On the road with National Geographic:
Faculty fellowship provides unique insight

Photos and text by John Freeman
Associate Professor of Journalism
The University of Florida

The hotel phone rings at 4:52 a.m., and Joel Sartore says he's ready to go. "You up, John? Meet me in the lobby." I head downstairs and stare out into the darkness of Lincoln, Neb.

At 5:02 a.m., a white 1989 Chevy pick-up arrives and I stumble out to greet Sartore, who's guzzling a cold can of Coke. Driving his dad's former fishing truck, Sartore is shooting a feature spread on Nebraska for National Geographic. I'm going to be his assistant for two days.

During the previous seven weeks, as the recipient of the photographic division's summer faculty fellowship, I walked the halls and poked my head into offices at the magazine's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Now I'm out in the field to further observe how one of the world's top magazines gathers its photographs. The fellowship is a far cry from my regular job overseeing the photojournalism sequence at the University of Florida.

It's cold and rainy and still dark as we drive toward Seward, Neb., where a crew of middle schoolers is detassling corn. Wearing maroon ponchos, they wade through the mud, breaking off the seed part of the corn to keep the hybrids pure. By dawn's gray, even light, Sartore shoots through the rain-drenched stalks of corn. The students' work is monotonous and tiring and messy, and Sartore emerges sweaty and disheveled on the far side of the field. Cracking a wry smile, he tells me: "I'm going back in." I had already reviewed some of Sartore's Nebraska project earlier in the summer. Batches of film are routinely shipped to Washington for processing. I knew that Sartore would see things in that wet cornfield that I wouldn't. I knew his viewpoint would include a touch of quirkiness. But the one thing I didn't know was that we'd seldom stop, except for three meals a day at McDonald's (always eaten in the truck).

Geographic photographers are known to shoot early and late in the day, and sleep during the afternoon, but our hectic pace continues from sunup until past sundown. Sartore uses afternoons for travel and phone calls. He figures 40 percent of his time is spent researching what's meaningful to shoot. Maps and yellow notepads with names and numbers clutter the inside of his truck.

Unlike most freelance magazine photographers, Geographic shooters construct the story line as they see it from the field. They receive some guidance from editors, but are expected to have a thorough sense of an area's history, economics and social structure. Typical assignments in the past used to stretch to six months, but now many are limited to six weeks. Since Sartore lives in Nebraska, this project was being shot off and on over a year and half. "It's still one of my favorite stories," Sartore says in retrospect. "It was really nice to sleep in my own bed for a change. They never had to buy me plane ticket."

The corn detasslers finish their job by early afternoon and Sartore wants to ride back in the school bus with the tired group. I follow along through a rainstorm in the white pick-up, wondering what adventure is next.

We head for Western, a tiny town with a four-way stop in the heart of downtown. Sartore wants to check out a scenic life-size 1909 mural, hoping to photograph pedestrians who will seem to blend into the painting. A Founder's Day parade brings lawn chairs out to the curbs of Main Street, and I lose sight of Sartore. Minutes later he comes riding by on the back of a homemade float, photographing a man wearing a Richard Nixon mask.

Sartore shoots the carnival rides and bingo games throughout the golden light of twilight, then we drive on to Grand Island. The Holiday Inn seems to be hosting a high school cheerleading clinic that has spilled into the hallway outside our rooms. It's 10:20 p.m.

Sartore has located a second group of detasslers using a type of people mover in the fields, so Day 2 begins near Chapman (pop. 272) at 6 a.m. The ground is muddy here too, but the light is bright and strong and the sky is a brilliant blue. "Hi. I' m Joel from National Geographic and we're doing a story on Nebraska," Sartore tells every group before he starts shooting. The students mug the camera for a few minutes then forget him. Having moved to Nebraska at age 2, Sartore considers himself a native. His parents and in-laws live nearby.

By 3 p.m. that Sunday, we're far away from the detasslers. We arrive in Bloomington for a demolition derby. It's hot and still, and the bleachers around a large embankment are full of spectators waiting to see which car can smash and be smashed and still run at the end. One of the top prizes is a rifle. The noisy spectacle reeks of gasoline fumes and burned oil. The championship round is over by 5 p.m., but Sartore wants more. We head for a bigger derby in Fairbury. The grandstand there shades the field and it gets darker as Sartore shoots until almost 9 p.m. Finally, we head back to his hometown of Lincoln. I drive part of the way while he scribbles down caption information and labels 45 rolls of film for shipment.

Sartore is modest about his work that often results in prize-winning photographs or book covers such as the recent One Digital Day. Referring to the demolition derbies, he says, "Anyone with an 80-200 standing where I was could've shot the same pictures." He credits both his University of Nebraska photo professor, George Tuck, and his first boss, Steve Harper of The Wichita Eagle, for suggesting he work on projects instead of just hunting for single features.

On my final morning in Nebraska I invite myself out to see Sartore's latest personal project: a two-story Victorian farmhouse sitting on 20 acres of land eight miles outside Lincoln. He and wife Kathy have plans to restore it to a home with more than 3,000 square feet and modern upgrades like heating, cooling and indoor plumbing. But with a second child now and Sartore gone so often on assignment, they've decided it's best to move back into town during fall 1998.

My weekend as an assistant was a bonus, not a guaranteed part of the fellowship. It did provide valuable insight into the pressure of shooting for National Geographic, and reinforced my respect for the long hours and dedication it takes to succeed.

(Copyright 1998, by John Freeman)
Originally published by the National Press Photographers Association and
News Photographer magazine, October 1998. To see Joel Sartore's finished article on Nebraska, see the November 1998 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Special thanks to Tom Kennedy and Kent Kobertsteen for the fellowship award and their hospitality during the summer of 1996.