How do you get published in National Geographic magazine? Obsess, obsess, obsess. “If you’re not completely obsessed with excellence, with your story, with sharing your vision with the world, then there’s a problem,” said long-time National Geographic contributor Lynn Johnson at a Photo Plus Expo panel titled “Women of Vision at National Geographic.”
Others on the panel were photographers Jodi Cobb, Diane Cook, Stephanie Sinclair and Erika Larsen. National Geographic photo editor Elizabeth Krist moderated the discussion. They offered advice and tips for pitching ideas to editors, shaping stories, editing your work, and other topics.
“I love to work with photographers who are obsessed,” not only because their engagement is inspiring, Krist says, but because “I can trust they’e not going to miss anything.”
Several of the photographers described how consumed they are by their projects, not only because of insatiable curiosity, but because of the commitment they develop to their subjects along the way. That commitment often supersedes personal commitments, Johnson said. “Your family and friends can roll their eyes and talk about abandonment, but you’re out the door.”
Johnson continued to work on her story about medical marijuana for months after National Geographic published it. “The story is out, but we’re still on it,” she said, because by raising awareness about the benefits of the drug “there’s a chance to save a life or elevate the life of a family.”
“It’s not just a story,” Sinclair said. “What projects do you want to dedicate part of your life to [doing]? You spend years working on some of these projects.” Her “Too Young to Wed” project about child marriage was published by National Geographic in 2011. She is still working on it, with a goal of ending child marriage by raising awareness.
The panelists talked about how they find and frame stories in ways that appeal to editors.
“I’m looking for a way to make a story fun” so people can relate to it, said Cook, who produces stories for National Geographic with her husband, Len Jenshel. They are currently working on a story about trees. And rather than do another story about the destruction of the world’s forests, they are taking a humanistic approach by exploring the social, cultural, and religious significance of different types of trees. “I would rather, through beauty and seduction, get [viewers] to care,” Cook said.
Cobb said, “Editors love to be surprised” by story ideas as well as by photographs. She advised photographers to pitch stories “that are kind of unknown, something you have unique access to…What are you uniquely qualified to do?”
Krist agreed. “If you have access to part of the world that others don’t, that’s a huge advantage. It pushes you to the head of the queue” of photographers who are trying to get National Geographic interested in their projects. For example, Sinclair’s unique access to mormon communities convinced the magazine to assign the story she did about polygamy, Krist said.
Krist noted that National Geographic needs certain areas of expertise–notably photographers who specialize in archaeology–more than others, such as wildlife and underwater specialists.
In response to an question from an audience member about how to get magazines interested in publishing personal projects, panelists emphasized the importance of believing in your own projects and committing yourself to them, even if editors aren’t interested.
Sinclair said that when she first started pitching her child bride project, editors asked, Why should we care? “I had to go and make pictures to show why they should care,” she said.
Johnson added, “You have to know your subject matter better than anyone else, so it’s embedded in you. You have to put your money, your time, and your passion out there. It can take years” before editors get interested in what you are doing.
Cook emphasized the importance of showing works-in-progress to colleagues, and of editing tightly. “Make sure your first three pictures are your best, because if you lose [an editor] on the first three pictures, they’re gone.”
Panelists also said competitions and curated photo blogs are a good way to build exposure for your work. If editors see your work once, “and see it again, and again, they know if it gets better every time,” Johnson said. “At some point, [good work] will rise to the surface.”
Krist agreed, and said that as a body of work matures and rises, “eventually we say, ‘That’s someone we’d like to have shooting for us.'”