Siena International Photography Awards

This was a blast last year:

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Melissa Talks About Her First Photo

This was the opening to the Siena Photo Contest this year in Siena Italy.

“We don’t cherry pick anthropology… YO…”


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I posted the photo above on @natgeo last night and there was an incredible amount of back and forth.

My favorite comment was from @hellafordays: “This is a documentation of culture, which is what National Geographic does. Culture comes in every form, in every place. We don’t cherry pick Anthropology. yo.”

And, just to be clear I also understand comments like this from @2renzatho: ”On Halloween when you can be anything in the world, the female population decide(s) to degrade themselves . . . (dressing like) sluts, prostitutes. I am a woman and it is degrading.” But that comment seems aimed more at cultural mores than the messenger.

So just to summarize, the people who found it offensive were saying that National Geographic wasn’t the kind of publication that should show a street scene outside a sexy Halloween bash. And the people who did not find it offensive said that NGM covers a wide range of humanity, and what’s the difference between this photo and the amount of cleavage you would find exposed on a cocktail waitress in any hotel bar in the city? And, they continue, what about all of those half-naked African women that NGM made its name on in the ’60s and ’70s and continues to show today (my work included)? Is it just Africans far away that we can show naked without controversy? I didn’t even think much about the outfit when I took the photograph (this is a normal street scene for Portland). I just liked the sign that said RED pointing to RED riding hood.

I’ve held off writing about how the IG audience can affect photographers and what they do, and how it can affect their work and their psyches, but now seems like a good time to jump in.

I stopped looking at the comments on Instagram for a long time after I posted the photo below and got a response: “Can I f#ck it?”

Camel Beauty Contest

The reference was probably to an urban legend of Catherine the Great and what she did with horses. But that was when I disengaged from the audience. I just got tired of reading comments on the most innocuous of photos that, if they arrived in the mail, you might call the FBI.

Many of the comments about the post last night said this is not a National Geographic kind of photograph. So I pulled some screen grabs from the website. The first is my photo of a woman trying to figure out how to use the first bra that came into her village in the Omo Valley. This photo ran in the print version of NGM but would be too “offensive” for Instagram. As my buddy and social media manager, Alex, says: “There are no boobies on Instagram. They will shut you down.”  He also tells me what I am writing today is relevant because Chelsea Handler (a comedian) posted a topless photo of herself riding a horse last week to tell Instagram that its nipple policy is sexist.



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This photograph has full-frontal-male-nudity:

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And just so you don’t stereotype me, at the beginning of my career at NGM I was proud to get naked white guys into the magazine to make up for all those half-naked African women (below). But then I started working in Africa and you just can’t ignore half of the population.



And of course NG doesn’t run only titillating photographs of African women. I don’t know if the IG audience knows NGM did a (tasteful) swimsuit edition. The current director of photography did the main piece and then the hook that made it NG was that they ran photos of swimsuits going back 100 years or so from the archives. I clipped the photo below from an Amazon page that you can click to buy it and see how they did it if you are interested.


NG Swimsuit on Amazon 

NGM has covered a large range of issues that revolve around sex. From us sharing 98% of our DNA with Bonobos that want to make love all the time, the sex worker trade, Tokyo Lolitas, lust, romantic attachment, science of love, arranged marriages, bride shopping, child brides, and many other related issues.

Gerd Ludwig couldn’t do a story about “Moscow Never Sleeps” without photographing how prostitution is a big part of that night life. Prostitution and the export of prostitution skyrocketed after the fall of the Soviet Union. I photographed prostitutes coming into Trabzon from Ukraine in such numbers that it was a real issue in that Islamic country and NGM ran one of those photographs in my story on the changing culture of the Black Sea. Chris Johns (now in charge of editorial in print and electronic media) as a staff photographer photographed prostitutes in Nevada because he couldn’t ignore Nevada’s recent legalization of the trade. To say the publication of these photographs condones prostitution is ludicrous. And, to be fair, there aren’t many of those photographs in the magazine. But I think the idea that we photograph a full range of human experience resonates with every photographer I know.



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We live in a complex world and I am constantly intrigued by the Thoreau quote: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  My favorite vignette about this is when I was working in Australia and read a story in the Sidney paper about the economics of legalized prostitution. The brothels have to report their income flow and the ups and downs of that income flow were correlated by the newspaper reporter. What he found was the income skyrocketed whenever there was a big religious convention. So, once again, that line resonates. “Lives of quiet desperation…”  Who knows, maybe some of that is going on with the folks that were so vehemently against the Red Riding Hood outfit.

In general, I have one overarching concern about photographers paying too much attention to an Instagram audience. I’ve spent my life photographing for smart editors with a sophisticated aesthetic. I’ve really tried to please them and myself with my photographs. And even so, as those comments rolled in last night, about what I see as an average street scene, I found myself questioning whether I should have posted.

When I worked for a newspaper I had no sense of the people who put 25 cents into that newspaper box. Now the content is free but everyone has a right to give you their two cents back. It would be nice to be able to monetize that for worthy causes.

I see this play out every day on IG. Marcus Bleasdale is a great photographer who has single handedly changed the conversation about conflict minerals. His book of complex photographs of resource extraction in the Congo is one of my prized possessions. But when he posts one of those photographs from the Congo—the kind of complex image that many of us have worked hard all our lives to have the skills to create—he will get low numbers and a bunch of racist comments. But if he posts a pretty sunset, 281,000 people immediately like it and there is no controversy.

So… why not just do that? Be loved by an audience, have a huge following… what’s the downside?

It’s a slippery slope.


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I also got the feeling people thought the editors in Washington were choosing the photographs to post. What not many realize is this feed represents 87 percent of NG’s social media interaction (check link for attribution) and it is solely fed by the photographers without any editing and more often than not they are doing it for free.

We want to be part of a global conversation. We want to talk to you through our photographs. But it’s easier when everyone plays nice. I don’t know a single photographer on our side of the conversation that has ever been mean to anyone in @natgeo‘s audience or @thephotosociety or in their own individual feeds.

I love to hear thoughtful comments that promote interesting discussion but we need to figure out a system for all of these feeds where “Can I fu@k it” will just be deleted and blocked.



Melissa Farlow, Ami Vitale National Geographic Talks in Phoenix and New York

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Randy on National Geographic’s PROOF

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Blue Chalk Video by Rob Finch and Jamie Francis Shot for

Our photographs in Christies Limited Edition 125 Years of National Geographic Auction

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Bob Gilka, Legendary editor dies at 96

Photo by J. Bruce Baumann

This is from the NPPA blog:

ARLINGTON, VA (June 25, 2013) – Robert E. Gilka, a newspaper photographer and editor who was a mentor to legions of photographers and who was the director of photography for National Geographic Magazine for more than 27 years, died today.

Gilka was 96 and in hospice care in Arlington, VA, photojournalist Bruce Dale said, and he was battling with his third round of pneumonia this year when he peacefully passed at 4:40 a.m.

“Bob was a father figure to me, and to many of us who may not have had a father,” Dale told News Photographer magazine today. “He dressed us down when we needed it, but he always stuck up for his staff. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to defend his photographers.”

“The halls and offices of National Geographic are buzzing with Bob Gilka stories,” Chris Johns told News Photographer magazine today. Johns, who was only 28 when he was named the Newspaper Photographer of the Year, and who only three weeks ago was promoted to Geographic’s editor in chief and executive vice president, probably knew Gilka as well as anyone over the decades.

“There is laughter and there are tears because Bob touched so many lives in remarkable ways. He was an honest, direct, no-nonsense gentleman we never wanted to disappoint. He didn’t gush and go on and on about our work, but we knew he cared deeply about us and believed in the work we were doing. He encouraged us, set standards of excellence and instilled in us the desire to become better photographers and editors. And, most importantly, he inspired us to grow in all aspects of our lives. Bob made me want to become a better son, husband, father, colleague and friend. I speak for many when I say how truly grateful we are to have known Bob and worked for him.”

A protégé of Gilka, Johns is the first photographer to be named editor in chief of the magazine. Gilka was a mentor to so many of the leading magazine and book photographers of our era, many who shot their first assignments for National Geographic motivated more to prove themselves to the sometimes-gruff photography director than to see the credit line “National Geographic” behind their byline.

Photojournalist and editor J. Bruce Baumann said today, “When Gilka retired from the Geographic, I sent him a note expressing my gratitude for being the father I never had. He was always there for me and so many others. I also told him that I was sad that had retired. He wrote back and in typical Gilka fashion said, ‘I still have my memories.’ Those words continue to serve me well to this day. He was the best of the best and I loved him.” Baumann was a Geographic photographer and picture editor who worked for Gilka before he returned to newspapers.

Read more…

“Working For Free”

From PHOTOSHELTER: There’s an interesting conversation going on over at The Atlantic about working for free. The talk is among journalists, but it’s not much of a stretch to bring it into the photography (or really any creative) space.

It started last week with journalist Nat Thayer, who was asked by The Atlantic website to repurpose a blog post for free. The original article, “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy: Rodman trip comes after 25 years of basketball diplomacy between U.S. and North Korea”  was posted on After it was published, an editor from The Atlantic emailed Thayer to ask if he would be interested in adapting a version for their website – for free.

Thayer took to his blog and posted his correspondence with the editor.

“We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month,” said the editor in her email to Thayer. “I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.”

To that Thayer responded: “I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children…Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them.”

Read more at Photoshelter

Awards Video

“Courtesy of the IU School of Journalism”