Photography: ©National Geographic
When photographer Paul Nicklen climbed from his Zodiac into the Antarctic Ocean to take pictures of a massive leopard seal for National Geographic, the former marine biologist from Baffin Island, Canada, had no idea what to expect. A short distance from an enormous marine predator and in freezing waters, he swam up to the seal with a dry mouth and shaking legs. As he began taking pictures, the seal saw him and dropped the penguin it was eating. It approached, and opening jaws twice as wide as a grizzly’s, the leopard seal took Paul’s entire head — and his camera — into its mouth.
Describing the encounter on a YouTube video that has picked up almost 2 million views, Paul explains how after releasing him, the seal exhibited typical threat behavior but then swam away and returned with a gift of a live penguin. As Paul ignored the meal and the penguin shot away, the seal looked at him with disgust. But over the next four days, the seal would return, first bringing him more live penguins, then weak penguins, then dead penguins and finally, half-chewed penguins that the seal would attempt to thrust through Paul’s lens in an attempt to feed a fellow predator who, Paul believed, it saw as unable to take care of itself.
For any photographer, working for National Geographic is a dream job. It’s an opportunity to create stories about important subjects in exotic locations, to place them in front of a large audience, and to do it in a format that places a value on imagery, on photography and on photographers. It’s a chance both to shoot incredible images and to publish photographs that make a difference.
“As a biologist all of our hard work was rarely seen and seemed to have no influence on the public,” Paul told us by email on the way to a shoot in Brazil. “As a photojournalist, I can reach 40 million people with my stories through National Geographic.”
“A Year After Going Pro, I Was Broke”
For Paul, who grew up on the Arctic ice as one of only a handful of non-Inuit families in a tiny Inuit settlement, shooting for National Geographic marked the culmination of a long and difficult struggle. When he left his job as a government biologist to become a photographer, he had saved $60,000, he told us. A year later, he was broke with just a few hundred dollars’ worth of picture sales behind him. It took seven years of sending one-page proposals – and receiving even shorter rejections – of mentoring under whale photographer Flip Nicklin, and learning how to tell a story as well as take pictures, before he won his first job with National Geographic. Specializing in arctic wildlife, he has since completed ten stories for the organization with another three in the works.
For Amy Toensing, who is now on her eleventh story for National Geographic, the road was a little smoother. She applied for an internship with the organization a decade ago, while a graduate student of photography at Ohio University. Ironically, for a publication known for its glossy, color images, the portfolio that won her the position, beating off competition from 300 other applicants, was shot entirely in black and white.
“It just shows that it’s better to submit your passion and your best work than what you think someone will want,” she told us from her home in the Hudson Valley of New York on a break between shoots.
It was while interning at the organization, and with the help of an editor who took her under her wing, that Amy put together an idea for a shoot on Monhegan Island, a plantation off the coast of Maine. She was given a month and in the style of a classic photojournalist, was able to let the story develop in front of her, documenting the way of life in a tiny community with a population in double figures. That shoot became her first published story in National Geographic.
“Go and See What You Can Find”
Photography: Amy Toensing.
Today, Amy is still told to “go up there and see what you can find,” the brief she was given on her first job. She’s provided with a budget, resources and even time to spend on research that she can use to read about the subject and conduct interviews before she begins packing her camera.
While the approach is the same, the stories have become bigger. A recent shoot that Amy conducted about the drought in Australia, for example, was ostensibly about one region dealing with water scarcity but it was also about global climate change and river management, issues that affect everyone. Amy’s job is to encapsulate a topic that large in the story — and images — of an individual or a family.
“The strongest stories are intimate and offer us a common, human experience – something that we know and can connect to even if we live on the other side of the globe. It’s my job to make those connections and get people to care,” she says. “National Geographic Magazine is one of the last places that allow the photographers and writers to go out and find the story.”
For photographers, that uniqueness is a problem. Paul Nicklen compared becoming good enough to shoot for National Geographic to making the NFL, then realizing there’s only one team. If the publication decides to fire you or trade you for a better player, there’s nowhere else to go — and unlike players, who are allowed to have off days, a photographer is only as good as his or her last job. The kind of remote places that National Geographic sends its photographers tend to mean little interaction with editors once on location, so editors need to rely on their photographers to deliver the story. That creates tremendous pressure.
“My proposals are full of promises,” says Paul, “and once the story is approved, I have to live up to those promises.”
However frightening placing your head in a leopard seal’s mouth might sound then, for National Geographic photographers like Paul Nicklen and Amy Toensing, the alternative is even more terrifying: not working for National Geographic.
Update: This post was altered to include a number of corrections and clarifications.