‘Everybody’s got an important story to tell’

National Geographic photographer David Guttenfelder has covered war, genocide, and other news events around the globe.

By David Guttenfelder
Photographs By David Guttenfelder
Published 22 Dec 2020, 12:06 GMT, Updated 22 Dec 2020, 17:51 GMT
While David Guttenfelder was driving through Lake Mills, Iowa, he saw someone dressed as the Easter ...
While David Guttenfelder was driving through Lake Mills, Iowa, he saw someone dressed as the Easter Bunny riding in the back of a car. He followed the car. The driver, Ona Van Heiden, was the head of a local Girl Scouts group. Since the annual Easter egg hunt had been canceled, she persuaded her son Treize to don a bunny costume and hand out Girl Scout cookies.
This story appears in the January 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine. It is part of a series in which five contributors answer the question “What was it like to be a photographer in 2020?”

When the pandemic hit, I told my editors I’d go wherever they needed me—Italy, China, New York, any of the hot spots. Their response was, essentially, Easy, tiger. It’s not going to work like that anymore. Nobody was going anywhere. So I had to figure out what to do to contribute responsibly to a story that has affected everybody in the world. I soon realized it meant working in my own backyard, which for me means the Midwest. I started driving all over, sleeping some nights in my truck. I was looking for what the virus meant to people in “flyover country,” a part of the country that is often ignored.

I had to change the way I work. How do you photograph people from a distance? How do you enter people’s intimate spaces responsibly?

Guttenfelder has been a National Geographic photographer since 2011.
Photograph by CASSANDRA GUTTENFELDER

I began using a drone. I would call out to people and say, Hey, do you mind if I use my coronavirus social-distance flying camera to take your picture? Being Midwesterners, the response was usually, Do what you got to do. The drone, which I flew relatively low to the ground, allowed me to take pictures from a distance. But it also amplified the dystopian, surreal mood that we’re all grappling with now.

(See more of 2020’s best photography, including discoveries, animals, travel, and moments we’ll never forget.)

After I took photos, I’d leave a note with my contact information on the person’s car, on the front step or in the mailbox. I’d say, contact me if you want to tell me more about what’s going on in your life, and I’ll send you a picture. I was moved by the responses I received, long emails from people who wanted to have their story told or just needed someone to talk to. I saw two people chatting in a front yard, one sitting on the steps, the other in a chair six feet away. It looked like a mundane thing, but then I received emails from them. One worked in an ICU; they’d been close friends their whole lives, and now they were both really struggling.

Everybody’s got an important story to tell. To meet people and photograph them, I decided for myself that I was an essential worker. I felt so grateful that I had photography, because I could be out in the world, I could see things for myself. I had a sense of purpose.

Then George Floyd was killed 10 minutes from my house in Minneapolis. I felt duty bound as a photojournalist and a member of this community to document the protests. In the past I’d had the privilege of travelling to other parts of the world to photograph other people’s struggles—and then the privilege of returning home. Now I think that maybe the best thing we can do is work and be a part of our own communities.

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