How National Geographic Selects Its Photographs: An Interview with Sarah Leen

Earth from outer space
Earth from outer space

If you're like me, you've grown up with a deep fascination of and a keen appreciation for the photographs in National Geographic. A true standard bearer in the industry, National Geographic and its photographers are almost mythological.

Have you ever wondered how the entire process of getting the photographs from camera to page actually works? Many of the stories being covered are located thousands of miles from Washington, DC, which serves as the global headquarters for National Geographic. And many of the photographers are in very remote corners of the world with limited access to communications.

Few people know the ins and outs of what it takes to produce the magnificent photographs and photo-essays that National Geographic brings to the world like Sarah Leen, who currently serves as Director of Photography for National Geographic Magazine and Partners. Though she is a talented photographer herself, these days Sarah leads the charge on helping National Geographic bring stunning photographs to the world.

I recently interviewed Sarah to better understand the fine art and the craft of editing photos at one of the most prestigious publications in the world. The interview that follows is the second in a series of interviews I will publish that explore the art and craft of editing photographs on the world stage.

Ben Arnon: How would you describe the job of a photo editor? In your words, what exactly is a photo editor?

Sarah Leen: I think at different organizations the role of the photo editor varies. Sometimes it is very simply the person who is looking at a large set of images and editing them down to a smaller set of images, which are going to be either published in print or online. Here at the National Geographic the role of the photo editor is almost like a project producer. The photo editor will help plan the coverage, make the budget, and do a lot of work before a photographer is even assigned or sent out into the field. Then they will be involved in conversations on which photographer would be the best person to photograph that assignment. Then they will receive all the images and go through everything, so there's not really a pre-edit being done for them here, although we do look at the photographer's edit and consider that as part of the overall edit.

Then they'll also be the ones who are organizing them in a particular order, whether it's for an online story or a print story. They'll work on the layout in print. They'll be making sure that the captions are done properly. If there's anything also while the photographer's in the field, they'll be helping them if they need letters of introduction or helping to get permits to access difficult places. They're like a project manager for the whole story here. Ultimately, in most places the photo editor is the person who is looking at a large number of images and picking the best images to tell the story.

How do you think the role has changed? How is it different today from, say, 10 years ago or beyond?

The main difference is editing digital images versus film images. When it was film, here and most places the photographer would have to either get the film processed where they were, and there were some really antique methods of transmitting images before we had the whole digital workflows that we have now. Here often the photographers would send the film in. We would get it processed, and then you would have to look at boxes and boxes and boxes of slides. The whole way to organize those slides and look at those slides. When I think about that now I don't know how we did it. It was so cumbersome compared to editing digitally, which is so simple and fast in comparison. I think that's probably the main difference really is just the mechanics and going from analog to digital.

Why do you think the role of a photo editor is largely misunderstood by the general public?

I think that probably it's a little bit of terminology. Often today when people talk about editing a picture, they're talking about doing Photoshop or color correction or something like that. Taking that image, say, out of the raw state and doing something to the image. A lot of people refer to that as editing.

People who are actually editors, they don't refer to that as editing. That's sort of like post-production work. It's more mechanical and technical work, and editing is more of a producer. Editing means you take something big and you cut. You cut it down to something smaller. You edit it, and you organize it in a fashion that tells a story. That's one of the main things.

I think that also probably in these days the number of photographers who have actually possibly worked with a professional photo editor is probably not as many as perhaps it used to be when you had more staff photographers and more professionals working for larger media companies. I think these days a lot of photographers who are working for online organizations are doing their own editing. They're picking the pictures, and they're sending a set of images into whoever has hired them or asked them for the pictures. Then the people where the pictures are going will do the final selection, but they don't really work with an editor.

I think the larger media companies like ours, we work as an editor with the photographer, which I think is an incredibly special experience for any photographer who has come through our doors and our process. Because to sit with somebody who's a professional editor who's looked at so many images and worked with so many photographers and get that kind of feedback, is pretty amazing. Also, I know when I was working as a photographer it helped me so much to become a better photographer by getting that kind of feedback. I think part of the role of the photo editor is giving that guidance and feedback to the photographer while they're actually working on the story, helping guide them.

It's like when you're looking at a photographer's work you're seeing how they see; you're also seeing how they actually physically move their bodies, so you can kind of see that they maybe need to move more or try different angles or get closer. You can give them all kinds of feedback about things that they might not have even noticed. You can notice that there's certain compositions that they're repeating all the time. You can point these things out to them and say, hey, did you know this; you're doing this. You can learn an awful lot in that relationship with a photo editor.

Can you describe the process of working with a photographer who's on assignment for you?

Generally what will happen is we'll have an assignment. Sometimes the ideas come to us from a photographer, but mostly they're generated either in-house or by writers or something the editor wants to work on. We'll have an idea ourself, and I'll talk to the photo editor who's going to be assigned. We'll talk about the story and what it's going to take to do it. Then we'll start discussing who the photographers are that we think could really do a great job on this. Once we've decided that, then we'll contact the photographer, and then we'll start sending them information about the story, like if there's a proposal, research, etc.

Then the relationship starts between the photographer and the photo editor where they're talking a lot about what the story is, what we need to do, what we need to find out, where we need to go, how much time we'll need, do we need to get special permits. There's this whole big conversation and a lot of work is done prior to anybody walking out the door. We can't be there forever, so we have to be very focused and targeted about what we're going out to get. The photographer, who's the person on the ground and we consider them journalists, they will be doing on-the-ground reporting when they're there. Eventually, we finally get a budget. We get everything approved. The photographer goes out the door. Then they'll be out there for a certain amount of time. Let's say they're somewhere for two or three weeks. It varies by photographer.

Some photographers, they like to go out, and they do all their research. Everybody knows what they're going to do. They're just going to bury themselves in that story, and you're not going to hear from them until they're done. Some photographers and editors have the kind of relationship where they might be sending some jpegs back every now and again to get the feedback right when they're there, like, "Hey, I shot this, what do you think? Do you think I should go back? Here's what it's looking like. Here's what I found." There's that kind of back and forth while they're out in the field. We leave it to the photographer and the photo editor to find their comfort zone regarding how they want to work. It's very individually crafted for each photographer what works best for them.

Then after that they will send in a hard drive with everything they've shot, all of the three weeks of work. Let's say it's 12,000 pictures. Then we'll have them go through and make an edit and mark it as their edit. They'll all come in. It gets archived in our big server system, and then the photo editors will download the jpegs to start editing and start building a catalog that they'll edit for them. They'll have the photographers' edit. Then they'll go through and make their own edit and combine those edits and then squish it down even further. At a certain point usually we get on some kind of Google Hangout or Skype or something where we'll screen share and go through the edit together with the photographer and cut it even further.

You just keep doing that through the process of the story until you usually get about halfway through the coverage. Then sometimes we'll do some kind of a more formal look at where the coverage is with the editor. In case she thinks we're not heading in the direction she'd like or thinks we need to change course a little bit, we have that opportunity before it's done. Then we'll go through the same process and do it all over again at the end and then go into layout.

Ultimately, how many images might make the final cut?

Usually, we'll make an edit of about maybe 50 that we'll be using for the 50 top images for the story. In print it's going to be a lot less. It could be only 12, 15, 18. It really depends on how many pages the story gets and how many you run big or little. Then online we'll have more. We have a tablet edition and a digital edition, so online you could make that a larger edit. I don't know; 20 seems like it might be a lot, but you could go up from that 12 or 15, it really depends on the story. Sometimes it's a bunch more. It depends. I think a story we did recently, New Europeans, they had a lot of these portraits that had videos with them, so they did a bunch of them. Really, it goes story by story. We just try to tell and show the story in its best version possible.

Having seen thousands upon thousands of photographs during your career, how can you still tell when you're looking at a truly special photograph?

I think when you're going off and when you're going through that editing process at first it's just this big mass of images. Some of them you kind of go a little bit quickly and something will stop you about a picture. You grab that one and you just keep going through and you grab that. It's something that'll strike you. There'll be something about the composition, the light, the moment, the feeling that you have when you look at it. Then as you keep editing that cream keeps rising to the top. It's very hard to put into words what makes a picture a great picture. It's like the best pictures are kind of hard to describe. It's kind of personal a little bit. What I think is great, you might scratch your head about it a little bit, but in general I think people will all go, yeah. You know what I mean? I often describe pictures in food terms. It's yummy. It's like this picture is so yummy. I look at it and my mouth is watering.

It's kind of like you just look at it and that aesthetic experience is almost like a physical feeling that you have when you look at a photograph. Because it's not language; it's not intellectual. It's an image that comes into your brain and it communicates with you in a very different way than words. The feelings you have when you look at them are often also hard to put into words, but I find it to be this kind of physical and emotional response to an image is so important, that I'm moved, I'm wowed, I want to show somebody else. There's lots of different things that make me feel that way. It could be the very simplest of images. It could be very quiet. It could be rich and complicated.

I often also like to describe pictures in almost literary terms where there's the simple declarative sentence pictures that are like, see Spot run, very simple. See spot run, you look at it and you get everything you're going to get out of it the first time you see it. That's it. The next time you see it you're not really going to get any more than that same one message that it had, that simple declarative sentence. For me, I like pictures that are like a paragraph. You know what I mean? They have a lot going on and every time I come back to them I get a little bit more or I get it again in a little bit of a different way. They're the kind that keep on giving. Those pictures, they just keep on giving and giving. You put them on your wall and you live with them, and ten years later you love them just as much as the day you first saw them. That's what I'm looking for.

That's a great way to express it. I love that. What three to five words would you use to best describe the most important traits of an outstanding photo editor?

That's a good question. Let's see. You have to be in touch with your feelings. I don't know what word that is. It's very important that when you look at something you are in touch with how it's making you feel. It's not like nothing happens, although understanding that nothing happens is something, right?

Even nothing happening is something. To be able to look at something and parse out how you're feeling, and that helps you make a judgment. I think you need to be decisive. Being in touch with your feelings about images; decisive, you need to be able to make a decision. I think you need to be organized, really, really organized and have that attention to detail. I think you need to be like a psychologist kind of; what is that where you're working with a photographer and you can understand, maybe it's alpha empathy; you can understand where they're coming from and help them with the struggles they're having in the field. How do you motivate somebody who's in a slump? How do you negotiate a conflict? You like this picture or these pictures and they like those other ones, and how do you find that place where everybody can be satisfied.

It's like you have to be all these different people or have those skills because it's all these different parts of the job. There's just the looking at the pictures part, but there's the organizing the entire shoot and the project; there's the one-on-one relationship with the photographer. Each of those are different skills and different traits.

My next question is based on the lag time that exists between beginning the process of ideating and coming up with a great story idea and then actually having it published both online and certainly in the print version. Sometimes that lag, I'm sure, can be several months or maybe longer. To some degree are you a bit of a futurist or a time-shifter in terms of understanding the needs of your audience several months down the line?

Yeah, I think definitely for print, for our print. We work pretty far out there so we definitely have to find that timeless quality about a story. I think a good example is a story we did on Ebola. The Ebola crisis is breaking out. It's happening now, and so we're thinking, we'd love to do a story. We can definitely do something online, but we'd love to do something in the magazine. By the time it runs in the magazine five months from now, is it over? Is it all done and it'll look like old news and nobody will care anymore? Then we had to think about what can we do that makes this relevant to our readers five months from now?

We thought we would do the story about the search for Ebola, like where did this particular epidemic start, where did it originate and how did it work its way out of the jungles into Freetown. We did stories online during the crisis, and then we took those images and others that the photographer was shooting that we weren't publishing about the search for Ebola and published that later. What's for now and what's for later is kind of the thinking and always trying to figure out, what's that later thing that's going to be our deeper take on it.

What's the most important advice that you can provide for aspiring photo editors?

First of all, I would love to have some aspiring photo editors. We have a lot of aspiring photographers and not nearly enough aspiring photo editors. It would be fantastic to have some people who are interested in entering this amazingly rich and wonderful career. I think that the main thing is it doesn't hurt to understand what it's like to be a photographer. It's important to have relationships with photographers in terms of, say, hanging out with them, looking at their work, offering to maybe help, like say, hey, I'd be happy to look at your work and give you some feedback. I think that's some ways to get started. I think understanding journalism in particular, just overall what it is to be a journalist and journalistic storytelling. I'm talking about photo editing for journalistic media more than, say, photo editing for a fashion photographer or something. Probably those paths are a little different but I think some ways the same.

A lot of photographers have assistants. A lot of photographers have studio managers. Those are other ways to start to get into the business and be able to start looking at pictures, to develop an opinion about photography, study the past, study the great photographers and the great work that's already been done and see how the vision of photography has evolved and changed. Everything from early black and white tintypes to Instagram, it's all part of the continuum of photography and storytelling. I think being knowledgeable; you need to be knowledgeable about photography and photographers. Who are the contemporary photographers out there and what are they doing?

I really depend on my staff that when we're looking for a photographer for a story we can all come up with a bunch of names. "Oh yeah, such and such, he's based in Spain and speaks Spanish and has been doing that for five years," or "This person has got a project on that and they would be great for that." Knowing who's out there and what they're doing is also really important.

What's the most important advice you can provide for photographers who wish to work with you on assignments?

I think, first of all, developing their own visual voice is really important; how are they going to step out from the crowd? Having topics and areas of expertise that they really are passionate about so that they've become that expert so when we're looking for the person who is expert on a particular area, like Ebola, for instance, who are the photographers that were out there shooting Ebola or who does that type of work or who works in Africa a lot and knows their way around Africa. Also, I think we really expect people to be professionals and professional journalists.

For here, we're not actually school. We're more like after graduate school. You need to know how to be organized and take notes and be a professional and get caption information. All those kind of things are just sort of like, well, that's just the basics. You have to be able to do all that stuff. I think vision, passion for particular regions or areas or topics, the ability to generate their own ideas, make their own story, do more narrative projects than just a single image; one of these and one of those, but like collections and essays and story projects. Definitely always looking at that.