I guess I had no idea that Amoebic Dysentery could be so interesting…

The Photo Society (TPS) lists hazards (like dysentery) that NGM photographers experience in the field. TPS began as an idea in the summer of 2011 for an electronic campfire to bring together National Geographic contributing photographers. The only qualification for membership is completion of one full feature story for National Geographic Magazine.

I was tasked with this site by the PAB (Photographer’s Advisory Board), which negotiates contracts with National Geographic Magazine.

Deb Pang Davis volunteered to design the site—the look and feel is her work—and she managed it during a period of relocating and handling a cross-country move to take a teaching position at Syracuse University.

The developer of the site was absolutely critical and so talented that I am not giving his name out until he finishes our site. George Steinmetz asked me to do it and championed it all the way through. Ami Vitale was very gracious when we told her we liked her site and wanted to do a cloud with names similar to her content cloud. The name Photo Society came from kicking around options with Amy Toensing, George, and Katie Joseph just after we finished a negotiating session in Washington DC. My wife, Melissa Farlow, and I figured we would just pay for it if we had to and not worry so much if PAB membership dues actually paid us back or not.

Mike Hettwer and I had a conversation about how we weren’t really sure that everyone knew what we actually do in the field and he suggested a survey and then he put it together. That survey asked photographers what hazards—physical, financial, whatever—they were up against. After the survey was done, it languished for a few months. When I was trying to figure out what a crew of one could actually accomplish, I picked that survey apart and it became the Reality Check section on the site. Ed Kashi came up with the name for the section.

When the site soft-launched with a few Facebook posts and blog posts by members it was picked up by a number of highly visible blogs like PDN, APhotoEditor, PopPhoto and they primarily referenced the Reality Check section. So the analytics were interesting . . . people were going to the Reality Check section instead of the home page. The hook for the site was the list of hazards faced by National Geographic photographers. There was so much traffic they had to switch TPS to a bigger server—it broke the one it was on.

And I have to admit, after the launch it got a little weird. I had picked apart this massive ugly Excel spreadsheet from the hazards survey to glean the bits that made up the Reality Check section and that dissembled information got enough traffic that one person decided to REASSEMBLE and put all of that information BACK into her own Excel spreadsheet for some reason I still can’t quite figure out.

So I know we started all this with the hazards archive, but the blogs made us seem even more swashbuckling. Pop Photo says: In a rare pulling back of the curtain, the “Reality Check” section of the site lets the public in on the perils and life-threatening circumstances that the photographers endure to bring home such gorgeous and powerful shots. The tales of being held at gunpoint, attacked by animals, contracting dysentery, imprisoned, and more will put getting out of bed at 4am to catch a sunrise sound like a picnic. The most recent tale of going to extremes to get the shot is told in this video from Photographer Stephen Alvarez . . .  most photographers aren’t willing to risk their health and safety for a shot, but the world is certainly a better place because some people are crazy enough to carry on when all logic tells them they shouldn’t.

Oh, yes . . . Ok . . .  But I think it is due diligence to insert here that there are a lot of puffy 40-year-olds in the news business whose job is to get out there and manufacture an adventure. I barely remember landing on a dirt runway on a remote Pacific Island but the writer’s report made it seem so swashbuckling and potentially life threatening that I would have been afraid to be there . . . oh wait, . . . I was.

The hazards we all face are real. And the events on the list we created all actually happened over many lifetimes to many photographers. Not to take anything away from anyone’s individual experiences in the list, but by and large we lead pretty nice, cushy lives with only a few moments of sheer by-the-grace-of-god-go-I terror. I’ve personally had very few but being assaulted while in the water by an angry 12-foot, female crocodile in Maningrida would be one of them.

A number of people actually looked up one of the hazards called a loa loa worm. Some were upset that they HAD to look it up:



Gizmodo called us a bunch of SHUTTERBUGS. Jeez… for the love of all that is good in this world (quoting FlawedHero above) if there is ANYTHING professional photographers hate more than being called SHUTTERBUG, I can’t think of it right now.

Gizmodo did mention that the SAME Florida Panther tried to forcibly F*#% both me and Melissa on two separate assignments:




But in general, all the work on this site has been worth it. I’ve been talking to photographers that I’ve lost touch with. I get calls from photographers that worked at NGS 30 years ago and remember not even having a passport and being contacted by someone at the magazine, showing up at the office and being told to go out front to a waiting limo that took them to get that passport they never had and it was stuffed with enough visas to go to 22 countries on a 9 month assignment.

And through the analytics on the site I’ve learned one important thing: Red-painted-nearly-naked-women-carrying-fire is always a good situation to go to if you get the chance. That photograph gets 50 percent more clicks than any other on the home page.