thought FotoNostrum put together the feature well, editing my words to achieve something applicable to a wide photographic audience. I’m not even sure that I said it in a single sentence, “Words reach peoples’ minds– photographs reach people’s hearts,” but I am keeping that quote now. Regardless of the era, the power of photography remains the same– to move people.

Geckos & Kayaks on American Filmmaker Podcast

Just before the pandemic broke out, I was at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where I met Josh Hyde, the man behind the American Filmmaker Podcast. We talked and had some laughs and a lot of excellent tea (that’s one of Josh’s specialities).

The resulting podcast is my favorite interview. We got into favorite animals (spoiler: polar bears and geckos), building kayaks, and the nature of creativity. You can listen to our banter below.

Chukotka: the Russian Arctic Book

I am excited to announce the imminent release of my first fine-art photography book, Chukotka, on the Russian Arctic!

It’s produced by Kris Graves Projects, in a format (7”x8.5”) that makes it affordable ($28) while retaining beautiful print quality on textured matte paper. Pre-orders are available here.

At the edges of the Bering Sea and Russia’s Arctic coastline lies one of the wildest regions on earth. In winter, the land is indistinguishable from the ocean, a vast white ice sheet extending into infinity. In summer, the tundra unveils itself in shades of moss and the coastlines are packed with polar bears and walrus. 

Chukotka. The place where human destiny is carved by the cold.