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2014 Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling, Large Newsroom winner

National Geographic’s Visual Digital Storytelling

 

About the Project

Last year marked the 125th anniversary of National Geographic, and like the world we cover, the magazine has evolved, surprising readers not only with ever innovative photography but also with a growing emphasis on sophisticated, interactive graphics and video as tools for telling stories in imaginative ways.

The October issue paid homage to 125 years of photography—our most immediate means of communicating with readers. “A great photograph can explode the totality of our world,” writes Robert Draper in his introductory essay. Draper reminds us that, through pictures, we alter perceptions and sometimes—in the very best instances—change lives. For that issue, editors chose to feature the work of six photographers driven by the conviction that photography has the power to change the world, highlighting their commitment to a particular subject.

 

In “The Price of Precious,” Marcus Bleasdale’s photos of mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo document the violence that’s fueled by the metals we need for our electronic devices. David Guttenfelder, one of the few foreign photographers covering North Korea, helps outsiders understand that closed society. In “Meltdown,” James Balog’s landscapes of shrinking glaciers provide indisputable proof of climate change. In “The Changing Face of America,” Martin Schoeller’s portraits of mixed-race individuals challenge the way appearance shapes identity. In “Visions on Earth,” Abelardo Morell celebrates the beauty of our national parks. And in “Building the Ark,” Joel Sartore offers lasting portraits of wildlife in danger of extinction.

Iconic photos from our archives were displayed in a stirring 30-second cover video on our tablet and online editions. Our veteran contributing photographers framed the power of photography in their own words in a black-and-white video. Those two-and-a-half minutes were drawn from 47 interviews conducted over a period of seven months; 13 editors curated moments from more than a hundred hours of footage. Rounding out the video suite, six individual interviews gave insight into the motivations of the photographers whose works formed the feature stories in the issue.

In connection with the anniversary issue, a state-of-the-art exhibit displayed on 30 LED monitors and several “video walls” appeared for six months at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Drawing 3,000 visitors a week, the exhibit broke attendance records. A Los Angeles Times critic wrote: How do you “present at a fairly intimate space when you have literally 125 years of material? The answer … is that you embrace digital technology. I mean, deeply hug and love it. The final edit of 501 photographs that spans the life of the magazine is a timeline that connects the viewer to each visual moment that does deeply hug and love the use of modern technology.” In an ngm.com video about the exhibit’s design, director of photography Sarah Leen noted the intersection of these new tools and the challenge of presenting the magazine’s deep archive: “There’s a whole shift happening that this exhibit starts to reflect: that images on screens can be a solution to the limits of print.”

A digital build-out for a 58-page feature in the August issue similarly brought fresh insights and an innovative approach to a classic topic. With “Serengeti Lion: Life on the Plains With the Vumbi Pride,” a series of high-definition videos gave our readers the closest experience to living with lions short of joining the photographer in his Land Rover. Michael (Nick) Nichols spent 12 months capturing the complex dynamics of remote Serengeti lion prides, using small robotic vehicles to put cameras into their midst. Video from cinematographer Nathan Williamson and still imagery from Brent Stirton are also featured. The presentation drew from 200 hours of film and included interviews with lion experts. The video segments are designed to allow readers to experience life with the pride “organically,” with just the sounds of the lions and their surroundings as they hunt, mate, play, and defend their territory. Or readers can turn on an audio commentary by Nichols and biologist Craig Packer that discusses the lions’ behavior. Segments on the difficulties locals face living alongside lions and how scientists track them round out the package. More than 440,000 users have generated nearly nine million page views since it went live in September. For the tablet and online editions, an animated map accompanying the feature pinpoints Serengeti lion prides while Craig Packer, director of a multi-decade lions research project, explains in a voice-over why the feline collectives live where they do.

An ocean and a continent away, the Chilean desert is home to a very different collective—the 66-antenna Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, subject of the April 2014 feature story “Cosmic Dawn.” The story’s accompanying graphics were built out into two complementary digital interactives that take readers swiftly and artfully from the array’s conceptual birth (An Eye on the Heavens) to the speculative end of the universe (Cosmic Questions). The complexities of both the telescope’s own mechanics and the deep universe it observes presented unique challenges to our graphics team: How to explain the interferometry that allows ALMA to peer into the cold nurseries of stars and planets? How to interactively illustrate the particulate origins of our universe? An Eye on the Heavens addresses the former question with layered graphics that expand in scope and context as the reader scrolls. Graphics editor Jason Treat says working in the digital space made it possible to present a controlled, sequential explanation of largely mathematical concepts in a way that still visually hooks the reader, as in the stunning display of Alma’s 1,291 separate baselines. Subatomic particles populate the newly expanding universe in Cosmic Questions, which takes readers through the past 13.8 billion years and beyond with elegant economy. E-publishing designer Vitomir Zarkovic and the graphics department met the technological challenges of layering animation, video, and text in a responsive design. The resulting interactive takes advantage of the nonlinear visual storytelling made possible in the digital realm, allowing readers to control their own journey through space and time.