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Photographers’ relationships are at the heart of any great photojournalism, and some are more visible than others. There are those between photographers and the people who appear in their images, built on trust and a shared desire to communicate something to the world. There is the partnership between photographers, writers, and story teams in the office, who collaborate to bring a National Geographic story to the screen or page, and of whom only the photographer and writer are credited with bylines at the top of each article.
But out in the field on a Nat Geo photo assignment, there are many more unnamed individuals who are crucial to bringing great visual storytelling to life. These can be extraordinary journalists in their own right who take on additional roles: as local producers, assistants, drivers, or translators, among others. They build trust and access to local communities, contribute research and additional imagery, provide technical expertise, find solutions to unforeseen challenges, and even navigate dangerous situations.
They can even save photographers’ lives, like with Nat Geo photographer John Stanmeyer and late longtime fixer Heri Yanto.
“Were it not for Heri, I would have been killed in East Timor,” says Stanmeyer. “Heri took a knife in his stomach during a rally by anti-independence supporters in August 1999, pushing me aside because the blade was meant for me.” The two even merged their names together, calling each other Heri Yantomeyer and John Stanyanto, and Yanto’s children both adopted part of Stanmeyer’s last name. Though Yanto died in 2010 from complications with diabetes, Stanmeyer still thinks of him almost every day. “He was my best friend—a brother,” he says. “Family.”
A single photographer’s byline belies the work of partnerships, the special bonds formed over months or years of shared experiences in the field, and the true diversity of the teams behind the scenes. We asked Nat Geo photographers to share the stories and images of incredible people they’ve worked with on assignment. Without them, National Geographic’s storytelling simply wouldn’t be possible.
The following are the photographers’ accounts in their own words, edited for clarity and brevity.
Kiliii Yüyan, on Jake Soplanda
Jake is one amazing pilot—capable of flying ultra-low and slow over the icy wetlands, and capable of landing on a tiny, short landing trip between snowbanks. For a Nat Geo assignment on Alaska’s Arctic Flyway in 2019, he was able to bring me in, loaded with gear, in a tiny Supercub, find the landing site, and land on a bumpy knoll not much bigger than the plane. Above, he’s cruising at low altitude over Teshekpuk Lake, Alaska.
Hannah Reyes Morales, on Namuun Tsegmid
I worked in Mongolia with reporter and researcher Namuun Tsegmid, who was instrumental in helping us connect with families and making them feel comfortable. For this story on lullabies, we worked with an all-female team of local producers across different countries. Above center, Namuun is seen in Mongolia’s freezing sub-zero winter, waiting patiently in the cold while we scouted for places to photograph night landscapes. After we left, Namuun helped us track down nomads with no phone numbers or permanent addresses, or descendants of lullaby composers who had passed away.
Jimmy Chin, on Mikey Schaefer
Mikey was my assistant on multiple Nat Geo assignments including the Yosemite, Oman and Free Solo assignments. The term “assistant” significantly underplays the roles he played on these projects. He acted as a rigger, logistics manager, photographer, cinematographer, confidant and all-around badass. I couldn’t have pulled off any of these shoots without him.
He kept me on track, problem-solved the impossible problems, and covered my blind spots both literally and figuratively.
Sarah Stacke, on Sheena Brings Plenty (left) and Tami Hale (right)
While working in Cherokee, North Carolina, and beyond on a story about the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI) reclamation of stolen lands, Sheena Brings Plenty, above left, was my guide, fixer, grip, and friend. Sheena helped me scout locations relevant to the person being photographed. She bounced around ethical and cultural questions with me, always offering invaluable insight.
On the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, Tami Hale, above right, generously shared her stories and knowledge of Lakota culture. She would walk around cemeteries with me until we found the historical graves we came to find, however long it took or how cold the wind got.
Anastasia Taylor-Lind, on Aza Andreasyan
Aza and I worked together in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2011, on a story about the birth encouragement program that was giving cash payments to families for each child born.
When the war broke out in September 2020, I asked Aza if she would go back with me. A few days after the ceasefire, Aza called the Hakobian family, who we’d spent time with a decade earlier. They had just returned home and remembered me—Aza had kept in touch with them all of this time—and we visited the same family home and ate a huge feast with them. The kids had grown; Inna, 9, showed me a family photo album, which contained a photo I had made of her as a newborn. Lilit, who was 10 the last time I made her picture, was now 19 and had a newborn of her own. Her husband, a soldier, was missing in action.
Aza walks through the world with a grace and warmth that I cannot describe. She no longer works as a producer, or in journalism, but came to Karabakh because she wanted to re-visit the people she knew so well.
Carlton Ward Jr., on Malia Byrtus
Malia Byrtus manages the remote camera systems for the Path of the Panther project and helped me produce many of the photos in the April 2021 magazine story, Return of the Panther.
Malia is a real explorer, in practice, and at heart. She joined me as an intern in 2017, and on her first week on the job, really had a chance to test her mettle. I was in DC for Explorer’s Fest, and wet season came early in the South Florida swamps. Malia went to the field in my Land Cruiser to rescue our most vulnerable low-lying cameras from flood waters. My truck was stuck in mud so deep that water was starting to come in the doors. But she figured out how to use a winch to rescue my truck and get it to higher ground. Then she waded waist-deep into the swamp to rescue the camera and encountered a large alligator in her way. A local biologist talked her through the situation and Malia cut a long walking stick to poke the water ahead of her, discouraging the gator from coming closer. In the end, she saved the truck and cameras.
Kris Graves, on Marshall Scheuttle
For a story on Confederate monuments, a friend and excellent artist named Marshall Scheuttle was kind enough to take the 24-day journey with me as a photographic assistant, safety lookout, time organizer, and driver. Marshall is a superb photographer and I am innately envious of the work he is able to produce, so he kept me on my game. One day we drove from Augusta to Atlanta, Georgia, which is a two-hour drive. It was the middle of the trip, and I told him that we would only be driving 3-4 hours to photograph monuments between the cities. We ended up photographing over 15 monuments over nine hours and were both exhausted by the evening. Without Marshall, the trip wouldn’t have been possible.
Katie Orlinsky, on Corinne Danner (left) and Edgar Aquino Huerta (right)
I first met Corinne Danner, above left, in 2016 during the Iñupiat community of Utqiagvik’s annual spring bowhead whale harvest, for a story on subsistence hunting and climate change in Alaska. Utqiagvik is the hub of Alaska’s North Slope and is used to visitors, but it is still a big deal for a crew member to invite an outsider out on the Arctic Ocean sea ice with them amid the dangers they currently face, especially one born and raised in New York City with zero hunting skills. I helped however I could, breaking trail, ferrying supplies, and hauling meat until Corrine found the perfect job for me: camp cook. It was a privilege and awe-inspiring to spend time with Corrine and her family and to learn about their land and way of life. None of it would have been possible without her.
While working on a story about migrant blueberry farmworkers and COVID-19 in southern New Jersey, I met Edgar Aquino Huerta, above right, a recent college graduate and emerging filmmaker who worked at a local garden store. Edgar used to be a blueberry farmworker and his support and guidance was invaluable. He would meet me at 6 a.m. to help me find farms with notoriously poor conditions, connect me with farmworkers, and local immigration activists. Shortly after our collaboration he got a job with the CATA farmworkers committee, and made his own film.
Editor’s note: Many of these assignments had funding from the National Geographic Society. Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.
Readers, did you like this look behind the scenes at our work? Would you want to read more accounts of the people involved in telling our stories? Let us know.