Sarah Leen is the Director of Photography for National Geographic, the internationally renowned (and beloved) magazine covering nature, science, history, and geography, among other topics. It has been published continuously since its first issue in 1888.
Sarah Leen began her career as a freelance photographer. Over the course of 27 years, she published work that ranged from the U.S.-Canada border to the Mexican volcano Popocatepetl. She has won several awards for her photography, most notably in the Pictures of the Year and World Press Photo competitions. In 2005, after working for National Geographic for 20 years, Leen changed roles and became a photo editor for the magazine, quickly finding success in that arena as well.
We are thrilled that Leen agreed to be a member of the jury for our Magnum Photography Awards 2017. Read on for her thoughts on the value of being a photographer and a photo editor as well as her tips on pitching to the magazine—
LC: I read an interview where you talk about how formative your experience in journalism school was for your career. What would you say to photographers who are debating whether or not to pursue formal education? The debate of learning through school vs. learning by doing…
SL: Much about being a photographer can be learned by doing, by working as an assistant or being mentored by a more accomplished photographer. However, I think the advantage of a formal education applies to learning how to be a journalist, learning about media history, about ethics, how to write, how to do research, and how to propose ideas. There are also benefits to learning basic business skills and some technical skills you might not pick up just by shooting. I found it advantageous as a photographer to have that background, and as an editor and manager, it has been essential.
LC: What are a few concrete things you took away from your experience in school—skills you learned there that you would’ve been hard-pressed to learn elsewhere?
SL: I feel confident about my writing and research skills, which is very helpful when you want to propose story ideas, and I learned how to do basic studio lighting, which broadened my tool kit when I had visual problems to solve. I also have a deep knowledge of media history, especially the history of photography and photojournalism, which opened my mind to where we have been and where we are going.
In addition, through the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, I was able to start building a network of amazing journalists and photographers whom I am still interacting with today.
LC: Do you find that your experience as a photojournalist gives you some advantage when it comes to editing/directing photo stories? On the other hand, do you ever feel that it limits you in any way?
SL: I believe it has been hugely helpful. I can speak very intimately with a photographer about how they are using the camera in conjunction with their bodies and minds to create an image. I can also have a conversation about a story idea and determine how visual it might actually be or how difficult it may be to accomplish.
On the other hand, it might be difficult for the photographer if I am looking at his or her images and I see something that I don’t think the photographer is seeing. They might feel pressure from me to push themselves.
LC: If a photographer wants to pitch to National Geographic, what is your top piece of advice in regards to their submission? What is the best way for someone to catch your (or your colleagues’) eye?
SL: First, know the work we are doing or have done and whether or not your idea is really appropriate for our publication. Make sure it hasn’t already been published by us in the past few years. Too many photographers send in ideas that tell me they haven’t done their research or really looked at the magazine to see what is right for us.
Photographers should know what they are talking about and not over-promise what they can deliver. If it’s a place or idea where special access is required, can you really get that access? Is what you think is happening really happening? And of course, will it provide wonderful visuals? I want to hear proposals about places and circumstances that I am dying to see in pictures.
LC: What additional skills do photographers need to make the leap into commissioning and photo editing?
SL: A photo editor needs to have a broad knowledge of both photography (past and present) as well as contemporary photographers—specifically where they are and what type of work they can do. They need to have impeccable taste and a sure sense of what they like. They need to be very connected to how a photograph makes them feel and have the language to be able to express what they like or do not like about an image. They need to understand the basics of visual storytelling—how images speak in their own language that is independent of the text. They also need to be highly organized project managers who can research visual ideas as well as manage budgets.
LC: Can you talk about the assignment process at National Geographic? How do you decide what photographers to assign to projects/what projects to feature? I read that the magazine usually works with established photographers. What kinds of credentials do you look for?
SL: Story ideas are generated by staff as well as outside writers and photographers. We have a pretty robust system of vetting ideas through topical beat teams, each of whom consider ideas in view of what we have done in the past, what we are currently working on, and its relevancy to our brand and our audience.
Once a story idea has been approved, we assign a photo editor to begin researching the idea. After that, we start discussing the visual style and which photographers we might consider for the assignment. We invest quite a lot of time and funds on our stories, so they must be successful. We are not risk adverse, but we do look for someone who has experience and a solid track record—we want to feel confident that the photographer and project are a good match, as that will lead to a wonderful story.
I am always looking for that perfect marriage of photographer and idea. I like helping photographers build bodies of work from their interests, so previous work on a topic is an advantage, but not a requirement.
LC: You’ve mentioned that National Geographic is dedicated to “evolving our storytelling to be much more multi-platformed.” In what ways has the photography side of the magazine changed in the last 20 years? How about the last two, in which things seem to be changing ever-faster?
SL: The internet and social media have been the big game-changers in the past 20 years. Also, the cellphone camera is a major innovation. These three things have allowed everyone to see, photograph and publish from nearly everywhere in the world. There is often no need to have an affiliation with a media organization: you can create your own content, have your own platform and build your own brand. There are great advantages to this, including the democratization of media and journalism and the increased diversity of global viewpoints that are finding a voice—not to mention the staggering amount of amazing talent you can find that you would never have known about. It’s very exciting.
The downside is that it is increasingly difficult to make a decent living as an editorial photographer.
LC: Finally, when you are judging competitions, what seems to stand out to you? Is there anything you look for specifically?
SL: I want to see a photographer’s work and then have that selection make me want to see even more. I want to be surprised and delighted by the images. And I want to see work that lives at the intersection of art and journalism.
—Sarah Leen, interviewed by Coralie Kraft