Sarah Leen

The director of photography at National Geographic began her career at the magazine as a university intern in 1979. Sarah Leen then freelanced for more than 25 years, shooting stories in Uganda, Siberia, Mexico and the United States. She joined the magazine staff as a senior photo editor in 2004, before moving into her current role in 2013.

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Mark Thiessen

My early mentors taught me a lot of lessons about professionalism. Being a professional in this business is right up there with talent. I learned that when I was given a job, it was my responsibility to be a problem solver, not a problem maker. I needed to use all my resources to help figure out how to get the assignment done, and that become my thing—’You give this to me and don’t worry about it, I’ve got it.’

You have to be highly organised as well as being a great photographer. This is my expectation of the people who are going to work for us. I think, ‘Yes, I know your work and I think it’s beautiful but I don’t know if you could manage the type of project that we are going to invest in’. We do work with people to get them there—but this is not a school. Young people think, ‘All I have to do is go out and take great pictures,’ but people who hire want to count on you to get all those things done.

Editing is just a part of being a photographer. You really need to learn to love editing and spending a lot of time with your work—you should be looking at it, editing it and evaluating it.

Having been out in the field, when I became a photo editor, I felt like I was in the photographer’s head as I was walking around with them—I could see that they climbed up here, they sat down here. I say to them, ‘I wondered what it would have looked like when you walked around the other side’, or ‘I was really happy when you saw that thing and went over to check it out’. So you talk about how the photographer is moving their body in the scene and how they’re trying this or trying that. They’re solving—they’re looking for the picture. Out there wandering, all those pictures you take might not be the picture, but they’re on the way to the picture. There’s a trail, there’s a search.

You’re really rooting for the photographer to succeed when you’re editing. I always say to photographers, “I want you to be making me so jealous, so I think, ‘Wow I never would have shot that, I never could have taken that picture, I never could have seen it that way’.” That’s really when I’m the happiest.

There’s a lot of visual sophistication coming out of young photographers, but I’m looking for the ability to put a longer project together, so it’s not just a lot of cool single images that don’t add up to anything. They’re great and they’re fun to look at, but what if you had some parameters on what you had to shoot? If you have to stay within the bounds of a story—then can you do it? Then can you take those kind of pictures?

I’m very interested in bringing in new talent, I like a variety of styles. I don’t feel that photojournalism is the only answer to every problem. There are other styles of photography that will make the magazine look fresh and more contemporary—we’ve done all kinds of things with portraiture, with polaroid portraits, with photographers that have a shinier, more contemporary look, like Brian Finke. He has done a lot of food commodity stories for us, and I found his work on Instagram. I like mixing up the look of each story, and I think it’s important to find more relevant types of photography.