Blog: Publications

“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.



A Travel Story in DETROIT???

Melissa has shot city stories for National Geographic Traveler on Miami and Chicago, which made sense to her… but a Traveler story on Detroit? She didn’t know how great the city actually was until she got there, met some crazy artists, hung out at a turn of the century speakeasy and basically had a great time… her story follows…

When I’m asked where I’ve just been on an assignment, people wait with a dreamy look on their faces expecting to hear some exotic location or far away foreign land that will make them envious. When I tell them I was in Detroit to shoot a travel story, there is a look of disbelief accompanied by silence as though they didn’t hear me correctly. I have to admit that I wondered when I accepted the assignment from Traveler if I would regret it.

Detroit—Rust Belt city in ruins. Unemployment—bankruptcy. Motor City—Murder City. Worst of the worst in many people’s minds. I imagined trudging around carrying my camera, looking over my shoulder with fear that I’d be the next crime victim. The weather was sure to turn cold and snow. On top of it all, the assignment fell on the week of my birthday—so I’d probably be alone.

The urban ruins reinforced my uneasiness when I arrived–large, empty blocks where buildings once stood. I got a tour from a local photographer the first night and she warned me that lots of street lights were out and to take care not to hit anyone walking in the street.

We ate and stopped at her favorite bar hangout where I got an update on the Tigers that were playing in the World Series and realized the Lions were playing in town too.  There was something in her voice—she spoke with pride. I could tell she loved the city. I connected with writer’s contacts and began to work. It’s always hard to begin, but this looked to be more than a challenge.

The first shock was walking in to a Speakeasy close to my hotel and feeling I’d stepped back in time. Talk about atmosphere—people were sitting at little tables pulled up to a beautiful mahogany bar—talking–laughing–what a fabulous place. Actually there were two Speakeasies that had great vibes—Café-D’Mongos and Cliff Bells. The music, the food, but what made the greatest impression were the people. They were so friendly. I didn’t feel like a stranger.

The next surprise was the over the top fabulous architecture. I’d seen photographer’s dramatic images of the “ruin porn” of post-industrial Detroit. But I didn’t know about the Guardian Building, Fisher Building, the Detroit Opera House—just a few treasures that still exist. Many more need to be saved like this one, but the process has started.

Places like the Eastern Market and the riverfront development felt familiar—I live in Pittsburgh and watched the city develop a friendlier interface and has kept ethnic charm. But I don’t know of another place anywhere like the Heidelberg Project. I’m not sure how to begin to describe a 25-year endeavor by a Detroit artist that transformed a dilapidated inner-city neighborhood into Detroit’s third most popular tourists’ destination. A polka dot house? Sculpture of discarded objects make a political statement? The Heidelberg Project is a creative metamorphosis from urban decay to a few city blocks that continually evolve as a whimsical, thriving outdoor art museum.

In fact I met a lot of artists that have come to Detroit. Young creative classes are attracted to places where rents are low—similar as to what happened in Brooklyn. Detroit has a history of supporting the arts. There are commioned Diego Rivera murals that cover a huge courtyard in the Detroit Art Museum but I also found many local artists painting murals on buildings that served as “blank canvases.”

Yellow flowers were a finishing touch on a playhouse in Mexicantown; but across from the now abandoned Grand Central Station, artists worked on the unconventional “Imagination Station” questioning the gentrification of their Corktown neighborhood.

Whether they were on Belle Isle planting trees or swimming on the last warm day of the year in the Detroit River–or urban pioneers pulling up weeds to take back the city to make gardens—people were open and genuinely nice.

One friendly resident that was curious about me hanging around warned, “People come here and get out of their cars and put their purses and backpacks under their front seat and expect to come back and they will still be there. Lady, you are in the ‘hood. Don’t forget that.” But nothing bad happened to me during my ten days in Detroit. Well, except for the three parking tickets I received. I earned them. I paid them, but attached a note saying I hoped they used my money wisely to help pay the city’s bills.

I’ve gotten more emails the past few days over this story than any I’ve had published in a very long time. People are surprised to learn there is another side of Detroit. Those who live there seem grateful to find a bit of recognition for the good as well as for hope in the midst of a very sad story.


Story Behind a Photo in Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley

This photograph of a woman licking the last drops of beer off her lip-plate was the culmination of about 2 months of work to make a different photograph in this area. There will be more and more journalists here as it approaches 2013 when these culturally distinct groups will have their food supply cut off by a dam. They depend on flood-recession agriculture and without floods, there is no agriculture. The arms trade between the warlords in Sudan and the warlords in Somalia goes directly across their turf. So in 2013 these people who have the last of the lip-plates and other culturally-distinct traditions will be heavily armed and starving to death.

Almost all of the photographs you see from this area are people posing for the camera. There is a reason for this. Women see a camera and they cover their lip-plate with their clothing until they are paid to pose for a picture. There have been some famous photographers in here that brought along their stylists to make the body paint look ever-more perfect. In short… it is a mess. I did a survey across the entire region on my first trip and I ended up in “survival mode” to make photographs… used every trick I know… not pleasant. But my second trip I concentrated in a village with one tribe where my buddy Lale was the strong man of the village… it was still tough… but at least it was possible to photograph people actually leading their lives…

[Read more…]

7 Billion Humans

Randy’s photographs from around the world dealing with population issues ran in the January edition of National Geographic magazine.
Population 7 Billion

There will soon be seven billion people on the planet. By 2045 global population is projected to reach nine billion. Can the planet take the strain?

This photo is of Crowds in the Dharavi Slums train station just outside the airport in Mumbai. These are the largest slums in the world. The world bank is trying to work out an arrangement where all of these squatters will get about twice the space they have now in new buildings, but it is complicated.

Miami Twitter

Miami Twitter National Geographic Traveler Magazine

Melissa got a Twitter account for “Tweet Me in Miami” in the April 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler Magazine. She admits she reads posts, but she has not yet tweeted.
[Read more…]

Africa’s Last Frontier

Randy’s photographs from the Omo River Valley are in the March 2010 issue of NGM.

Nyangatom Peace Ceremony

Salmon in Kamchatka

Kamchatka Salmon” published in August 2009 edition of National Geographic Magazine.


Salmon in Kurilskoe Lake

Camel Beauty Pageant

Traffic Jam

Camel Beauty Pageant” published in August 2009 National Geographic Magazine.