What I Learned While Shooting a National Geographic Documentary

Standing on top of the desolate mountain, 4000 meters (13,000 feet) up on the Tibetan Plateau, our bodies were freezing and our batteries were dying but we needed to get the final shot for the documentary. Nearby, the thermometer read -20 degrees C (-4 degrees Fahrenheit), but the harsh wind chill made it feel much much lower.

I turned to look at the director. “Have we got it? Have we got the shot?!” I was almost pleading at this point.

The director turned to me. I could barely see his eyes through the tears of eye-watering cold. He gave me a simple nod. It told me we’d got it. The documentary was finished.

We were in far western China, on top of one of the most remote mountains in the country, grabbing the last shots for the new National Geographic Channel documentary, “Road to Carbon Neutrality”. In this new program, I traveled across China photographing the steps that the country is making to try to reach its all-important climate-neutral goals.

The Road to Carbon Neutrality

It had been a long journey to reach the summit of this mountain — not just for this documentary, but for my career as a photographer in China. Never has it been more difficult for photographers to survive and carve out their niche, especially in the field of photojournalism.

For me, this journey has been full of highs and lows and it provided me with lots of time for reflection on my own journey as a photojournalist. I wanted to share some of the steps that got me here with fellow aspiring professional photographers, to help them on their journey, should this be a path they also want to choose.

Think Stories, Not Single Images

Many photographers can take great single images, but serious editorial publications, like National Geographic, are looking for impactful stories. It’s about putting together a series of impactful individual images, to tell a story when you present them together.

The Road to Carbon Neutrality behind the scenes

How do you start telling stories? Well, this depends on your subject matter. For me, as an environmental photojournalist, I tend to pick out a specific environmental issue, such as deforestation, rising sea levels, pollution, etc. I will then try to build a portfolio of single images that each communicates a different aspect of that story. I want each image to be like a chapter in the story, leading the viewer through the beginning, middle, and end. I want my individual images to stand out on their own, but then have more impact when they work together as a whole.

Photograph What it Feels Like

A National Geographic editor I worked with once told me, “Don’t just take images of what it looks like, take images of what it feels like.” This is something that has stuck with me for many years and I think about it when I am making images. I often ask myself if my images are making the viewer feel something. Is the story I am telling emotional in depth? Are the feelings and emotions of the people I am photographing coming through?

The Road to Carbon Neutrality behind the scenes

How do you make the viewer feel something? Well, one of the easiest ways to do this is to try to capture emotions in your images. A simple smile, a laugh, a look of anger, a mother embracing a child, etc. All of these moments, if you are able to capture them, can elicit emotion and feeling in your viewer.”

Then there are the ways in which you creatively use color, light, composition, and moments, or a combination of these. They can all elicit a feeling in your images. Finally, there is the way in which you pair those images as part of your photo story. This can also be a way in which you can create emotion, feeling, and depth in your stories.

Find Your Niche

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of photographers whose dream is to work with publications like National Geographic. But to stand out, you need to be known for something. For me, it’s my work on environmental issues in Asia, especially China. I have dedicated myself to covering the country for 17 years and it is through my work here that I was approached to be featured in the documentary, “Road to Carbon Neutrality”.

There are three main factors to determining your niche. First is location. Pick a spot in the world and hone in on that region as your focus. Secondly, pick a topic or subject matter. This could be environmental issues, sports, fashion, health, politics, etc. and just focus on stories around that. Finally, think about the style of your photography. How do you take images? Color? Black and white? Do you use special equipment or techniques that are different?

Once you have defined these three factors, you are on your way to defining your niche and what makes you special and makes people know you and your work.

One thing to note is that many photographers at National Geographic are often not photographers first. They are scientists, explorers, adventurers, writers, or climbers. They often have their own professional specialty first and then add photography to their skill set as a way to communicate their work through visual storytelling. This gives them an edge and makes them unique.

Tell Local Stories about Global Issues

You need to ask yourself if your photographic work connects to a significant societal issue that’s affecting our world. For me, I tell stories about the climate crisis. This is a large and complex global issue but I actually spend my time in small communities telling stories about the climate crisis through individuals, families, and communities. This matters because the stories of these people connect to the larger issue of the climate crisis that affects all of us. I try to tell local stories about global issues.

You can too.

The Road to Carbon Neutrality behind the scenes

You don’t need to travel halfway around the world or try and cover a huge issue like the climate crisis though. A small story in the place where you live can have regional, national, or even international significance. You just need to find a way to connect the dots between what’s happening where you are and the larger context of the issue.

Get Your Images Seen

Once you have a strong body of work or story, then you need to get your work noticed.

Of course, you need to have a professional website and be sharing on social media, but by far the best way is still to physically meet with editors, if possible. You want to identify the specific department or person you think best fits your work, then if you can, try to meet face to face. Perhaps you can meet at an industry event where they might be speaking, perhaps send a creative portfolio to them in the mail, or perhaps you can attend a portfolio review they are conducting. In-person connections are still best and lead to long-term meaningful collaborations.

The Road to Carbon Neutrality behind the scenes

Institutions like NatGeo also have internships, aimed to help you get a foot in the door, especially if you are a student or young learner. If you have a specialty outside of photography, you might want to consider applying for one of the National Geographic Society grants. These grants fund storytelling projects that explore different issues all around the world. Work produced from these grants is often then shared with editors so they can be considered for publication.

‘Road to Carbon Neutrality’ has already been released on national TV in China and on streaming platforms across the country. It has been released in 43 languages throughout 170 countries on the National Geographic Channel. Check your local regional listings and schedules for more details.

About the author: Sean Gallagher is a professional photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. Originally from the UK, he has been based in China for over 15 years covering issues surrounding the climate crisis. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Pulitzer Center grantee, and his work on environmental issues has appeared with National Geographic, The Guardian, and Smithsonian Magazine. For more from Sean, you can follow him on Instagram and visit his website.