What’s shooting a Geographic story like?

Nick’s take was created from interviews made in 2000.

I spend a huge amount of time on a story, but I don’t take that much time to make it easier. A Geographic assignment is going to take a year of my life any way you slice it, because that’s what it takes to get it.

The Editor-in-Chief,the Director of Photography, and my photo editor tell me what to do, but the reality is simple. There’s only one person that goes out the door, and the story has to be made from what I took pictures of. I’m on my own out there. One of the things I think people misunderstand is that there’s nobody that gives you a list or anything, and there’s not a whole lot of research that anybody else does. In my case, I usually dream up the stories and try to sell them to my editors.

When I’ve gotten the assignment, I do as much research as humanly possible about the subject. My rule of thumb is usually I spend as much time in the field as I do preparing. So, two months in the field means two months preparing. Even if 90 percent of that research is useless, it’s important. When I’m doing research, ideas about pictures come to my head. That doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and set up pictures, but it gives me a lot of ideas so I can hit the ground running. And as long as I let serendipity through, I’ll still get pictures that just happen. But by going to all the places that I’ve lined up, all the little pieces should start to give us a whole and tell us something about Indonesia or tigers or whatever the particular subject is.

Learning languages is good, though I have to say it’s overrated because I don’t speak languages. I wish that I had learned them as a child, so if you’re really young and you’re reading this, definitely study languages. If I had learned all the languages of places I’ve worked at, you know, I’d just be a linguist. You can do fine drawing pictures, with facial expressions. The language you do want to learn, though, is how to be polite in that culture. If you can say hello to people, good afternoon, thank you, they’ll know, okay, he’s made some effort. And you’ve got to learn what not to do, all those things you can do wrong. You don’t want to make a cultural faux-pas.

[Nick’s Take was written in 2001. Nick uses digital for all of his assignments as of June 2011.] I shot 2,000 rolls of film on the Megatransect — how can I not make a hundred good pictures? I would just say try it. It has nothing to do with quantity. Well, it does — I’d much rather have 2,000 rolls than have 2. I wouldn’t want to be put on a rationing diet, because the reason you shoot a lot of film is because the shooting, the pushing of the button, brings you around. It’s like an experiment. You’re dancing. And then you realize, aaaah, that’s where the real dance is — over there! And you zero in on it and make the real frame. So all the bad pictures and the garbage you discard.

But you have to be able to see, and you have to have a point of view. To say photography is completely objective isn’t correct, because it’s not. It’s my point of view about tigers. It’s my point of view about chimps, or central Africa. And I think that’s it — that’s when I realized I really was a photographer, when I saw that I was starting to express myself. That’s why I think it takes 5 years. There’s a point when you’re copying somebody else, or you’re just trying to do what Time magazine wants you to. I don’t do what I think National Geographic wants me to do. I did maybe on the first project, because I was scared to death. But quickly I learned that this is my vehicle, and I can drive this thing. I mean, 2000 people work in the building, but there are only so many of us that go out in the field and do that work, and we can drive the train. And so having a point of view is absolutely essential, and no amount of money or film gets you that. It’s so easy to take boring pictures.

At the Geographic, which is different than other publications, the photographer is involved all the way to the final layout. It’s a fine art to working that situation, because I know that it’s not the 80 good pictures that I got. What the world’s going to see are12 or 20. And if I don’t think a lot about how those go on the page and the display of them, then I’m not really following it all the way through. I got frustrated with the magazine industry because other magazines just took my pictures and published them however they wanted. And everything’s so subjective — you’ve got thirty frames, and the hand is in a different place in each of them — and there might be a particular nuance to a frame that I’m going to push for.

In the past Geographic didn’t assign a staff photographer to do something like wild tigers, they’d have assigned a tiger scientist and said look, you’ve got a few grants here, and when you come up with enough pictures we’ll publish a story on tigers. And the weakness of that is that there’s no point of view. It’s just a scientist’s pictures about tigers. I look at the big story that goes with it. At the same time I want to go out there and spend the same amount of time that scientist did to get pictures of tigers. And I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that.

I work so hard in the field and what I do is so intense. I go underground for nine months and don’t come up for air. I don’t have a lot of tolerance for someone who can’t get that obsessed.

But there’s another side to that, too. Somebody like Dave Alan Harvey– his whole gig is being lyrical. It’s not that he has to work so hard, it’s that he has to interact and he has to capture those moments around him. There’s so many ways for photography to work.

But whether or not I can maintain that intensity another ten years, I don’t know. I physically don’t think I can — I’m falling apart. Five knee surgeries. I’ve had malaria like twenty times, all this shit. And I would also like to see what young photographers want to do. That’s why I’m thinking about starting a photography foundation, giving out grants, which is all about nurturing young photojournalists, which is exactly what I want to do with this website. [Nick’s Take was written in 2001. As of June 2011, 10 years later, Nick is about to undertake a new assignment in Tanzania for 2 years and is in physically good form. He has also founded the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, VA where young photographers and established photographers can meet, collaborate and celebrate 3 days of peace, love and photography.]