As part of the LensCulture Earth Awards 2015, we will be interviewing various members of our international jury to learn more about their backgrounds and their perspectives on the broad theme of “Earth.”
Today’s interview subject is Kathy Moran. After spending over 30 years with National Geographic, Moran has a long perspective on the power of photography and the impact it has had in the world of conservation.
Managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out to Moran to hear more from her on the inspirational power of photography.
LC: What’s special about photography’s ability to tell us stories about the world?
KM: I think photography’s special power comes from it being so universal. With photographs, you don’t need words because images can tell the story. We tend to be a visual species; visual storytelling is in our DNA—it goes all the way back to cave painting.
Furthermore, there’s an emotional connection that almost all of us have with photography. Whether it’s the greatest image in the world or that blurry, red-eyed picture of your favorite dog—I think photography binds us to moments. Whether those moments were in our personal life or playing out on the world stage, there’s something about photography at all levels that people connect to. You may look at a piece of art and say, “Hm, I don’t get that.” But you can look at almost any photograph and it will speak to you on some level.
Maybe some of that comes from the fact that while not everyone can paint or produce a sculpture, anyone has the means to make a great photograph. Maybe that’s what draws us to it so strongly. Photography is the visual storytelling method that we all feel we can have a hand in.
LC: How did you first get interested in photography?
KM: I didn’t start with photography. I thought I’d be a writer or a researcher. But very quickly, I realized that I was drawn towards visual storytelling and I never looked back.
At National Geographic, you’re completely immersed in images all the time. That’s always where we start—someone says, “Let’s do a story” and we say, “Well, how are we going to visualize that?” It’s always exciting when someone hands you an idea and you have the chance to figure out how to work with a photographer and convey it in a powerful, original way. It’s a challenge but that’s what gets the juices going.
LC: What’s your thought process when you’re selecting those few great frames to illustrate stories?
KM: Since I’ve started, photography has been totally democratized. These days, it feels like every person has one great image in them, but what we need at National Geographic is great narrative. So when I’m looking for photographers to work with, what I’m really looking for is consistency. I need someone who can consistently deliver the images and someone who understands what a visual narrative is all about.
For example, I know that when I’m working with Brian Skerry, he has a consistent way of seeing and an understanding of how to tell a story. That means that when I’m doing my edit and making the lay-out, I know that each image will build on the other images. Great single images have their place in the world but at National Geographic, it has to go beyond that.
LC: Is the process of assembling stories a rational one? Or more of a gut feeling?
KM: From the beginning, I have an understanding that I’ve done the research, I’ve worked with the story team and I know that if I’m going to do a particular story, there are certain pieces I need to build it out. But that’s not to say there isn’t plenty of room for surprise. When a photographer walks out the door, that’s when it all starts to happen. It’s serendipity that provides the magic.
For example, I was working recently with a photographer who was going to publish her first story in the magazine. She was going to a particular location and we all had a general idea of what she would shoot. But I hadn’t scripted anything. When she arrived, she completely took charge of the situation. She started interviewing people, videotaping them, and she came back with something organic, dynamic and largely unexpected. She responded to what was around her and took the story in a completely different direction from anything we could have imagined sitting around and talking about it in the office. In short: you’ve got to be open to where the story takes you.
LC: You’ve been working at National Geographic for quite a long time—what has it been like to witness the shift from print to the internet. What’s been lost, what’s been gained?
KM: I think there’s a few different ways to look at it. One thing is for sure: all publications have faced budget cuts and that has impacted time in the field. But in some ways, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Limits put a discipline on you. You have to consciously think about what you’re doing more; you have to do your homework and arrive prepared.
These days, there’s also a discipline about the printed page. I have x number of images to print and they have to add up to strong storytelling. The beauty of the web, then, is that it allows me to step back and present the same story in many different ways. Maybe I can take what was a single image in the print story and turn that into a completely separate story. Or maybe a photographer did some lovely interviews that can provide a completely different perspective from the written word.
LC: So as an editor, you have two lenses that you look through for each story—print, online?
KM: Yes, completely. At this point, I know what I have to do for print but it’s exciting to imagine the boundless possibilities of online. It’s so exciting to work on web stories especially because it can be such a collaborative process. Online stories can grow larger and larger—incorporating videographers, web designers and many other teams in-house. What starts in print takes on whole new layers and forms when the story jumps onto the web. It’s a whole different beast!
Now, I love print and will always go there first. But to overlook the storytelling potential of the web is ridiculous. I love the possibility that it promises.
LC: How else has the notion of “natural history” photography changed in recent years?
KM: These days, I like to refer to “natural history” photographers as conservationists. In the past, we would have gone and done the life cycle of a species and said, “Job done.” That’s not enough anymore. In the course of storytelling, you have to step back and take in a wider picture. If we’re going to do a story on lions, we’ve got to come back with behavioral images of lions but then also look at the conservation issues that are facing lions. And we have to look at the people who have to live with lions. It’s irresponsible not to show the bigger picture. What conservation projects are working? What’s it like to lose livestock (or family members!) to lions? What are the solutions? That’s critical when telling “natural history” stories these days.
Put differently: there has to be more context to what’s being produced. We don’t have the luxury any more of divorcing ourselves from the process or the place. There are too many of us. We have too much of an impact on what’s going on around us.
LC: Having published so many inspiring stories about nature, about conservation—do you think artists, photographers, conservationists, activists make a difference?
Absolutely. I always go back to a series of stories that Michael Nichols and Michael Fay did, a project called MegaTransect. For the story, Fay did a 2,000-mile transect [an ecological survey], on foot across Congo and Gabon. When he finished, he met with then-president Omar Bongo in New York City. He showed the president Nichols’ photographs and Bongo looked at Fay at the end of this meeting and said, “I didn’t know my own country.”
Bongo then went back to Gabon and instituted the creation of 13 national parks. That’s the power of photography. He made that decision based on those photographs. So photography can make a difference, it can move the dial. As I said, it’s the universal language, it’s what we all understand.
—Kathy Moran, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: Kathy Moran will be judging entries to the LensCulture Earth Awards 2015—enter now for your chance to get your work in front of Moran and the rest of the world-class jury. There are also a host of other great awards. You can find out more about the competition on our dedicated page.
And, of course, you can visit National Geographic Magazine’s homepage to find lots of inspiring photography from all over the world.