My Path to National Geographic - A Reflection on Expeditions and Photo Contests

If you had to learn photography in the shortest amount of time, with intent of receiving the best experience and education, what would you do?

In the summer of 2008, I was working full-time as an engineer in Almaty, Kazakhstan. And for the previous three years in that region, I hadn’t made many photographs. Rumors eventually surfaced within my workplace that our contract might end, and I’d be heading back home to America. Suddenly, I felt an urgency to document my surroundings; I wanted to give my family and friends a front-row seat to what my life was like.

Since I had no photography contacts overseas, I consulted Google on how to develop photographic skills. One day at work, I entered “learn travel photography best” and reviewed the responses. The first result went something like this, “National Geographic Expeditions offers you an opportunity to learn travel photography from the best photographers in the world.” Within the next hour, I had booked an 18-day trip throughout India. My teachers and experts would be acclaimed photographers Steve Winter, Sharon Guynup and Nevada Wier.

On Day 1 of the journey, the terms ISO and aperture were as foreign to me as the Hindu language. But after my instructors spent countless hours detailing how to use the camera, work a scene, see the light and study a great image, intuition eventually took over, and the technical aspects fell into place.

Throughout the India Expedition, I was a sponge. Every waking moment, I photographed surroundings, asked questions or reviewed imagery.

On day 5 of the journey, I recall a lesson from Steve at breakfast, “If all people are looking at a scene in the same manner, then try to look at it from a different perspective.” A short time later, while approaching an early-morning street scene near Jaisalmer Fort, I saw about 50 people standing in a circle. Most equipped with cameras, those spectators were watching a young girl perform a balancing act. Steve’s teaching echoed in my ear. I crawled between people’s legs, pointed to the center of the circle, got approval from the tightrope walker and lay on ground. As the girl inched overhead, I made this image.

Months later (now early 2009), Sharon sent me an email with a link to a National Geographic Expeditions Photo Contest and encouraged me to enter. I submitted the above picture and was awarded the Grand Prize – a trip for 2 to Alaska with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. Thus began my allure with photo contests, but more importantly, a developing relationship with National Geographic.

After the India journey, I was hooked on photography. While sitting at my engineering desk, I would daydream about the next vacation and where I could photograph. During meetings, I would drift off as I stared at a wall map in our conference room. I bought countless travel books.

Before the Alaska Expedition happened, I booked another trip with Nat Geo – this time to Bhutan (summer of 2009). While wandering through a rural village, I made this image.

Shortly thereafter, I entered it into the subsequent Nat Geo Expeditions Photo Contest and won Honorable Mention.

In the summer of 2010, I finally embarked on my Alaska journey and made the following photograph.

Again, several months later I entered it into a new Nat Geo Expeditions Photo Contest and won another Honorable Mention.

Next step — combine the two Honorable Mentions and book a Nat Geo Expedition to Cuba.

In Cuba (January 2012), I made this image.

After coming home and editing my work, I said to myself, “It worked before, maybe it’ll work again.” I entered the image into the next Nat Geo Expeditions Photo Contest and won the Grand Prize – a trip for 2 to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

In March 2012, about 3-1/2 years since India, I resigned from my engineering job to be a full-time photographer.

One year later, I embarked on the Galapagos Expedition and made a collection of images. Upon returning home, I learned that National Geographic no longer offered the photo contest. I thought to myself – Bummer! Well, it certainly was a good run.

People often ask me, “How did you get to be part of National Geographic?” Well, this was just a portion of my path. But every photographer has a different route. And no matter what the route, always remind yourself to enjoy the journey. Go where you desire. Photograph what you love. Practice. Share your work. Embrace critique. Remain in contact. Practice more. Dare to dream. Then go after it. Now, make your own path.