Visual Authorship and Intentionality: The Making of a Visual Journalist

The proverbial nail in the coffin that sealed my decision to pursue photo journalism as a part of my career was a National Geographic program on photography that I’d caught at the turn of the century. The program showcased the top 10 photos of 2009, as per the National Geographic team, and why each photo was chosen. Before then I’d already been in love with landscape scenes and world history, and had deep interest in both the environment and the documentation and preservation of key moments in history — but the feelings I’d felt, watching that program in 2009, inspired me to pick up my own camera and to document the world in similar, vibrant fashion.

The following visual essay is a recount of my own inspirations for and self-explorations of my own tastes and leanings as a visual journalist.

Photograph © Amy Toensing

It took me a long time to find this photo again, after having first seen it way back in 2010. I consider it to be a masterclass in visual storytelling — you have the great expanse of the Australian desert and the harshness of the situation reflected in the girl as she covers her face from the wind and dust. In the side mirror you can see a man lift his son out the back of his pickup truck, a symbol of familial perseverance despite the harsh realities of the outback drought. I always refer to it as a guide when planning out the elements of my frame.

Photograph © John Stenemeyer

Along with the one from Amy Toensig, this image by John Stenemeyer was selected among National Geographic’s top photographs of 2009. The visual storytelling here is very powerful — you have the austerity of the Great Pyramid providing a sense of location and also looming sense of forebode, while the Egyptians clamoring for relief goods at the front tell the rest of the story. My own personal favorite shot of mine borrows heavily from the visual composition of this photograph.

Photograph © Michael Nichols

And another photograph from the National Geographic Top 10 of 2009. Context: there had been a program on TV back in 2010 on the top National Geographic photos of 2009. I sat and watched it and felt utterly moved to capture the world’s stories with similar care, quality, and genuinity.

This photograph in particular is of a Redwood growing in the United States. What makes this photograph amazing is its scale — Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, growing as high as a low-level skyscraper, so capturing an entire tree in a single photograph was technically impossible. Michael Nichols took to the challenge, however, and after stringing together a number of cameras to a pulley system and carrying it through the canopy of the Redwood forest he was shooting in, was able to gather hundreds of separate photos of a single tree, which he then stitched together into a cohesive photograph. Up until now, I hope to be able to put together a photo with as much creativity, ingenuity, and effort.

Photograph © Yevgeny Khaldei

Perhaps the oldest photo on this list, “Raising a Flag over the Reichstag” was taken the day the Allied forces defeated the German army at the Battle of Berlin, regarded as one of the bloodies battles in all of history. When I first saw this photo in a history class back in high school, I felt deeply moved. For me it represented the triumph of liberty over fascism, as well as the dreadful cost of war, as reflected in the shelled-out buildings of Berlin in the background. Most significant to me, though, was how it represented a pivotal moment in human history. I wanted to capture such significant moments on camera as well, and this photo served as a nudge towards a career in photojournalism. My parents bought me a camera soon after.

Photograph © Malcolm Browne

The self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc, as captured by Malcolm Browne, is perhaps the most haunting image of protest I have seen in all my life. Taken at the height of protests against the persecution of Buddhist monks in Southern Vietnam, it is to me a photo of the anger and defiance carried by persecuted peoples as they protest against their oppressors. I first saw this photo in high school, and have since felt a strong desire to document acts of protest.

Photograph © Alan Taylor

A much lighter photograph, this photo of Bagan, Burma, marries four things that are very close to my heart — landscape photos, architecture, ancient cultures, and the storied past of Southeast Asia. Having grown up in Thailand surrounded by the color gold (the national color of the Kingdom of Siam), I found this picture to be deeply moving, like it was connecting me to a cultural and historical past that I felt personally tied to despite my Filipino heritage. I’ve always wanted to learn how to capture hearts and minds through landscape photography. I consider this photograph to be the epitome of such striking landscape photography, at least to me.

Photograph © Brent Stirton

I grew up on Calvin and Hobbes. The environment, and all animal and plant life, is very, very close to my heart. So when I saw this photograph from Brent Stirton one day on my social media, I felt sick and livid. The photograph, if I remember correctly, came with a caption on the dwindling African rhino population. This photograph, and others of the same thread, are what inspire me to pursue environment pieces — because I believe the environment needs someone to speak for it.

Photograph © Tim Laman

Along the same thread as the previous picture, but on a much more hopeful note, this photo of an orangutan scaling a tall tree above the rainforests of Borneo led me toward the kind of nature photographs I want to take. I’m a strong believer in the philosophy espoused by conservationists like David Attenborough — that we should show people how beautiful the environment is, so as to give people hope and to remind them of the world we’re trying to save. That philosophy is clear in documentaries like Our Planet and Planet Earth, my favorite kinds to watch. This photograph of a humble, unassuming orangutan encapsulates the kind of nature photography I want to pursue.

Photograph © Charlie Hamilton James

This photograph reminds me of “Afghan Girl,” except there’s an element of nature thrown in as well. I saw this photograph one day in my social media feed and I remember stopping and staring at it for a little while. It’s a simple photograph, but it features a relationship I want to capture myself — peaceful harmony between man and nature. It helps, as well, that it’s a young girl in the photograph, as I want to help showcase how a childlike disposition to the environment is what we all need to adopt.

Photograph © Philippe Lopez

I saw this photograph in my timeline shortly after Hurricane Haiyan swept through the Philippines. Human resiliency in the face of natural disaster has always been among my chief interests as a development practitioner, and this photograph encapsulated the way in which the Filipino people fall back on their faith to give them strength during times of disaster. The sociology of resiliency is something I’ve always wanted to explore in my work.

Photograph © Alberto Garcia

And finally, my all-time favorite photograph, taken by Alberto Garcia as he fled from the pyroclastic flow released during the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. This photograph, to me, encapsulates the very spirit of photojournalist life — braving the absolute danger presented by the world to freeze moments of time that will ripple through the collective consciousness of society for generations to come. The sheer power of the ash wall, made larger against the smallness of the fleeing jeep, hammers home just how small we are in the face of violent nature. The power, and also the braveness, on display in this photo always manages to make my heart swell with inspiration. It’s no wonder that this photograph is listed among the 100 most influential photographs of all time.

As an aside, there’s a parallel of this photograph in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, my absolute favorite movie. I haven’t been able to confirm this yet, but I think much of that movie draws visual inspiration from real life photographs.

Environmentalist, culture conservationist, essayist. Development studies graduate. A collector of stories.