Unpublished, but Not Unworthy Images

They were both captivating photos, and choosing one was a vexing task.

The first featured 16-year-old Amber Barlow and two other children from a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ranch in Nevada. They were frozen horizontally on a wooden swing, the fearsome desert mountains glaring in the background. 

The other was more simple: A young girl in a pink plaid prairie dress, also from a similar LDS church community, jumping atop a snow-covered trampoline surrounded by farmland.

Both photos told identical stories about the innocence of childhood, and when it came down to it, only one could be printed in National Geographic Magazine’s February 2010 story “The Polygamist.”

Photo selection is “a torturous process,” said Kurt Mutchler, the magazine’s executive editor for photography. “We usually have six stories in an issue, so maybe we can print a dozen pictures with each story.”

But with some National Geographic photographers shooting up to 20,000 frames on the trail for each feature, selecting the best 12 is easier said than done. 

Each year, more than 1.5 million National Geographic images never make the  pages of the monthly magazine — but unpublished doesn’t equate to unworthy. The photo of the girl on the trampoline, for instance, though never printed, radiates an eeriness that haunts viewers with the knowledge that she, like her mother and other female relatives in her community, is expected to embrace a polygamous marriage.

That picture by Stephanie Sinclair and 49 additional jettisoned images snapped during the reporting of 12 National Geographic features are on display at the publication’s museum in “Beyond the Story: National Geographic Unpublished.” 

One photo by Lynsey Addario depicts a pregnant 18-year-old Afghani and her mother, both clothed head to toe in bright blue burqas, standing alongside a deserted road in the desert. The photo never made the pages of “Veiled Rebellion.”

A young Palestinian shepherd climbs rocky terrain in Bethlehem in another photo taken in the reporting of “Parting the Waters,” a piece detailing water scarcity and well restrictions in the West Bank.

Two bears lunge for each other’s throats in another, fighting for the best fishing spot in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region.

Without having read the articles, viewers can gauge the stories through the photos. 

One picture of a topless woman with a dirtied 25-liter jerrycan standing next to a mud-colored water pool speaks to the issue of contaminated drinking water in Africa. Another picture captured during reporting for “The Polygamist” depicts a large family playing music in a sitting room — a mere fraction of one man’s family of five wives, 46 children and 239 grandchildren. 

“I think the perfect Geographic picture is not just a pretty picture; we see millions of those everyday,” Mutchler said. “What we’re looking for are pictures that are not only well-composed with beautiful lighting or moments captured in interesting ways, but they also have to inform. We’re trying to provide information about different people, places, cultures around the world. It has to have aesthetic punch and tell a story.”

Mutchler and more than 10 photo editors at the magazine winnow thousands of pictures with these thoughts in mind as they sift through photos. 

At first, they often have no idea what they’re looking for. They study every frame and painstakingly narrow the batch down. The first cut, Mutchler said, might shave the collection to 800 photos. Subsequent cuts narrow it to 300, then 50. 

Eventually, they have a group of photos that play off each other “like a symphony,” he said, each one uncovering a new angle on the selected topic.

But even those that aren’t chosen for print are often worthy of spotlight. Mutchler said their photographers are some of the best in the world. “They just have this innate ability to see and be in the right place at the right time and to interact with people and become one with the scene or invisible,” he said. “They have an uncanny knack to make your eye move around the frame.”

In that sense, even unpublished pictures can be treasures. 

Mutchler and several National Geographic photographers and photo editors will speak in detail about the selection and editing process Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at 1145 17th St. NW. Tickets are $18 for the public and $16 for members. “Beyond the Story” will be open until June 12.


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