Having been with National Geographic for over a quarter of a century, American photojournalist Jim Richardson is at the top of his game. Contributing over twenty-five stories to the magazine since 1984, Jim is a prolific photographer who gets to traverse the globe, shooting everything from the tops of volcanic peaks to the surface of swamps and wetlands. In January 2009, Jim had the privilege to travel for National Geographic Expeditions on their Around the World jet trip. The trip took them to eleven countries in 24 days! What a dream. Check out Jim’s blog for some great behind-the-scenes stories about his work. There, he gives us a rare, inside look into what it takes to become a National Geographic photographer.
Here’s my favorite post from his blog. I can appreciate his work even more now that I know about the difficult and trying process. “Wish me luck. Tomorrow I have a Wall Walk for National Geographic. Forgive me for bringing this bit of shop talk to you but the timing seemed to make it appropriate. And since this bit of editorial procedure is unique to the National Geographic Magazine, permit me to explain. A Wall Walk is the ultimate moment in the history of a story shot for National Geographic. (If you saw the Nightline piece on our coverage of the Columbia River some years ago you’ll know what I’m talking about.) Now the photography is done, the layouts have been put together and it comes down to this moment, when all the editors are assembled to see the finished product. (These layouts were traditionally printed on paper and hung on the wall in one of the layout rooms at National Geographic for all to see. Hence the name, Wall Walk.) After a word or two of nervous banter the room then falls silent and the photographer is on stage, given the task of walking the assembled throng through the visual narrative as told in the pictures. The goal is simple: convince one and all that this layout, presented to them here for the first time, is the layout that should go in the magazine. No changes, no tweaking, this is it, and here’s why. (Off on the side is the nervous picture editor who has invested a good part of their life in making this whole thing work as well. For the moment they can offer moral encouragement with a meaningful glance, but little more.) When it comes to the story being presented the photographers goal is simple: to be the smartest person in the room. To be able to present the picture story coherently, with passion and intelligence, and to be convincing and complete. If the photographer can’t be convincing about the pictures why should our readers care. At the end the editor (Chris Johns) will ask to see the seconds, the pictures that were in the original tray but didn’t make into the layout. Note that these pictures that didn’t make it into the layout are pictures that the photographer (me) sweated blood to make. And I have to convince everyone there that they SHOULD NOT be in the story, in favor of the pictures that were chosen. If I’m successful I’ll know it immediately. Everybody will be happy with what they see, they won’t be tempted to revise it, and they’ll be excited to see it published. If I’m not successful, if I’ve left gaps in the narrative, if the presentation is lackluster or uninspired, if there are obvious and grievous omissions or if the pictures just fall flat then I’m in trouble. The layout could be revised, it could be shortened or it could be (perish the thought) killed. Put simply, this layout is not going to make it into the magazine if it isn’t compelling and worthwhile. It’s all part of what makes National Geographic such a special magazine to work for. I can’t think of another magazine in the world that allows (and expects) so much input from the photographers. Or any other magazine in the world that is so devoted to the photographer being a full fledged journalist. Or any other magazine in the world that lavishes so much attention on the process of making picture stories work. It’s a great opportunity for any photographer but it is loaded with pressure. That’s my job: making pictures work for a living. And while I’m sad to see certain pictures fall by the wayside it’s the finished layout, complete with the story, legends (captions) headlines, maps and illustrations that is the ultimate product. It’s a team effort and I’m just one player. So by tomorrow afternoon I’ll know if this project that started a year and half ago is going to see the light of day or if I’m going to go out looking for a tall building to jump off of. So wish me luck. P.S. That picture up at the top of this post? It was one of my favorites from the Celtic Realm story. It didn’t make it.” Jim Richardson