Whitney Johnson, National Geographic’s Vice President of Visuals, speaking at Xposure 2023 in Sharjah, UAE Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah: When National Geographic Magazine - now renowned for its images - published its first-ever wildlife photos, members of the board resigned in outrage. They believed that the magazine was losing its touch and “turning into a picture book”.

The surprising insight was among other reveals at a session at the International Photography Festival ‘Xposure’ in Sharjah by Whitney Johnson, National Geographic’s Vice President of Visuals. She narrated the legacy of the institution and the story of what defines a ‘Picture of the Year’, starting with the publication of its first photograph in 1890 to how National Geographic’s readers became viewers.

Power of diversity

Johnson also highlighted the importance of differentiating between perspective and bias and how the COVID-19 pandemic has made the use of local photography stronger with more diverse voices now being published with National Geographic.

“Creativity flourishes with diversity, and this is not said enough. Today, the internet and digital photography have transformed images and image-making, and publishing photos is no longer the endgame, but just the beginning,” she said.

Johnson also shared how National Geographic is expanding its horizons to space with its NASA collaboration. “Artemis II is the first flight under the Artemis programme to carry astronauts on a journey around the Moon and back to Earth aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft.”

New tech

Moreover, she shed light on other forms of visual storytelling embraced by National Geographic. “We are constantly exploring new frontiers, like virtual reality and augmented reality, to transport our audience to new places. Our projects have taken people on a visual feast from the top of Mount Everest and the depths of Machu Picchu. We’ve also immersed ourselves into the metaverse, exploring and capturing the edge of digitally constructed universes,” she said.

Johnson then delved into the evolution of visual technology and how it has developed and been curated over time. She emphasised the pivotal role of images in transporting people to unfamiliar places and how technology has changed the way we produce and interact with images. “

Technologies will continue to evolve, yet the values of storytelling will remain. The audience of the future will benefit from our ambitions and commitment to innovation, but it’s important to balance that with preserving our core values.”

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Special access

Meanwhile photographer John Angerson gave a talk on ‘NASA Space Shuttle Mission STS-72, explaining how he documented the final six months of intensive year-long preparations by six astronauts for the mission in 1996 when he was granted special access to the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, and the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, USA.

John Angerson at Xposure 2023 Image Credit: Supplied

Angerson also revealed that some pictures displayed at his Xposure exhibition have never been exhibited in public before. He showed the audience a collection of unique pictures including one showing members of the Closeout Crew assisting astronauts before they seal the crew access hatch on the launch day.

‘Slow journalism’

Also photographer Tim Smith shared the story of his 15-year journey, during which he devoted himself to documenting the prairies of Manitoba in Canada and the Hutterite culture within them.

Tim Smith during his presentation Image Credit: Supplied

Smith: “The prairies have a unique beauty that I’ve always wanted to document. I particularly enjoy capturing the harvests, as well as the spontaneous moments that just seem to happen when you are there. That’s what I love about ‘slow journalism’ - the ability to wait for things to unfold and fall into place. The prairies hold a special place in my heart and I feel a sense of nostalgia every time I visit.”

Tim also touched upon the connections that arise when photographing enclosed communities like the Hutterites, musing on mistakes made and the wisdom he gained.