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WORKING WITH "NAT GEO"

The camaraderie between Sartore and his editors at National Geographic is intense, demanding and sometimes hilarious.

Kathy Moran examines Sartore's work image National Geographic remains the only national publication in the business that brings its photographers to the “home office” to have a say in which images make it to the printed page.

Sartore travels to D.C. three to four times a year to work on editing his photos. He describes these sessions like this:

We sit in a dark room for a week and do nothing but look at pictures and debate the merits of each and every frame that I've shot. It's a brutal process at times and it's no place for sissies.

During these sessions it's not entirely unusual to have a slight difference of professional opinion arise, as in the conversation below between Sartore and Senior Editor Kathy Moran.

Moran: I know you want to use this, but.
Sartore: Here it comes. All right.
Moran: It's not an artistic statement. It's out of focus.
Sartore: No. No it's, it's art.
Moran: No, no, no, no.
Sartore: It's an intentional blur and it's art.
Moran: It's a fine line and you blew it.
Sartore: Oh puh-lease. That's sharp as a tack. What are you talking about? Let's talk about some of the blurry pictures you've run in the magazine, shall we?

Searching for the Perfect Shot

Technical near-perfection is expected of every National Geographic photographer, so the pressure to get everything just right is intense. The editing sessions in D.C. give the photographers a chance to argue for their favorite shots.

"If it's not killer, it's not gonna make it in," Sartore says. "And to have it be a killer shot, it has to be something nobody's ever shot before or haven't shot quite as well."

Editor Moran says there are no perfect shots. Instead, she asks, "What is the surprise in this image? What is the behavior no one has ever seen before?"

"Sometimes you can actually go through, you know, five or six rolls," says Moran, and [the photographer is] working it, working it, working it, and it gets better and better and then 'Oh, there it is!' It's like 'Wow! That's a great frame!'"

On the Home Front

National Geographic editors recognize that the long periods of time in the field necessary to complete a successful shoot can have a negative impact on the photographer's family. It's not uncommon for families to fall apart over the extended absences.

Illustrations Editor Elizabeth Krist says, "For people with children, I think it's especially difficult because... no matter how much the photographer can come back and show them a picture of a grizzly bear or, you know, some other wonderful amazing thing, the child is just gonna want their parent."

Associate Editor Dennis Dimick says it is part of the editor's job to help photographers find that balance between their work and home lives. It comes back to the family, he adds, "Because if you're helping make the world a better place, you're making the world a better place for your children."

Sartore's Nat Geo Resume:

Of his 20 years of professional experience in photography, 14 have been with the National Geographic Society. He has covered everything from the remote Amazon rain forest to beer-drinking, mountain-racing firefighters in the United Kingdom to the fate of the Alaskan grizzly bear. And then some.

While on assignment, he has faced down everything from severe hay fever to a pack of wolves to flesh-eating parasites. Sartore's assignments have included shoots on the following topics, subjects, species and locations:

  • Alaska’s North Slope, May 2006
  • Brazil’s Wild Wet: Pantanal, August 2005
  • Drilling the West, July 2005
  • Atacama Desert, August 2003
  • Three Peaks, July 2003
  • Pacific Suite, February 2003
  • Attwater’s Prairie-chickens, March 2002
  • Grizzly Bears, July 2001
  • Madidi, May 2001
  • Nebraska, November 1998
  • Gray Wolves, May 1998
  • National Wildlife Refuges, October 1996
  • Tex-Mex Border, February 1996
  • Utah, January 1996
  • Dead or Alive (The Endangered Species Act), March 1995
  • Boston, July 1994
  • Federal Lands of the West, February 1994
  • Connecticut, February 1994
  • Northern California, July 1993
  • Hurricane Andrew Aftermath, April 1993
  • Eagles on the Rise, November 1992
  • America's Third Coast, July 1992

Summing up his feelings about his employer, Sartore says, "Nobody knows Joel Sartore or any of the other photographers that work here. But everybody knows National Geographic -- and that's the whole point. You're here to tell a story. That's it. This is a big, epic place. It's much bigger than anybody that works here."

When to Watch

At Close Range with National Geographic premieres February 5, 2007
Check your local listings.