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Unexpected Discoveries

This assignment ran from Sep 22 to Oct 13, 2014.

Hello, photographers. Welcome to the next assignment, Unexpected Discoveries. Let me first tell you why I work as a photographer—then you can show me why you do.

My biggest joy in this job is being a firsthand witness to the people and places I discover along the way. If you can find on Google what I’m experiencing in these remote cultures, then I’m not doing my job. I’m lucky that National Geographic magazine has sent me to such remote areas on assignment, but it’s not what I expect to find there that interests me and keeps me going—it’s what I don’t expect to find.

For example, while photographing Pygmies in the Ituri rain forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I discovered the sheer joy of a people who live deep in the forest and with almost no possessions. When one Pygmy starts laughing, it is with such intensity that it takes two others to hold him up. It was a shock to then return to my home environment. I started counting our possessions: How many fireplaces? How many sinks? How many LCD monitors? I also thought more about how much time I spend maintaining my stuff. In this way, discovering their joy guided me toward making photographs of Pygmies that showed both their happiness as forest-dwellers and nervousness as modern society forced its way into their area.

While working in Loja, Ecuador, I photographed a small community of people with dwarfism who may hold the cure to cancer. Members of this group lack a growth hormone that allows cancer to grow in those who have it. There I met an attractive little person reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. My unexpected discovery? She smoked packs of cigarettes a day without fear because she knew she would never get cancer.

What situations have you gone into with expectations that got turned around? What shots did you capture of your unexpected discoveries?

Curated by:

Randy Olson
National Geographic Photographer
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Published Oct 20, 2014.
Thank you for your contributions!

Making Intimate Photographs

Posted oct 12, 2014

As this assignment winds down, I have to say I’m a bit surprised at how few unexpected moments there are between humans. There are many photographs I like, but most of them concern subjects other than people. There are wonderful close-ups, interactions between animals, pleasing landscapes, people as objects within nice frames, travel photographs taken on the go, and even some excellent underwater photographs. But there are very few photographs that I can look into and see what the people are thinking and feeling inside an unexpected situation.

So, I hope this helps. My partner Melissa and I have been teaching the Missouri Photo Workshop for the last 20 years and that workshop is built around helping photographers make intimate photographs between humans. Here are ten rules/observations that have come out over the years.

1. Even though it is easier to ask someone to perform an action that you just saw them do, nothing ever happens the same way twice. Just be faster next time. Nothing you can dream up for them is as interesting as what they will do in front of you if left alone.

2. When you spend time in someone’s life you can’t be present if you are planning the next photograph you want them in. Sit quietly, listen, and slow down.

3. As strange as this sounds, photographers have to defy social norms. After a person or group of people have accepted you into their lives you have to be clear that you are not “the guest.” You need to stay when the social norms would dictate that you have to leave.

4. Your subject does not know what a photographer does. You have to show them what that is WITH confidence.

5. At the same time, your intuition has to constantly monitor if you’ve gone too far and when it’s time to back off and give your subject space.

6. Every human interaction is a chemical equation. Choose your subject carefully. Is this someone you will be comfortable with for a week, a month, a year? I’m surprised at how few photographs of the humans closest to you are included in this assignment. There are very few families, wives, husbands, etc.

7. Sometimes the chemical equation is just not right. It’s surprising how rarely it actually is and it’s as important to know when to leave a story as it is to know when to stay.

8. It’s THEIR story, THEIR photograph. You are the interpreter. It’s not about your preconceptions. Let it flow from them instead of orchestrating it yourself.

9. If it isn’t your family or people who know you well, establish a level of confidence by being as honest about yourself as you expect them to be with you.

10. Once trust is established, quit engaging so much. My greatest skill as a photographer is the ability to bore people to death so they go about the daily business of their lives.

This is not only applicable to this assignment, but any time your photographing people. Good luck as you approach the last day of the assignment! I’ve posted three more photographs from my archive of unexpected moments between humans (and animals). 

Get Yourself Into Highly Visual Situations

Posted oct 7, 2014

I just posted another photo that was an unexpected situation. I was going into a mall in Guangzhou, China for lunch and there were live alligators loose on the floor of a food court frequented by newly wealthy Chinese. The alligators would eventually be lunch, but at the moment they were crazed, unmanaged advertising for one of the restaurants. Their jaws were restrained, but they were free to roam and thrash and hiss. I was taking photos of this when a guy on his cell phone (who was not paying attention) walked into my frame and tripped on one of the alligators. He shot six feet into the air. I’ve seen some unexpected scenes in the assignment, but not as many as I hoped that were photos of just turning a corner, minding your own business and then something you could never expect unfolds in front of your eyes and your camera.

And of course, the assignment is more open than that. I’ve already mentioned that many of you are going super close to show a world we don’t normally see but some of you are talking about taking photos of what you did not expect in terms that apply only to you - like you expected it to be cold and it was warm or you expected a flower to look like a Peony, but it looked like a Chrysanthemum. I’m sure that was your personal truth, but it doesn’t translate to a larger audience. If you show your photo to your friends and they say “I wouldn’t have expected THAT to happen that way”, then you are on the right track.

This member said it exactly:
“This is a very challenging assignment. Even among the Editor's Favorites, there are only 10 shots that I would consider 'Unexpected Discovery'. That means when I look at the picture, I will say,"I never knew that could happen!”

The best way I can address being open to serendipity, to surprises, is to just take in the world as it is. Don’t layer your preconceptions on top of it. People will always do way more interesting stuff than anything you tell them to do.

If you are looking for something in particular you may or may not find it. I’ve been teaching in some form for the last 20 years, and I’ve seen many photographers just look for what they’ve already pre-visualized. Being open to the world and letting it present itself to you is a difficult place for many photographers. The flip side of that is you can be open to serendipity all you want and if you are in a boring place where nothing much will happen, then your chances of making great photographs are way less. The other part of serendipity is getting yourself into great situations where you know there will be photographs, but then be open to whatever happens there. My scariest moments are when I’ve worked for months to get to some remote place where I know something is happening and then THERE IT IS happening in front of me and I have to rally to be a good photographer. There’s a lot of work involved in being in the right place and then allowing serendipity to happen.

I tell young photographers to get themselves into chaotic situations where lots of things are happening (a busy street corner in Tokyo for example) so they have a greater chance to practice shooting. I equate it to learning to fly fish in the most remote areas of Siberia. I had never fly fished before, but the streams were BOILING with fish, so I had plenty of opportunities to set a dry fly. I ended up feeding the entire camp that night. It’s the same thing with photography. Get yourself into highly visual situations at first to practice the art of geometry, layers, moment, color palette and visual language. Take on the more subtle parts of the world after you’ve practiced a bit.


Posted oct 2, 2014

I’ve looked through thousands of your photos and what I’m finding are unexpected moments in many of your backyards; lenticular clouds that mimic the local architecture, women floating in clouds that are actually waves, worlds in a bubble of water, remote cultures dressed traditionally (which is a bit of a surprise these days), fish floating on sand, and an aerial of a congested city that looks like one simple organic creature. These photos juxtapose different elements already in the scene to create an image full of rarity and surprise. It’s up to the photographer to “see” these pictures. Take a moment to look at what is around you and what kind of juxtapositions you can find. Often it’s about being ready to photograph anything that comes your way.

Many of the unexpected discoveries I’m drawn to are when you observe the natural world with a close-up lens. When I was working in Suriname I was with a great scientist and photographer doing close-ups using a 14mm lens and an extension tube. The great depth of field and wide lens put his insect subjects in a wonderful “forest primeval” surreal landscape.

I hope that you also start thinking about what it’s like to turn a corner in a world that is outside your backyard and see something that you could not imagine. Traveling has allowed me to see things I never thought possible. I’ve just posted a photo from Ireland of artificial insemination that I had no idea could happen that way. A farmer gets into a go-cart that looks like a cow and the bulls climb on as another farmer moves the go-cart back and forth. All the farmers standing around as I’m photographing, seem overly interested as well. Sometimes you can’t plan your next great photo, but it’s up to you to get out and find it. Be curious and be ready. 

Assignment Guidelines

Posted sep 22, 2014

You have three uploads for this assignment, so use them wisely (remember if you delete one, it still counts as one of your uploads). As always, I encourage you to challenge yourself and take new photos, however there is not a time restriction for this assignment. And as other editors before have said, a caption can be invaluable when editing, so please include a description with your photo. Come back to this page to see your fellow member's photos and to also see my Editor's Updates as the assignment progresses. Good luck! 

Randy Olson

Randy Olson

National Geographic Photographer
Randy’s 30+ National Geographic projects have taken him to almost every continent. National Geographic Society published a book of his work in 2011 in their Masters of Photography series. Olson was the Magazine Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International (POYi) competition, and was also awarded POYi’s Newspaper Photographer of the Year—one of only two photographers to win in both media.