Beyond the Yellow Border | Communication Arts

Beyond the Yellow Border | Communication Arts

Beyond the Yellow Border | Communication Arts

How did you discover your interest in photography and design? Unlike many photo editors, I am not a photographer. But I have always been a storyteller. As a child, I felt connected to telling stories that matter: In second grade, my class put on a play about the dangers of single-use plastic called The Beach Strikes Back, which we performed in public places across my hometown of Seattle. In high school, I picked up a Canon AE-1 and took photography classes alongside my longtime friend Katherine Harris Pomerantz, now director of photography at TIME. In college, I studied art history and American literature and desperately wanted to be a writer. I spent my senior year interning at Interview, Andy Warhol’s magazine, and was offered a job there as an editorial assistant upon graduation. Instead, I went to work in the communications department at the Open Society Foundations, a grantmaking network that supports civil society groups worldwide.

There, I met Susan Meiselas, a documentary photographer perhaps best known for her work in Nicaragua and Kurdistan, while she was curating a photography exhibition in our offices. She asked me how someone who studied literature and art history wasn’t pursuing a career in photojournalism, maybe as an editor or curator. Susan taught me how to look at pictures, read them, and think and talk about photography. Her question set me on a path to where I am today.

What led you to specialize in art direction and eventually become a director of photography at The New Yorker? While at the Open Society Foundations, I’d gotten to know several editors at major publications around New York City. I was at a photography festival in Europe when I was asked by legendary photo editor Elisabeth Biondi (then director of photography at The New Yorker) if I wanted to join her team as an associate photo editor. I loved my work at the Open Society, where I ran a grant program for documentary photographers and helped Susan curate Moving Walls, the exhibition I previously mentioned. But the opportunity to work at The New Yorker—the dream for someone who wanted to be a writer—was a no-brainer. I said yes immediately, despite having no experience as a photo editor. And just like that, I went from supporting photographers after their projects were complete to working with photographers to pitch ideas and produce their projects while in the field.

I’ll never forget my first week on the job: I had Aaron Huey on the line from Pakistan, asking for advice on whether he should put his life at risk to get a photograph (Me: “Absolutely not”). And I had Mary J. Blige’s assistant asking if we had everything from her rider (Me: “What is that?”) on set for her portrait session with Ruven Afanador.

Elisabeth taught me how to be a photo editor—the perseverance to track down a never-before-published photograph, to never settle for anything less than what you needed and to convince others to see your vision.

Tell us about how you became the vice president of visuals and immersive experiences at National Geographic. What do you do in your capacity there? In early 2015, I joined the National Geographic Society as the deputy director of photography for National Geographic magazine. This was quite a shift from working as the director of photography at The New Yorker—and the challenge was felt immediately. I had a bigger team and a bigger budget. And, of course, we had to tell a narrative story through photographs rather than accompanying a story told by a writer.

As our company—and the broader media industry—has evolved immensely over the last decade, so has my role. We’ve gone through not one, but two major joint ventures, and National Geographic has evolved from a nonprofit to a for-profit mentality. I moved from the magazine team to our digital team and now lead all our visual content across platforms for the National Geographic Media portfolio. Each new role has brought new challenges, and I’m grateful for that—as I’m most engaged when stretching and learning new things.

Currently, I oversee our photography, video and immersive teams, including augmented reality, virtual reality and other forays into Web 3.0—or, as we like to call it, “next-generation storytelling.” I collaborate with a wildly talented team of editors and producers who create industry-leading visuals. I spent my time seeking out new visual storytellers and supporting them through grants from the National Geographic Society through mentorship and other capacity-building programs to being on stage and published for our widest audiences. I have the most fun working on projects that extend our legacy of visual storytelling and innovation into the present and future.

What have been some of your most memorable projects at National Geographic, and what have you learned from them? Seeing up close how National Geographic documents natural history has been inspiring, from photographer Laurent Ballesta’s otherworldly work from the ocean depths to our four-part VR film series on a journey through the Okavango Delta to photographer Anand Varma’s ability to make the invisible visible.

Our critically acclaimed podcast series Into the Depths, which follows National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts on a historic journey as she explores the complex history of the global slave trade, showcased how we could lean into new and different forms of storytelling—not just audio, but spoken word—and helped us reach new audiences across platforms.

And, of course, the global pandemic: Pulitzer Prize–finalist photographer Joshua Irwandi’s image of the body of a presumed COVID-19 victim conveyed the reality of the virus’s isolation and forced both citizens and the Indonesian government alike to address the pandemic’s seriousness. For us, the pandemic accelerated a change in our approach to storytelling that was already underway. In its first century of publication, National Geographic dispatched photographers globally to cover cultures and conflicts. More recently, we’ve worked with contributors based around the world, each with unique perspectives on what stories we should be telling. This was the silver lining of the pandemic. Despite new routines, increased safety concerns and unexpected production challenges, our storytelling expanded.

I’m especially excited about our collaboration with NASA on the Artemis II project, which exemplifies the opportunities technology now offers. We were selected to help tell the story of NASA’s Artemis program, which has the audacious goal of returning humankind to the moon—setting the stage for Mars and beyond. We are collaborating with NASA engineers to fly compact, lightweight hardware inside the Orion capsule that will enable us to create an immersive experience aboard the spacecraft. Artemis is not just about sending the next four humans to the moon: National Geographic is partnering with NASA to bring the moon to 8 billion people back on Earth as never before.

Publishing a picture is no longer the end game—it’s the beginning of a conversation with your audience.”

What has it been like to create National Geographic content in AR and VR on third-party platforms? With Web 2.0, National Geographic has embraced augmented reality, taking more than 50 million viewers to the top of Mount Everest. Then, we traveled beyond our own planet, taking viewers to the surface of Mars with the very first images sent back from the Perseverance rover.

Virtual reality has opened the door for immersive travel experiences that transport our audience like never before, satisfying a need to explore and bringing people to remote or fragile landscapes or face-to-face with wildlife in ways that are difficult or impossible in real life. It’s an entirely new mode of armchair travel.

I’m often asked to argue on behalf of the primacy of the still photograph. Don’t get me wrong: it is a critically important visual medium with an unmatched ability to crystalize a moment in time. And while I believe the still image will endure, we should seize the technological advancements in visual storytelling and be wedded not to form but to purpose.

You’ve also spoken at many international events and photo festivals, such as the Lagos Photo Festival and World Press Photo. What do you enjoy about giving talks, and what do you learn from them? I love talking to and with contemporary and future storytellers. I do this as a keynote speaker at festivals and conferences and as a teacher—currently at New York University and previously at Anderson Ranch, Columbia University and the International Center of Photography. Engaging with aspiring artists and journalists and working professionals gives me perspective on the realities and challenges that photographers face today, on their perspective on the state of journalism and the media industry, and on innovation and new technologies.

These talks also give me the opportunity to write and gather my thoughts, assess and reassess where we are at and where we are going, and what our priorities are. I intend to inspire the next generation and working professionals alike, so imagine my surprise when, after a recent talk, one photographer in the audience approached me and said, “To be honest, I found your speech really pessimistic.” When I asked why, he said: “Because you said that photographers need to develop new skills, or they’ll be out of work within ten years.” To which I responded, “Yes, and … you’re welcome.”

How do you see print media evolving in the future? Publishing a picture is no longer the end game—it’s the beginning of a conversation with your audience. Some may view social media platforms and the democratization of visual storytelling as a threat to the art form or the overall impact of photography. I’ve been asked if it pains me to see National Geographic photographs on a smartphone screen rather than in the printed magazine. My reaction? Absolutely not.

I say this because I love knowing that the visuals created by our photographers circulate far beyond the page. I’ve had the privilege of traveling to almost 30 countries, and everywhere I go, people know National Geographic and our iconic yellow border. But in my experience, only a fraction of them have seen the magazine. To make the print image alone so precious does a disservice to ourselves.

As storytellers, we should care most about people seeing the photographs and engaging with the story. The photograph that works best as a double truck printed in the magazine may not be the same image that works on a small screen; we must make different journalistic and curatorial choices. And we must be more ambitious about imaging and creating these stories—and in exercising different forms of storytelling to do so. The digital space affords the fewest constraints and the greatest opportunities to create the most ambitious, visually rich multimedia stories. It’s not a question of what’s better; it’s a question of what’s appropriate for each particular space.

We’re constantly challenging ourselves to expand on the photography we are most known for and welcome the compelling nature of these immersive approaches. A still image on a printed page was once the only visual medium with the power to transport an audience. Now, we can lean into the advantages that innovation offers storytellers to reach new audiences.

What’s one thing you wish you had known when you started your career? So many things! One, it’s a small community. Be kind and respectful. Expect that you’ll be working with your colleagues and classmates in a different capacity soon. Perhaps your peer today will be your boss tomorrow—or the other way around.

Two, be proactive in getting the skills today you’ll need to get the job you want tomorrow.

And three, seek out mentors. The role of a great mentor might be to ask the right questions, ones that surface answers already within us that we are too hesitant to acknowledge. Great mentors help us to say our dreams aloud. ca

For more on Johnson Latorre’s latest work, including National Geographic’s recently-released “Pictures of the Year” issue featuring incredible moments captured by field photographers in 2022, visit natgeo.com/photos.