Reflections from the National Geographic Photography Seminar

As 9 a.m. approached, the crowd started to rustle. There was a sense of anticipation and excitement amongst the gathered as the doors to the auditorium began to creak open.

Having queued up since an hour earlier, the keenest of the attendees were intent on being the first through the doors to claim their front row seat at one of the most anticipated photographic events of the year.

As the doors finally swung open, the crowd moved forward, eager to enter.

Passing the entrance, a wall of colourful light snatched their attention. The distinctive yellow aura that emanated from their left suddenly distracted them.

On the wall was a mesmeric sight that no photography enthusiast could pass up the opportunity to gaze at. A back lit collection of an entire wall covered in National Geographic front covers.

As the crowd swelled, attendees were unsure whether to stare and gaze and the photographic history layered on the wall before them, or continue their intended rush to the auditorium to claim their prized seat.

National Geographic Photography SeminarThis sense of excitement and anticipation was the reason I had travelled half way round the world to attend the 2015 National Geographic Photography Seminar. It did not disappoint.

Established originally as a gathering for National Geographic photographers to meet and share work at the beginning of each year, the annual seminar has become a place for those connected to the Nat Geo family to gather together, share work, ideas and inspiration at the beginning of the year.

Having been invited by National Geographic Creative, my agency which distributes much of my work, it was my first time at the event and I was keen to soak up the creative energy to help inspire my own work. I was also looking forward to being a photo-fan for the day and absorbing the photography and presence of some of the best in the business.

As the lights dimmed and the crowd settled, the first presentation began on the large screen. It was not what you might expect from a gathering of photography’s powerhouses…

This funny short video played out in front of an audience who were all familiar with the ‘old technology’ being examined by the children. A perfect way to break the ice, the children’s reactions to the film camera elicitted much laughter, obviously striking a chord with an audience who largely had built their careers on film photography before the digital revolution over the past decade.

And then the main event began.

First up was a breathtaking presentation by photographer and mountaineer, Jimmy Chin. An almost modern classic NG story, Jimmy recounted his tails of summiting some of the world’s toughest mountains whilst at the same time producing stunning photography. Many heads shook in disbelief at the bravery and ambition needed to pull off this kind of work under such extreme conditions.

The day’s presentations then took an extreme twist, arriving at the work of two Europeans, Simen Johan and Thomas Sauvin. Simen’s work took the audience through an exploration of his imagination and interpretations of concepts surrounding man, nature and animals. A fine-art photographer, his work spoke in a very different way to that typically associated with NG but it was refreshing and thought provoking, eliciting a deep response from many.

Thomas Sauvin
Thomas Sauvin
One of my personal favourites from the day was Thomas Sauvin‘s collection of images from China. A photography curator, his project stemmed from a collection of discarded negatives found in a dumpsite in Beijing. Having recovered the negatives, he set about scanning them, looking for images that perhaps piqued his interest. What he found was a treasure trove of snapshots from people’s everyday lives in China. Sequenced in a way to highlight common themes and quirky everyday situations, it was an inspired presentation. Having been based in China for a number of years, this project really touched me and I believe it’s an incredibly important body of work.

Late morning brought a unique presentation by Mitch Epstein and Erik Friedlander, which combined Epstein’s photographs of American Power with music played on a cello by Friedlander himself. It was a reflective and powerful combination of music and art.

The afternoon brought presentations and discussions in more of a traditional photographic style but still presented in unique ways.

It began with a sobering discussion between Visa Pour L’Image’s Jean-Francois Leroy and the Washington Post’s MaryAnne Golon about the recent tragedies in France and the continued threats that journalists, including photographers, are coming under across the world as they continue to try to do their work.

Next followed presentations from a group of young photographers that many were unfamiliar with. Diana Markosian presented a heart-wrenching project about her attempts to reconnect with a father who was not present during much of her childhood. Endia Beal examined the relationships between herself and office co-workers, using her distinct hairstyle to break down barriers and discuss issues surrounding race in the workplace. Then Sarker Protick presented an exquisite set of images that explored his relationship with the rivers of Bangladesh.

To top of the day, legendary NG photographer Lynn Johnson discussed her 30+ year career in photography with Vincent J. Musi, recounting both professional and personal stories about some of the projects that had touched her most over her long career.

National Geographic Photography SeminarAs the presentations drew to a close, most of the audience was in a state of awe and amazement at the diversity, power and calibre of the work they had just witnessed. I was one of them.

What struck me most was the embracing of many types of photography, even those not typically associated with the Nat Geo brand. This inclusion left me feeling inspired in a way that I don’t think would of come from a presentation of just one genre.

One other point that struck me was the use of video and sound in most of the presentations. It was very clear that photographers and photojournalists are increasingly using multimedia as a way to communicate their work, reaching out to their audiences not just through still imagery, but also through that of motion and sound. This combination is resonating with audiences in a deeper and more lasting way than if stills are just presented on their own. As someone who has tried to embrace this philosophy in recent years, it was encouraging and exciting to see.

For me, the gathering was an inspirational way to start 2015. The meeting of old friends and new ones was important. As a freelancer who spends most of my time working in relative isolation when in the field, touching base with like-minded individuals is invaluable. If young photographers are reading this, I really recommend attending similar festivals and gatherings such as Visa Pour L’Image, Look3 and Arles, to name a few. They can be an important source of inspiration and motivation.


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  1. Hi Sean, great post! Hope one day i will attend this seminar.
    Since I’ve discovered VISA in Perpignan, personnaly I think this is the best way to learn. A week full of inspiration. Hope to see you in September in SOuthern France. Keep in touch. P.

    • Hi Patricio,
      Thanks for the feedback. Yes, Visa is equally inspiring for work. Hope to see you there sometime!

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