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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.

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.

British Museum Arctic Exhibition

The British Museum has opened a new exhibition in London, Arctic: Culture and Climate. I’m excited to be a part of this new exhibition in a significant way, having contributed the primary exhibition photographs and my short film Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale.

Much of the public perception of the Arctic is based on outdated and colonial ideas of an unexplored and desolate land. That’s certainly not the case, as the Arctic is full of life and community. I spoke with curator Peter Loovers of the exhibition at length and was impressed by his team’s deep understanding of the complex issues involved in the modern Arctic. The exhibition itself is an introduction to the Arctic, and they have done a great article with the basics.

If you find yourself in between April and August, I recommend stopping in to take it in! There’s a lot to see, ranging from the usual museum artifacts to all kinds of multimedia and experiences that will take you closer to this amazing region that is so dear to my heart.

Interview with Story Untold Podcast

I had a long and extensive interview with expert interviewer Martin Bauman in his podcast Story Untold. We covered a lot of ground, so much, in fact, that it is actually two episodes (epic Hollywood blockbuster-style). We cover a lot of pretty deep ground from shamanism to journalism. Check it out in the embedded player below, or in your own podcast player.

In photographer Kiliii Yüyan’s work, he has drawn on both wilderness survival skills and empathy — qualities he deems “critical” for the projects he embarks on in extreme environments and cultures outside his own.

“Human cultures are the most complicated things to understand,” he says. “Human culture is so rich. There’s so much to it.”

He talks about animism, searching for meaning in his late teens and early twenties, and the importance of representation in journalism.

“In the past, journalists have been known to do a lot of things where they just kind of parachute into a place. There’s a lot of this sort of old-school journalism … like, ‘If I’m a good journalist, I should be able to drop into any place in the world and make a story out of it,’” says Yüyan. “[I think] a good journalist goes in with an openness and an understanding that you don’t know everything — far from it.”

Martin Bauman, Story Untold podcast

Part 1

Part 2

Rewilding Patagonia for Sierra

A puma walks in the shadows at the new Patagonia Parque Nacional in Chile, made possible by the largest conservation land donation in history by Kris and Doug Tompkins.

Last winter, Jason Mark of Sierra Magazine asked me to work on a story on conservation in Chile. This particular story would be on the largest land donation for conservation in history, by the former CEO of Patagonia Inc, Kris Tompkins. I immediately had concerns because I understood that the gauchos inhabiting the land had been removed it became a park. As history has shown, evicting local and Indigenous peoples from their land proves to be a terrible idea in the long run.

There were all these stories about this mysterious project that was going to take possession of the lands and waters of Chile.

-Dago Guzman, superintendent of Patagonia Parque Nacional

But by the time Jason and I had trekked over a hundred miles over the sweltering and mountainous terrain of the new Patagonia Parque Nacional, we had seen a puma, herds of guanacos, countless birds, and I had changed my mind. In that time, I had come to understand the unique dynamics of the situation, the people, and their history. Central Patagonia’s new national parks have become a huge win for conservation.

Before it came to be though, Chileans were suspicious of the Tompkins gringos. How did it come to be? Why was the establishment of these parks nothing like the genocidal establishment of the national parks in the United States and elsewhere? Find out in Sierra Magazine.

Portrait of a caracara, or South American falcon

When it comes to the wildlife, this is the best that could have happened, the transformation into a park.

-Daniel Velasquez Romero, former sheepherder, known as Patagonia’s “deer whisperer”
Lichens growing on the Southern beech trees, or lenga, of Patagonia

The Arctic Petroleum Reserve for National Geographic

No place in the Arctic is less famous yet more important than the wetlands of the politically named National Petroleum Reserve. At the junction of several migratory bird flyways, it’s the densest concentration of birds in the Arctic. I spent a month over two seasons photographing this epic and intensely living landscape, and I am forever changed by it.

For birds, it has been called “Heathrow at the top of the world.”

-Chris Solomon, Alaska’s last vast wild place is open for drilling, National Geographic

Unfortunately, the reserve also has sizable oil and gas deposits, in particular around the critical wetland areas of Teshekpuk Lake. And the special protections put into place previously are being dismantled by the Trump administration.

It is more important, there are more birds, of higher density, in the NPR-A than in the Arctic [National Wildlife] Refuge.

-Rebecca McGuire, the Arctic Beringia Avian Ecologist for WCS, Alaska’s last vast wild place is open for drilling, National Geographic

Many people know that I’m a staunch supporter of conservation by local Indigenous communities, and that foremost I believe in the importance of people on the land. In a world manipulated by powerful forces, the land and its local guardians can use a helping hand. Legal protections can make a huge difference for a landscape and its wildlife. At Teshekpuk, there is a caribou herd that thousands depend on for subsistence, plus that critical bird habitat for migratory birds.

Find out more about this little-known area that is the largest piece of public land in the US, the Arctic Flyway, aka the Arctic Petroleum Reserve, at National Geographic.