Photo by Mike Davis
In a continuation of my conversations with former National Geographic Directors of Photography, David Griffin shares his tips for showing work to editors. -Gerd Ludwig
David Griffin is Visuals Editor of the Washington Post. He oversees and coordinates the efforts of the Design, Photography, Video, Graphics and Digital teams in print and online.
Previously David was Executive Editor for E-Publishing at National Geographic where he led the editorial efforts of extending NG’s print publications into mobile formats, specifically the launching of their flagship iPad app. Prior to this, he was Director of Photography of National Geographic magazine where he oversaw their renowned team of contributing photographers.
His career has followed an organic path through a number of publications. David started as a photographer, moving to editing and design, eventually taking on greater directing and management responsibilities. Positions have included: Deputy Director of Photography of The Everett (WA) Herald, Art Director of The Hartford Courant, Art Director of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday magazine, Assistant Director of Design of National Geographic magazine, Design Director of NG Books and Creative Director of U.S. News & World Report.
David has photo edited and designed a number books: “Cuba” by David Alan Harvey, two career books with William Albert Allard, “Broken Empire” by Gerd Ludwig, “The Great Barrier Reef” by David Doubilet, “Ocean Soul” by Brian Skerry, “Orbit: Photographs of the Earth by Nasa Astronauts,” “National Geographic: The Photographs,” and a series of topics with photographer Peter Menzel. He also directed the iPad app: “50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic.”
While individual awards rarely reflect the cooperative nature of any journalistic endeavor, David has had the honor of being recognized by a cross section of news, photo and design organizations. He has a degree in journalism from Ohio University and is an alumni of the Stanford Professional Publishing program.
David is active on the boards of the Eddie Adams Workshop, Look3: Festival of the Photograph (co-curated in 2012), the Virginia Quarterly Review, and is a nominator for the Prix Prictet. He continues to do book design and photography. He has lived in the DC region for over 20 years, is married and has a 16-year-old son.
Photo by Michael “Nick” Nichols
What it Takes
Let’s cut to the core question: How can you become a photographer for National Geographic magazine? The following is my view, but I suspect my director colleagues would hit upon similar points.
There are many people taking photographs. There are some who are very good. But there are only a few who are great. Your first task is to move yourself from the many, to the few, since NGM only works with the latter. To become a great photographer is your first task. When I was Director of Photography at NGM, I didn’t really care how you got there (as long as you got there ethically, of course). I cared that you had done enough great work to prove that you could do so consistently. NG works with about 50 photographers on an ongoing basis. And since very few of those are looking to give up their slot, the opportunities for becoming one of this elite group is rare and thus highly competitive. But there are ways.
At NGM there are specific content areas where having an expertise, beyond just being able to photograph, is a definite advantage. Many traditional photojournalists follow the noble path of documenting the human condition—cultural and geo-political topics. But if you tally the subjects of the stories published by NGM, you will see that it does a high percentage of niche science and natural history coverages. Each year there is an internal ranking of the 60-70 stories NGM publishes each year, ordered by their readership approval rating. I used to create an annual report for the contributing photographers which included this ranking. The highest ranking stories were always…wait for it…archeology. And what was always the lowest? Geo-political and cultures. The line of photographers queued up outside NGM’s door for cultural/political stories was always around the block. Many dreamed of being whisked away to exotic locations to photograph foreign cultures. But the line was usually much shorter for those who had a deep passion (and thorough knowledge) of history, ancient cultures, early man, etc. You knock on that door, when I was DOP, and I’d greet you with open arms. If you embrace and excel at photography related to one of NGM’s core niches—subjects that are extremely popular with the readership—you will have a better chance of being chosen.
While it is true that many publications can no longer afford to support long-form photographic projects, photographers are finding alternate sources for funding for projects for which they have a deep passion. Numerous are working with non-profit NGOs (we can leave the ethical discussion of advocacy journalism for another time), balancing commercial (to pay the bills) and editorial, and simply finding benefactors (personal or social, such as Kickstarter). The end result is a continued stream of superb work being done today. If you can get a “leg up” on a project, and prove that you have what it takes to pull off the coverage, NGM may be more easily swayed to support continuation of the project under their editorial direction. This becomes a win-win for both parties. The Geographic, like all publications, is under pressures to do more with less and thus they need to pull in more pre-existing work (so they can concentrate their resources on more extensive original coverages). This is a golden opportunity for those who are working on projects that might fit into the editorial needs of NGM.
When I became DOP, I rode in with a wave of editorial leadership changes instigated by the new Editor-in-Chief, Chris Johns. He had been mandated to make change, and for a few tumultuous years there was a higher than normal pace of turnover among the core photographic base. So one hint for making it to NGM would be to pay attention to when there is a change of leadership at the top or in Photographic. In both cases, there is a high likelihood there will be more opportunities soon after the change takes place. Every Editor and DOP wants to surround themselves with talent that reflects their desired editorial direction.
Getting Noticed, Then
Three decades ago (when I started out as a photographer), there was a fairly established path for ascending to the ranks of magazine photography. First you cut your teeth at small newspapers, where you could shoot many assignments, make mistakes and learn the craft. If you were decent, you might win a few local or regional contests, and that would bring your work to the attention of larger newspapers. There was a ladder of ever larger newspapers, which you might climb to better resources, more talented colleagues, more meaningful assignments. Magazines were always looking to see who was reaching the upper rungs, ready to snatch you when you were hitting your photographic stride. But in the past decade or so, this system has broken down. At first, newspapers started to do fewer multiple image narratives—due to decreasing space. This meant that younger photographers were not getting experience in the kind of long-form documentary photography which magazine readers expect. But also, newspapers themselves started to cut their photo departments so severely, that the conditions began to favor quantity over quality. The result was a dearth of easily found, ready to go, talent. For DOPs at many magazines, finding fresh talent became more challenging.
Getting Noticed, Now
But things have started to improve. That old-media system for being noticed has been supplanted by an active community of bloggers and social media, with numerous attentive photographers and editors calling out new work they come across. It’s a little haphazard, but in many ways it is much more accessible for a broader range of photographers than the older newspaper approach. Some of the sites that have become a clearing house for new talent are The New York Times’ Lens Blog, David Alan Harvey’s Burn Magazine, Rob Haggart’s A Photo Editor, Time Magazine’s Lightbox, and there are numerous others.
Once your work has come to the attention of a DOP, the need for time consuming face-to-face portfolio reviews—as for the initial assessing of talent—has been over ridden by the one-click reach of photographer’s website portfolios. If you want to be a photographer at NGM, you absolutely must have an updated portfolio available online. If one day you do get that call to show your work to the Director of Photography, below are my tips for that moment.
To be a professional photographer today, is not easy. And to be among the very best—to be selected as a National Geographic contributing photographer—has always been, and should always be: tough. Because the magazine works very hard to create and publish the highest quality and most insightful photography, with the passionate goal of deeply engaging readers into the topics and stories which are the heart and soul of National Geographic.
10 Tips for a Portfolio Review
I have reviewed many portfolios, often looking for emerging talent. Each editor is different, these are my tips.
1. It’s not just about the photographs. It’s also about you. Editors are looking closely at how you carry yourself, how engaged you are, inquisitive, articulate, calm, etc. They’re trying to get a sense for how you might act in the field as a journalist and representative of the publication, and how you might conduct yourself with their colleagues (editors, designers, technicians, etc.). Your work shows if you have the skills, while your demeanor predicts how you will fit within the publication’s culture.
2. Know my publication. At a minimum, read the latest edition. It leaves a good impression if, when the moment feels right, you comment on a recent story you like. Or, you might be asked what you thought of a recent story. In that case, be honest, profound, but not cocky! (Most editors have a high-minded self-view, so it doesn’t hurt if they get knocked from their perch.)
3. Show variety. If you are early in your career and editors don’t expect you to have a singular style. In fact they may prefer to see that you can be a jack-of-all trades. Never assume they are looking for only one specific type of photography—they might see something unexpected that they need.
4. Purge your weakest work. Your portfolio is defined by your best work, but it might be dismissed for the worst. Hence, you should constantly strive to replace the poorest images from your portfolio. Don’t have great portraits or landscape? Go out and shoot a ton until you get worthy replacements.
5. Your portfolio should be self-explanatory. Do not yack away explaining each image, unless you are asked to do so. If you have a photo story, add a title with a one sentence explainer. (This will also provide a window into how you handle captions, a vital aspect of all photojournalism.) Do not expect a busy editor to read a five paragraph overview with the lame title “Photo Story #1.” And never, ever make excuses for why something could have been better.
6. Keep your portfolio simple in design. Choose a background which visually recedes: if it is a Blurb-like book, keep everything on white; if it is on a screen, present on black. Avoid white or black bordered edges on your photos. Do not overlap your photos. For books, strive for one photo per page with finger room around each. For digital displays, maximize the size.
7. No gimmicks. Heavy Photoshop, de-saturation, HDR, Hipstamanic? Get out of journalism, go to art school. Don’t waste an editor’s time. Most want to see images that show the human condition, not what technique is the latest rage.
8. Do not expect an assignment. At National Geographic, I reviewed many folios knowing it might be years before a photographer distinguished themselves to the point of garnering an assignment. Your review is often just the first date of what could be a long relationship.
9. Be guided by the comments. An editor’s comments are usually in context of the specific needs of their publication. You might be a great photographer, but you also might not be the right photographer for their needs. If the review does not go well, do not see it as failure, see it as a helpful road sign leading to another publication where you are better suited and appreciated.
10. Exit gracefully. Always have a card to leave that has your contact information. Each editor is different, but if I was interested I would ask you to stay in touch. Do so by sending an occasional, brief(!) email or mailer that has a link to your latest work. Remind the editor where you met, since they most likely will not remember. Say “thank you” no matter how the review may have gone.