National Geographic Photo Seminar 2013

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I attended National Geographic’s annual Photo Seminar last week. What started in 1967 as a way for photographers to informally gather and talk about their work (one attendee described it as an after the holidays palate cleanser), has become an annual rite for the exclusive group of photographers in the “Nat Geo” club and various hangers-on. From what I could gather the more recent seminars have taken the shape of canonizing the old guard, highlighting young new talent and pushing the boundaries of what might be acceptable for photography among the members and staff. A perfect mix in my opinion.

For me it was an awesome treat to watch photographers talk about their work. I look at work on my computer, in books and magazines and even sometimes on the wall, but it’s rare that I get to hear a photographer talking about their work. And wow, what a difference that makes. I need to do it more often as it renewed my spirit for the craft.

If there’s one word that describes what I witnessed at the event it would be emotion. From photographers who want to change the world, to those whose deep emotions manifest in the work to a deep love of subject, my nerves were raw after each speaker finished their outpouring of emotion. As I watched I discovered an excellent way to keep notes was to simply tweet out the great quotes I heard. Now, going back and remembering it all here are my highlights.

Master of ceremonies Vincent J. Musi in response to the unprecedented flood of photographers and imagery we’re experiencing quipped in his opening remarks “Have photographers become the endangered species?”. The answer came minutes later as he introduced street artist JR to the group. I say that because I believe what has changed is simply the definition of “professional photographer.” Go see JR’s Ted Prize talk from 2011 to understand what a special person he is. The mind bending part of his work is when he crowd sources and does not directly participate in the creation of  it. This is an important concept for photographers who don’t want to become endangered to consider.

The next photographer continued that thought as Michael Ravine who works with NASA and others discussed putting cameras on space ships and sending them to orbit the moon and rove around mars taking pictures. Many of us have fallen in love with the photography NASA and JPL are doing today, but nothing raises the hackles on traditional photographers like not standing in the field with your camera to make the picture. But, making pictures remotely is another concept that needs to be explored further.

Other highlights for me were an on stage interview of David Alan Harvey by Vincent that had so many memorable moments including David’s first rejection letter from National Geographic where he was told “You are young and strong and this is good because what I’m about to tell you will make you old and sick.” His own emotional journey into each subject he covers: “When I read about method action, I do the same thing with my photography” and “I go native every time. There’s a little piece of me in every assignment.” Then Aaron Huey gave a showstopper with his Pine Ridge Reservation talk that I’ve highlighted here before (Ted version) where he said, “Pine Ridge broke something inside me, but also opened something in my heart.”

Finally, Sebastião Salgado whose passion and devotion to photography and planet surely cannot be matched delivered the perfect summation of what I just witnessed: “Photography is the most powerful language ever created in the modern world”

I believe and have preached this thought over and over throughout my career. Photography is still powerful, but photographers must evolve and incorporate new ways to make and deliver the emotional impact available to them.

There Are 6 Comments On This Article.

  1. Jim Richardson

    Rob, it was a pleasure meeting you at the seminar. You hit the nail on the head about photographers coming together to pour out their hearts and souls. A sort of communal cleansing and release of angst among fellow trusted travelers. Your comments on Wednesday morning at the Image Collection meeting were pure gold for photographers stuck in a rut. You helped open the windows. There was a lot of fresh air. Thanks.

  2. In this era when photography is more prevalent and dominant than ever, thanks for reminding us that it still has the power to reveal, empower and transcend- and not just document yesterday’s lunch.

  3. Thanks a lot and great talk by JR. I wish someone could post these talks or interviews somewhere so we can also see them. I am actually very keen on knowing about NG rejection letters since I am planning to get plenty of them.