The story behind 9 of the photos from our Pictures of the Year

The story behind 9 of the photos from our Pictures of the Year

Photographers share behind the scene moments on some of the 2022 Pictures of the Year selections.

Published November 15, 2022

14 min read

National Geographic is known for high-quality photography in both print and digital stories. We publish a special issue each year to celebrate this. It features some of the most stunning images taken by our photographers around the world.

This year, 132 photographers visited 60 countries and submitted 2,238,899 images to document the multifaceted world we live in. Our photo editors selected 118 of their favorite photographs for the December Pictures of the Year issue. We spoke with them about the stories behind nine of these captivating images. They highlight the importance and challenges of telling stories through photography.

“Capturing and making pictures is harder and harder because we all have cameras now,” says National Geographic assistant managing editor of photography Anne Farrar. “It’s a hard job storytellers have, but that’s what Nat Geo is about–making unique, surprising, unseen pictures.”

Qaanaaq, Greenland // Kiliii Yuyan

Photographer Kiliii Yuyan is no stranger to documenting the daily lives of Indigenous peoples and the issues they face around the world. Each story is unique and surprising.

Photo editor Mallory Benedict worked with Yuyan previously, but she said that a photograph for a yet to be published story stopped her in her tracks. It shows two cousins, Berthe Simigaq (in a bundled up) pushing strollers across a snowy Greenland plain on their way to annual dog-sled races.

While the story will challenge readers to consider how to protect their ecosystems without destroying them or exploiting them, Benedict says that this image provides more insight into the daily lives and activities of Inughuit women.

” Seeing this changed my view of life in Greenland,” she said. “I hope people learn something about Greenland or its culture to dispel preconceived notions.”

Blue Cypress Lake, Florida // Mac Stone

This picture-perfect moment of a SpaceX rocket launch viewed from a quiet Florida swamp was pure serendipity, says Anne Farrar. Mac Stone, a photographer, was sitting in the swamp, which Farrar calls his happy spot, in the middle of the night taking photos of the tranquil landscape when he noticed something bright.

” We often use photography to tell stories. Farrar says that we have a thought process for looking for amazing moments and finding the right composition and lighting. “[Stone] was doing all that, and the serendipity of the rocket going off in its middle was the best part. It makes a joyful and truly unique picture.” It makes a joyful and truly unique picture.”

The one-of-a-kind image is an unlikely pairing of a wild swamp with the human wonder of a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral. Farrar stresses that it was not easy to combine these two elements, but that much effort and planning went into making the setup work.

Emas National Park, Brazil // Katie Orlinsky

This photograph of a lone tapir looks like it was captured with a camera trap, says Maura Friedman, senior photo editor. The animal, nicknamed Preciosa, was actually following Katie Orlinsky around Brazil’s Emas National Park. Friedman says that although it is rare for tapirs be so friendly, Friedman notes that animals can behave unpredictable under full moons.

” In this image, she is at eye level. Friedman says that Preciosa is at eye level because of the intimacy.

Orlinsky managed to capture this photo on a hazy morning after chasing more elusive and nocturnal animals with less luck the week before. Friedman points out that when you’re trying to capture stories that depend on animals photographing, a lot of it is simply being prepared and hoping for luck.

Canary Islands, Spain // Carsten Peter

It’s hard to capture the speed, texture, and sense of danger of lava flowing from a volcanic eruption, but that’s what photographer Carsten Peter achieved with this image.

Peter was already on La Palma in the Canary Islands in September 2021 when the volcano on the Cumbre Vieja ridge started to erupt. He documented the 85-day eruption for National Geographic, then returned to focus on the damage and on the scientific fieldwork that had been done once the slow-moving lava had cooled, says photo editor Samantha Clark.

She notes that 60 million people worldwide live in the shadows of active volcanoes, and La Palma is a particularly interesting case as an island made of lava that is in constant danger of being enveloped. The September eruption smothered plants and damaged homes, leaving behind lava and ash piles. Clark said that the images of the volcano were stunning and inspiring, even though they were still visible.

“[Peter] is excellent in taking still images that make us pause with power.”

Minneriya, Sri Lanka // Brent Stirton

Photographer Brent Stirton was tasked with capturing how wild Asian elephants are coexisting with their human neighbors–and what better way to show that than with these majestic creatures rummaging through our trash?

The image for an upcoming story shows an elephant herd mingling with cattle at a garbage dump in Minneriya, Sri Lanka, which is home to about 6,000 elephants, the second largest population after India. About 70 percent of the elephants live outside of protected areas, forcing them to live in close contact with humans.

Stirton’s photograph of a bachelor herd scavenging for discarded produce highlights what this coexistence looks like and the conflicts it can cause, says assistant managing editor of photography Alexa Keefe. She says that the image stands out due to the scale of the elephants next to the cattle.

The image was difficult to capture because Stirton had to get close to wild animals to get the frame, but also because it was difficult to work in Sri Lanka at that time. In the midst of economic decline, the government was in danger of collapse. However, Stirton provided a glimpse into the lives of these animals, which Keefe hopes will increase empathy and raise awareness.

” “I believe there’s an chance to show people a side they may not have seen before,” she said.

Merritt Island, Florida // Dan Winters

After waiting two to three hours for a thick fog to clear, photographer Dan Winters managed to capture a magical cinematic moment of the Space Launch System rocket for Artemis I, says senior photo editor Todd James.

The uncrewed test will be sending a new space capsule called Orion to orbit the moon for between six and 19 days before its return to Earth.

“There’s some chance involved there,” he says. “The judgment of an artist is a mastery in craft and [Winters] has many years of experience.” This photo shows the patience and determination required to capture the right image, despite logistical challenges and uncertainties. From obtaining permissions to obtaining security clearances, working with NASA was not easy.

James believes that this image will be a lasting legacy, representing the future for NASA and space exploration.

Timbulsloko, Indonesia // Aji Styawan

Photographer Aji Styawan was on the ground in Central Java, Indonesia, as its residents worked to save a flooding cemetery. Groundwater pumping and rising sea level mean that people’s homes flood almost every year, according to Kurt Mutchler (photo editor at large).

Global warming is causing a rise in sea levels worldwide by around an eighth of an inch a year–but in Java the land is sinking by as much as four inches. The cemetery is the last place that links the community to its past. Styawan documented over four years the lives of people who were forced to flee their homes due to flooding.

” We are changing the climate of our planet at an increasing pace,” Mutchler states. “I can only hope that in the near future instead of warring against each other, we instead get together and do something about the problem and save our planet.”

Weddell Sea // Esther Horvath

The final resting place of Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance remained a mystery for more than a century after it sank off the coast of Antarctica in 1915. This was true up until this year. Anne Farrar says Esther Horvath, a photographer, was there to capture the historic discovery and the exciting moments that preceded it.

Horvath spent roughly 40 days embedded in an expedition of world-class scientists on a mission to locate the Endurance. Farrar says that they found the ship by shining large lights through it on one of the last days. This was a significant moment in history.

“Exploration is still happening out there every day, and there is a sense of adventure in our world that is so exciting,” she says. “We think everything in our world has been seen, but it hasn’t.”

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya // Jen Guyton

The spotted hyena is one of the world’s most misunderstood creatures, sometimes maligned as cowardly in pop culture, Alexa Keefe says. Keefe and Jen Guyton are teaming up to document research in Kenya that aims to understand the animal’s behavior.

A future story will feature this infrared photo of Palazzo, a hyena who is submissive while her clan’s dominant female towers above her. The complex social relationships between female Hyenas within a clan is perfectly captured in the black-and-white photograph.

Guyton captured the photo because the hyenas were so used to being watched that even a car pulling up to the den at night did not disturb them, Keefe said. She hopes that the image of the animals, along with the cub looking out from underneath, will show a different side to hyenas.

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