Photography has been an integral part of the stories that National Geographic sheds light on, spanning geography, history and culture. Two hundred years after it was founded, its content continues to evolve, stretching beyond the iconic yellow frame of its front cover to build a strong online presence. Sourcing bold and passionate image-makers is at the publication’s core—a testimony to its commitment to photography’s power as a tool for visual storytelling.

One of the rare publications that commissions new work, its photo editors are always on the search for dynamic photography that can tell the compelling stories that are shaping our world today. Senior Photography Editor Molly Roberts cut her teeth at Smithsonian Magazine before joining the editorial team at National Geographic, bringing over 15 years of experience and an enduring curiosity to the role.

We are delighted that Roberts joined our jury for the LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards. We reached out to her to speak about her beginnings, developing expertise in your practice and the idea of photographs as “evidence of lives in progress”.


After sitting through a long Mass for their first Communion, these girls in La Puente, California, get to play outside. Nearly half of Latinos in the United States identify as Roman Catholic, while a fifth identify as evangelical Protestants. From “How Latinos Are Shaping America’s Future” © Ivan Kashinsky

LensCulture: You’ve had rich and long career in photography, from working at a host of magazines to practicing as a photographer yourself. What keeps you drawn to the medium of photography after all these years? What is the red thread that ties the different elements of your career together?

Molly Roberts: Even though it might seem like a somewhat retro awareness, new science tells us that visual storytelling is an exceptional way to inform people. The human brain processes visuals something like 60,00 times faster than text. I was first drawn to, and continue to be drawn to photography, video and film, because I have personally experienced the impact of powerful visuals pointing out something I didn’t know, and making me care to know more. So, I guess the thread is living with great curiosity, and looking for answers to questions that arise along the journey.

Once engaged in that way, people can be motivated to read more, look more, understand more about what they are seeing. There is so much going on in the world right now, and of course the danger at this point might be over-saturation. But both as a tool for self-expression, and for telling non-fiction stories, I find it continually compelling.

LC: The photography component of National Geographic is, and always has been, incredibly important to the stories the magazine tells. What, for you, makes photography a good storytelling medium?

MR: Probably the attention to detail. A moment frozen in time to be studied again and again. Unnatural as it is, it gives us the gift to keep looking, to take our time to notice nuances and see juxtapositions, details, glances, and body language we may have first missed. I like the idea that photographs are evidence of lives in progress.

Elvis Navarrete, wearing a hat that his father brought from Nayarit state, Mexico, looks for weeds as he walks through an onion field. The children of those who arrived in Wilder as migrant farmworkers now work the same fields—but to them it’s just a summer job. From “How Latinos Are Shaping America’s Future” © Ivan Kashinsky

LC: National Geographic is one of the rare magazines that commission new work on pitches. What do you look for when encountering a photographer’s work for the first time? What kind of approach stands out for you?

MR: There is no single approach. Rather, it is definitely related to impact. Passion, subject matter, knowledge, and a commitment to go deeper, look more carefully, stay longer, and question your own biases is what helps make an image strong.

LC: In a post-truth world inundated with images, do you still feel photography holds the same power it once did? What does a photograph need to do or have to catch—and hold—your attention?

MR: A photograph needs to have an authenticity that you can’t conjure up out of thin air. Even if it is a conceptual image, it has to ring true. Sometimes it is just that particular photographer’s truth at that particular moment, but if an image is frivolous, it is sort of meaningless in today’s oversaturated world of images.

Dominican Father Jean-Michel de Tarragon studies archival photographs at the French École Biblique in Jerusalem. Its scholars led the search for the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical texts ever discovered. From “Inside the cloak-and-dagger search for sacred texts” © Paolo Verzone

LC: What advice would you give to photographers making work in this complex landscape?

MR: Let your intellect and your emotion work together to make powerful observations. Don’t be motivated by the marketplace, or even the lack of marketplace. Make images about people, places, things, situations you know something about. There is no reason to helicopter into places that are already being documented by people more knowledgeable than you. Develop your expertise, and demonstrate your expertise.

LC: I read that as early as 1910, Nat Geo editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor was on the hunt for “dynamical pictures.” In our new media environment full of possibilities, what kind of work is groundbreaking for you? What excites you about the way photography is changing?

MR: Some of the new technology, like 360, and 3D image-making and resulting immersive experiences are exciting. I am also very interested in video, because I love hearing people’s voices speak to their own experiences, instead of having those experiences recounted by others. Also, the development of native talent, and digital pathways connecting that work to a larger audience, is very exciting to me.

Picture of a scroll fragment in conservator’s hands. A conservator at the Israel Antiquities Authority prepares a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls for display. Seen here upside down, the fragile document is being placed between layers of mesh that are first pinned, then sewn together around the edges of the fragment. From “Inside the cloak-and-dagger search for sacred texts” © Paolo Verzone

LC: What kind of stories have stood out to you this year?

MR: There have been many powerful and global migration stories about the lives of people on the move, looking for safety, for freedom, for a place to call home.

Nat Geo spent a year looking at diversity in America, which resulted in a powerful document of life in America today. Climate change is being catalogued powerfully, and perhaps this work could help create the political will to recognize that action is needed to stop our greedy misuse of the planet. The rise of the right, around the world, is also producing some chilling and memorable images.


Editor’s Note: Read the full stories associated with these photographs: How Latinos are Shaping America’s Future and Inside the Cloak-and-Dagger Search for Sacred Texts. And be sure to enter your own best work for the LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards 2019Deadline is December 19, 2018, midnight, California time!