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TED2008: The flashbulb moment

David Griffin is the director of photography for National Geographic magazine. To talk about the power of images, he shows us some of the best photojournalistic images published in National Geographic. Of twelve images, including Steve McCurry’s famous photo of an Afghan refugee, and an amazing shot by Nick Nichols of Jane Goodal touching an ape, one was an amateur, submitted through Geographic’s new amateur site, Your Shot.

Photography is a reminder of how the mind freezes a significant moment. He tells us a personal story – he was teaching his son to swim, and was pulled out by a riptide. “I have a flashbulb memory of the jetty”, and his son’s terror, the specific wave that broke over him as he rescued his son. That sense of flashbulb memory is what happens when a photo connects with a viewer.

Griffin believes that everyone has one or two great photos in them, but that the powerful narratives that can be created by photojournalism require being able to get these great shots all the time, and to be able to put them together into narratives.

A National Geographic photographer travelled to Zakouma National Park in Chad, thinking he might get a picturesque story about wildlife. Much of the photography was done with “trigger traps” that catch movement past a camera. In snapping thousands of wildlife images, the photographer decided to focus on a matriarch elephant, who they named “Annie”. They follow Annie and her herd as they migrated out of the park, into the arms of hunters, and she was killed for her tusks, along with twenty members of her herd. The photographs told a long, complex story that couldn’t be told any other way.

Sometimes you need a sweeping picture to understand a story, like the devestation of overfishing. A photo series included pictures of the bycatch, shot from below – dead, waste fish being dumped into water. It includes photos taken at incredible risk of a trawler net scraping the ocean bottom. And we see African fish markets, where traders sell heads and spines, because the fillets have all been exported to Europe.

James Natchwey told a story about the system used to treat injured soldiers in Iraq, “a tube that runs from the battlefield back into the States.” He shot field hospitals, the hospitals in Germany where people were reunited with their families, the recouperation in VA hospitals in the US. It ends with pictures of people being fitted with high-tech prosthesis, and attempting to get on with their lives.

And sometimes these stories are just plain fun. Paul Nicklen went to shoot a story on leopard seals, some of the most feared predators in Antarctic Oceans, known for harming researchers. The seals specialize in eating penguins – “Think of it as the Munch of the penguins.” As he swam in the ocean with these seals, a mother seal took pity on him and began bringing him live penguins. Evidently she wondered, “What is this big thing doing in the water, not eating penguins?” She dropped penguins on his head until she finally gave up in frustration.

There’s nothing like a picture to capture stories like this one.

Peter Diamandis shares a wonderful, brief story with us, and a terrific photo. He runs a business that allows people to experience weightlessness via parabolic flight. He was able to give professor Stephen Hawking the chance to experience weightlessness – they brought a large medical team, expecting that Hawking might have physiological problems in space. He had such fun, the team ended up taking him through eight different parabolas.

It’s pretty unmistakeable that that’s joy on his face.

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  1. Pingback: TED2008: The flashbulb moment - …My heart’s in Accra » | The Click

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