When Kurt Mutchler was named National Geographic’s Executive Editor for Photography in August of 2010, he took over a department that had undergone great changes and was looking ahead to even more. A former newspaper photographer, Mutchler began working for Geographic as a photo editor in 1994, and from his current perch he has become a fierce defender of what he calls “long-form narrative photojournalism” and its traditions, even while ushering new photographers and new visual styles into the pages of his magazine. Shortly after assuming his new job last year, when a National Public Radio blog questioned whether photojournalism continued to have a meaningful place in the modern media firmament, Mutchler emailed writer Claire O’Neill with a powerful rebuttal: “In today’s ephemeral Twitter world, in-depth photojournalism has the power to slow the world down just long enough for viewers to gain a real understanding. It’s what our readers expect.”
Likewise, Mutchler views the “Visa Pour l’Image” photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France, which National Geographic has sponsored for many years, as an opportunity to slow down for a week and assess the state of the art in photojournalism. “The festival provides a rich environment for sharing ideas and assessing what is going on in photography,” he says. “It’s rich intellectually. It feeds the brain.” In a recent wide-ranging conversation with La Lettre de la Photographie, Mutchler talked about how National Geographic’s photography has and has not changed in recent years, as well as the future of photojournalism and the festival in Perpignan, which, as he put it, has become more important than ever in today’s “very fast and ever-changing world.”
Let’s start with you. Tell us how you got started in photography and journalism.
I’ve been doing this since I was in high school, and that was in the 1970s, so I’ve been at it for around 40 years. I grew up in northern Ohio, shot for the high school newspaper and yearbooks, went to the Rochester Institute of Technology and Ohio State University, and ended up working for the Associated Press as a stringer. I got a bunch of internships at various newspapers and wound up down in New Orleans working for the Times Picayune newspaper. It was a very good paper and a great city to work in as a photographer—it was just so visually rich. So I was lucky. After seven years of being a photographer I got into editing and did that for another seven years before I got to National Geographic as a picture editor.
Tell us about your role at National Geographic ?
There have been some big changes at the magazine over the past few years. For many years the role of the director of photography was to hire photographers and editors, and there was a separate illustrations division that handled all picture editing and layout and design. It was always divided. When Chris Johns became editor in chief of the magazine about six years ago he hired David Griffin as the director of photography and they merged those departments. So now I head up that one single department. [Editor’s Note: Griffin left National Geographic in February to become Visuals Editor of the Washington Post.]
Let’s talk about National Geographic’s sponsorship of “Visa Pour l’Image”.
We have been a sponsor for a while now—over a decade I believe. We’ve had a very strong partnership with the festival’s director, Jean Francois Leroy. This year I think we’ve got something like ten screenings and print shows—the most we’ve ever had.
Why is the festival important to Geographic?
It’s our way of staying relevant in European photography and the European market. But more important is that the festival showcases some of the best work that’s been done in the previous year. And in doing that it gives voice to this kind of visual reporting, which is so important now.
Will you be there this year?
Yes. I didn’t get to go to the festival last year, but I will this year.
This leads to a discussion of photojournalism in general—and what now seems to be an age-old question: Is photojournalism dead? We’ve been debating that question for about twenty years.
Yes, that’s true. But the question seems to keep hanging in there, doesn’t it? And it’s a valid question. It is becoming evermore difficult for photographers to stay in business, if you will, to be able to sustain themselves and their families. That is something that’s becoming more and more concerning to me. You wonder sometimes who will be left standing to actually do the work that we hope to publish in the magazine.
Certainly National Geographic is still there, and it’s a kind of bulwark…
Absolutely. We are the last man standing, in terms of long-form narrative photojournalism.
What other places do you look for great photojournalism now, aside from Geographic?
In the printed world, or the online world?
There are so many outlets now, and so many good blogs, such as La Lettre de la Photographie. The New York Times’s “Lens” blog, and the newspaper itself—I think it’s just a hell of a newspaper, and of course the New York Times Magazine. Time magazine’s “Lightbox” blog and Time magazine in print—they are doing a good job and seem to have revived their photography in the last couple of years.
But the world of photography is so more diffuse now than it used to be—you can’t assess it now by looking at a handful of publications. You can surf and surf the web for material.
Absolutely. There’s a publication in Russia—it’s called Russian Reporter -and they’re doing some really interesting, cutting-edge work. I found them on Facebook. I have a Russian speaker working with me, and I said, “Hey, can you get us a subscription to that magazine?” I wanted to see how they do in print. And to get the subscription would have cost us $500, so I said, “Well, we’ll just have to keep looking at it online.”
In the place of the older, big print titles that once funded what you call long-form narrative photojournalism, we’ve seen foundations and NGOs stepping in.
Yeah, and we’re doing a little of that ourselves. For example, our special issue about water, which was published in April of 2010, was funded in part by NGOs. So not only are we able to self-publish, but we’re reaching out to others who like what we’re doing. It helps us support photography. [Geographic photographer] Nick Nichols is now working on a big project on Africa that is being supported by an outside source. All that lets us do what we see as our mission. In just the last year we had George Steinmetz in the southern Sudan, Lynsey Addario in Baghdad, we had Reza in Egypt, we published work by Michael Brown from Libya, we had Pascal Maitre and Joel Sartore in the Rift Valley in Africa and Chien-Chi Chang in Burma, and we had David Guttenfelder and Michael Yamashita in Japan to cover the aftermath of the tsunami. We’re definitely not your father’s Oldsmobile anymore.
Let’s talk about that—how did you go about covering that story?
Well, we had Yamashita in the country soon after the tsunami hit, and then followed up. Guttenfelder was there to work on a story that will come out in this December’s issue.
Can you talk a bit about how photojournalism in Geographic has changed stylistically?
I think we’re trying walk a fine line and publish material that will appeal to readers who like the classic Geographic subject matter—the archeology and anthropology—and yet also be timely and topical and as relevant to people’s lives as possible. Chris Johns was a staff photographer here for a long time, and he looks at the world through the eyes of a photojournalist. He also has the taste and capacity to bring in different styles that we didn’t use before.
Describe those new styles.
We’re using new photographers like Martin Schoeller, Paolo Pellegrin, Edward Burtynsky, Massimo Vitali—photographers who walk the line between the art world and photojournalism. It’s really opened up a new world for us.
So the traditional boundaries between what we used to think of as separate genres have broken down somewhat?
Yes, I think you might say that the bandwidth of photojournalism has expanded. And the aesthetics of photography have been allowed to flower in the magazine. We can go beyond what we call “point pictures,” the pictures that might not be very interesting visually but contain a lot of information. But the classic Geographic image is still the one that has aesthetic power and also delivers information. As you said, everything is so diffuse now—imagery is everywhere, filling the Internet, but what the magazine continues to bring to the table is becoming even more valuable as time goes on. It’s the veracity and integrity of our reporting—we do research on the front end and research on the back end to make sure we get it right.
You’re looking for the one telling picture…
Or a series of pictures that tell the nuances of an idea or a place or a culture. Young photographers ask me all the time, “How do I get into Geographic?” And I tell them, we’re all about the story—tell me a story. They should be showing me a portfolio that contains stories, not pictures. That’s hard to do, and hard to learn, especially now that the incubators of photojournalism are going away. A lot of our photographers come from newspapers, and as newspapers struggle and whither that proving ground is just going away. So young kids coming out of college—where do they look? Where do they learn?
What would you tell them to do?
I tell them to find a subject that is close to home, that they can go back to over and over and over again, because that’s what it takes—it takes constantly shooting pictures, editing them, looking at what you have, stitching images together, and then saying, “Okay, this is where I need to go and this is where I need to go back to.” Going back is so important. The second time you meet someone, he or she will recognize you, and the doors will open wider, and you’ll start to have a real story.
Interview by David Schonauer, August 27, 2011