Anand Varma wins 8th annual National Geographic Photographer’s Photographer Award

Anand Varma accepts his award
Photo by Vince Musi

An Anna’s Hummingbird hovers under a fog machine which allows researchers to visualize the airflow around its wings. Photo by Anand Varma

On 13 January 2018, George Steinmetz announced the award in a gathering of the contributing photographers of National Geographic magazine in Washington D.C.

The greatest pleasure I get from being head of the Photographer’s Advisory Board is to give out the annual National Geographic Photographer’s Photographer Award. There is no greater honor than to be recognized by ones peers, especially in a crowd like this.  The award is for the photographer who has most inspired us by expanding the possibilities of our medium. This definition is purposely vague, as what inspires is always the unexpected.

Past winners are: Bill Allard, Carsten Peter, Lynn Johnson, Nick Nichols, Jim Richardson, Brent Stirton, Brian Skerry

In this room today, I think it’s fair to say, is the biggest assembly of great photographic talent in the world.  Take a look around… it’s pretty impressive.  So I know what you’re thinking… they give this thing out every year, and a lot of people have had their turn… Maybe, just maybe, this year it’s me?

Well, the mathematical probability of that continues to get smaller. Over the past few years there have been a lot of new photographers publishing feature stories in NGM every year. This year there were 8 photographers who had their first feature story in NGM and the number of photographers in the The Photo Society has grown from about 80 a few years ago to over 178.

Another factor reducing the chances of winning is that to qualify you had to have published a story in the US edition of NGM in 2016, and with the magazine only averaging four feature stories each month, that reduced the winning opportunities this year to just 49, but six photographers had two stories each this year.

This year there were 27 vote-getters, mostly American, and they included three Brits, two Germans, two South Africans, a Russian, a Kiwi, and a Peruvian.

For me the spirit of working for National Geographic was always to show people something that they had never seen before, or at least reveal something in a way that they never could have imagined. This photographer goes way beyond that, in fact, this photographer is so out there that he photographs stuff that you can’t even see.

I remember my first assignment for NGM some thirty years ago, back in the Cretaceous, when I would sometimes spend two weeks working on a particular picture. Well those obsessive times are not over for this visual dinosaur, who doesn’t want to do more than one assignment a year so that he can keep trying to perfect every picture. Clearly making a lot of money is not on his bucket list. The only thing that this photographer hates are deadlines, as they restrict his pursuit of photographic perfection.

Our winner went to college with an idea to major in Marine Biology, only to discover that his university didn’t offer it. Although he remained fascinated by science, he slowly realized that he could have a much bigger impact on the world by communicating scientific concepts through pictures. And this guy is serious worker. He happened into photography by accident when looking for a summer job, which involved helping a scientific team carry 50lb packs over three 11,000 ft. passes to reach a pond of rare frogs. Another assistant job involved being part of a team that spent weeks pulling all-nighters in the top of towers erected inside a flowering tree, waiting for animals to come and feed on the nectar. Everyone else punked out or fell asleep up in the tree towers, except our winner who got the magical picture. Yes, it pays to be focused!

His picture editor here described him as “an editor’s dream”, someone you could give an idea to, and just let him run with it.   Weeks later, he starts sending in samples of work with very publishable images accompanied by detailed self-critiques, as he is always searching for ways to make them just a little bit better.

To keep this obsessive work-style affordable, our winner still resides in the same house where he lived during his college years, and still has seven or eight housemates. He prefers to get around on a bicycle, and only recently bought his first car.  As I learned more about our winner, I got this creeping fear that the budget cutters at National Geographic would clone this guy to put us all out of work.  Although he claims to be lactose intolerant, he has a soft spot for ice cream, and I also understand that he has a secret recipe for squirrel curry.

If you want to photograph the wonders of biology, you soon realize that the vast majority of life forms are less than a half-inch across. Taking pictures of small stuff is incredibly difficult, with problems of focus, scale, and the need for lighting equipment that is the same size as the moving subject.

Although he claims that great photography is not about technique, but about understanding your subject, our winner is quite modest. He works on subjects so specialized that he has to build his own equipment. And although he is just 31 years old, this photographer already likes to give back. He works tirelessly in support of science, running workshops in the US and abroad to teach scientists how to be more visually literate.

So please give it up for the youngest dinosaur in the room, ANAND VARMA!