Photographers use their cameras as tools of exploration, passports to inner sanctums, instruments for change. Their images are proof that photography matters—now more than ever.
Thirty-four years before the birth of this magazine, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard sourly prophesied a banal fate for the newly popularized art of photography. “With the daguerreotype,” he observed, “everyone will be able to have their portrait taken—formerly it was only the prominent—and at the same time everything is being done to make us all look exactly the same, so we shall only need one portrait.”
The National Geographic Society did not set out to test Kierkegaard’s thesis, at least not right away. Its mission was exploration, and the gray pages of its official journal did not exactly constitute a visual orgy. Years would go by before National Geographic’s explorers would begin using the camera as a tool to bring back what is now its chief source of fame: photographic stories that can alter perceptions and, at their best, change lives.
By wresting a precious particle of the world from time and space and holding it absolutely still, a great photograph can explode the totality of our world, such that we never see it quite the same again. After all, as Kierkegaard also wrote, “the truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught.”
Today photography has become a global cacophony of freeze-frames. Millions of pictures are uploaded every minute. Correspondingly, everyone is a subject, and knows it—any day now we will be adding the unguarded moment to the endangered species list. It’s on this hyper-egalitarian, quasi-Orwellian, all-too-camera-ready “terra infirma” that National Geographic’s photographers continue to stand out. Why they do so is only partly explained by the innately personal choices (which lens for which lighting for which moment) that help define a photographer’s style. Instead, the very best of their images remind us that a photograph has the power to do infinitely more than a document. It can transport us to unseen worlds.