23 October 2018Last updated

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A National Geographic photographer reveals the most memorable place he’s visited

We chat to photojournalist Steve Raymer as he’s poised to visit Dubai for the –ING Creative Festival

11 Apr 2017 | 02:42 pm
  • Steve Raymer

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  • One of Steve's most memorable travel experiences was in Vietnam

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Producing “a community of creatives who come together to make a positive impact”, founder Ramy Alwassy describes the –ING Creative Festival as an event “focused on creatives making things happen, using talks as an inspiration, workshops as the hands-on element of learning, and networking sessions as the place for collaboration”.

We caught up with one of this year’s speakers and workshop leaders, Steve Raymer. With more stamps in his passport than you can shake a stick at, Steve is a former National Geographic photographer who also claims the titles of photojournalist, author and educator. His career with Nat Geo has taken him to more than 90 countries and he currently works as an emeritus professor at Indiana University Media School.

You have travelled extensively around the globe, but what place or experience has particularly stood out to you?

To return to Vietnam where I served as a young Army officer in combat, to do a book about the country, and to teach a generation of Vietnamese who have no first-hand knowledge of the war with the United States. And to work as a journalist in Vietnam, my all-time favorite country!

The culmination of decades of work in Southeast Asia as a National Geographic staff photographer lead me to do a book about Vietnam - a self-assigned project of journalistic curiosity and emotional reconnection that began in 1993 before the United States and Vietnam had trade or diplomatic relations. With fellow veterans Paul Martin of National Geographic and the late Jack Smith of ABC News, we had a straightforward thesis. Vietnam today is a land at peace, both with itself and its neighbors, though we recognized the on-going persecution of minorities and pro-democracy activists, as well as a new millennium of trouble with China at its borders. Through four years of photography, I met scores of returning American veterans doing charitable work for and with the Vietnamese - everything from mapping old minefields and stocking rural medical clinics to caring for the Amerasian street children of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.

One of those returning veterans was my late father-in-law Albert Skinner. Accompanied by two “minders” from the foreign ministry, Al and I drove from Saigon to Hanoi in a cramped Peugeot 406 sedan jammed with my camera equipment and our luggage. Our route took us to many places: the Central Highlands and the old battlefields and bases at Delat, An Khê, and the Mang Yang Pass; to My Lai, an out of the way hamlet where poorly led U. S. troops murdered between 347 and 504 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in 1968; on to the port city of Danang and the white sands of China Beach; to the ancient Imperial capital of Hue with its magical sunsets on the Perfume River, and to the old combat base at Khe Sanh, where U. S. Maines were besieged for 77 days by the North Vietnamese, who laid down a day-and-night barrage of mortars and rockets.

Two accidents with motorcyclists and four flat tires later, Al and I arrived in the capital of Hanoi in time for the Tet lunar New Year celebration, a festive time of flowers and gift-giving that at the time was celebrated with days and nights of fireworks, now banned. In 1994, with no diplomatic or trade relations between our two countries, Al and I were just two of a handful of Americans allowed to stay in Hanoi during this most important celebration of the Vietnamese calendar. Al was a retired U. S. Army lieutenant colonel and ordained minister to the troops. He also was a “soldier’s soldier” who was highly decorated for heroism while caring for troops under fire. On the blazing hot tarmac of Hanoi’s No Bai International Airport, a U. S. State Department official asked Al to say an invocation - an ecumenical prayer - over the coffins of 13 American soldiers missing in action before their remains were flown to Hawaii for identification. With tears in his eyes, Al told me the repatriation ceremony, and his central role in it, brought him a closure with the war that few other Americans would experience. He left Vietnam a man at peace - and with a mission to encourage fellow veterans to see Vietnam as a country, not a war.

The National Geographic is very much an institution. What does National Geographic mean to you?

Several things.

National Geographic taught me about the world. I grew up in a small town in the middle of the United States. Instead of playing sports, I would go to both the public library and school library to read the Geographic for hours on end. Little did I know that one day I would work there as a staff photographer, travel to more than 100 countries, or be its Moscow correspondent during the final five years of the Soviet Union.

Someone once said that becoming a National Geographic photographer is a bit like being accepted into an Ivy League university. It takes luck and talent, and once you’re in, you have to work like hell to stay there. How true!

National Geographic is where I learned to be a photojournalist. When I joined the magazine a year out of graduating in May 1972, I was a newspaper photographer who had never taken a color photograph for publication. I knew even less about light - our single most important storytelling element, and design. The day I was hired, Director of Photography Bob Gilka - a blunt and notoriously gruff legend in photojournalism - looked me in the eye and uttered words I shall never forget: “We can make the pictures any goddamned color we want. We’re hiring you,” he growled, “for how you think and how you see the world.” These are words that I have passed on hundreds of times on to university students looking for insight into how to prepare for the future. National Geographic gave me and other staff, contract, and freelance photographers the autonomy, the time, and the money to follow a story literally to the ends of the earth. The magazine allowed me to make excellence my only standard, something I try to do with every click of the shutter. And, of course, the magazine and my mentors Bob Gilka and the late Wilbur E. “Bill Garrett, its legendary longtime editor, allowed me to learn on the job, not just the craft of photography, but how to tell a story effectively with words and pictures. The Geographic allowed me to explore ideals, institutions, conflicts, and people as no university could. It was an education, a priceless one indeed!

Secondly, National Geographic remains the world’s greatest picture magazines. Yes, there have been many changes at the venerable institution. Assignments are shorter, money for expenses tighter, and circulation is only about 4 million copies (international editions bring this up to 6.8 million), down from 10.8 million at its peak in 1989. But National Geographic’s web traffic is escalating, and several apps target students and nature enthusiasts. But the stories National Geographic undertakes - gender, the world food supply, growing inequality, explaining religion and faith, and all kinds of environmental issues - remain timely and important.

Thanks to the internet, we can often be confronted with amateur images taken on a phone and uploaded, and these often show shocking scenes that are purely upsetting, rather than expressive. As a professional, when taking photos of an upsetting nature, is there a point where you have any doubts about what you are trying to portray? 

Being a photojournalist is about taking an unblinking look at the world. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we photojournalists are the closest thing that open, democratic societies have to a professional eyewitness. Photojournalists chronicle our achievements and our failures, and just about everything in between that is part of the human condition. Perhaps our most essential function is to bear witness to history - to say that “this happened. And to make pictures with empathy for those who are the focus of our images. Importantly, photojournalists give testimony in the court of public opinion, making pictures that are accurate, verified, and full of meaning and context. So, no, I do not doubt my work or its importance. What I worry about is being a faithful witness. This means, as I say, adding meaning and context to the reality that I see through the lens.

What constitutes a good picture in this type of situation?

What makes a good picture in photojournalism? That one is easy. Four things - a picture that tells a story or has a message, a picture that makes use of light and compelling design elements, a picture that provokes and emotional reaction in the reader or viewer, and finally, a picture that has intimacy. By intimacy I mean taking readers and viewers to places they can no go for themselves, by allowing the public to connect at close range and through a range of emotions with the people who are the subjects of our photographs.

It must be hard to see people in tragic or difficult situations. How do you keep going?

I suspect it is much the same for physicians, aid workers, lawyers, and other professionals who deal with the harsh side of life.

It goes back to understanding my responsibilities as one of society’s professional eyewitnesses - being a voice and pair of eyes independent of government and all sides in a conflict, controversy, trend, or debate. It also goes to our responsibility to give a voice to the voiceless, something that is difficult for more affluent students to understand.

Having the privileged position to see the final years and days of the Cold War between 1986 and 1991 also gave me a better grasp what it means to be a professional. As I tell students, unlike other professionals, we journalists are unlicensed, there is no body of knowledge to be professed or practiced, there are no governing organizations or norms that if broken could lead to sanctions. And journalists are focused, at least ideally, on being loyal to the truth, the public, and a functioning democracy, not a client, a patient, or a company. Anyone can call himself or herself a journalist if they get their pictures and stories published.

But being a journalist today is about holding ourselves to ideals that are morally permissible in ways beyond - the key word - what the law, the market, morality, and public opinion would otherwise require. A professional photojournalist is not defined by where you work or for whom you work, but how you work.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of our professional codes of ethics are what we call aspirational, short and to the point in defining our ideal behavior and leaving it to us to sort out our ethical challenges on a case by case basis.

But in the end, we voluntarily put ourselves in difficult situations, including conflict, because we think it is vital for citizens to be informed.

What are you going to be doing at the –ING event?

I am going to talk a bit about my work, about how to conceive, shoot, organize, and design a picture story, and about the ethical problems of staging or setting up pictures, as well as the ethical problems of seamless digital image manipulation.

Moreover, I am going to talk a little theory, about the three broad traditions of photojournalism - the professional eyewitness function of photojournalism, as well as our obligation to expose social evils, and to show us our common human connections.

The -ING Creative Festival runs from April 13th-15th. Visit