A Story Behind Every Photo – Thank You Mr. Kobersteen

Recently, as I waited to get a haircut, I found myself perusing a stack of magazines and I stumbled upon a Matthew McCounaghey interview – apparently he is supernova hot in Hollywood right now. And one of the many reasons, he attributed his current streak of success is that he is now in his 40’s. And as he so eloquently put it, “In your 40’s you get to tailor it.”

Meeting with Kent Kobersteen (past Director of Photography, National Geographic)

This phrase resonated with me. It reminded me of a trip I took many years ago to Washington, DC to meet with Kent Kobersteen who was, at that time, the director of photography for National Geographic (NG).

Kobersteen is simply best described as a mensch. He is affable, warm and fair. And most important of all while at his post as NG photo director, he took the time to sit down with emerging talent to offer his appraisal of their photographic skills as well as imparting the occasional bit of wisdom of life in general.

I remember arriving at the NG headquarters and being in awe of the iconic 17th & M address. From the back of my cab looking through the window, I remember being filled with excitement, hesitation and trepidation. As I stepped out of the cab and walked to the building, I felt as if every pore in my body could detect the slightest variation of temperature, the slightest change of wind direction. In other words, I felt scared and alive!

After a short wait, I got to meet Kobersteen in person. My half Panamanian-half Cuban heredity had up until that day served me well by bestowing me with the gift of gab. However on that day, I remember stuttering a simple, “Hello.”

He must have realized how nervous I was because he graciously came out from behind his desk shook my hand, put his other hand on my shoulder and guided to me sit down. He was also probably thinking, “This kid is about to pass out.”

We made the perfunctory polite exchanges, inquired about common acquaintances and alike. Soon enough, I found myself out of common things to talk about. I said a silent prayer and with trembling and sweaty palms handed him my portfolio.

Kobersteen and My Portfolio

For the most part he remained quiet. Every once in awhile he would nod at this or that image.

However, I do remember him becoming animated over this one image of commuters in a train (right)

He said something along these lines: “Now this is more like it. This image is sophisticated by its layering, it has a tridimensional quality and its a good attempt of capturing the normalcy of daily life by the use of an interesting visual perspective.”

“What?” I thought to myself. Those words went right over my head. I barely grasped what he was talking about. To me it all was barely a cohesive sequence of nouns and adjectives strung together. At the time, I attributed my confusion to English simply not being first language.

And in the classical manner of an all-knowing twenty something year old, I bypassed the core of his statement and simply focused instead on the part where he said, “Now this is more like it…”

Even though I tend to fool myself into thinking my mind is a steel trap able to capture the slightest detail of a conversation and the visuals to go along with it, when I think about that day, the only visual that comes to mind is me sporting the goofiest, broadest, silliest of smiles while thinking “YES! I’m in!”

Reality Check

However, reality settled shortly thereafter as he then handed me my portfolio back and said, “You are not ready yet, but stay in touch.” I thanked him and I as I turned around to leave while feeling crestfallen, befuddled and perplexed, he called me back and added, “The average National Geographic shooter is mid-40s.” Being in my 20’s this sounded downright blasphemous!

Now that I’m in my 40s, I finally understand Kobersteen’s statement about the average age of the magazine shooter. Two decades of experiences have granted me the quiet kind of professional wisdom only learned through first-person experiences: the kind that seeps through your consciousness, methodically, unannounced and without boastful expressions of its importance.

One good day this knowledge becomes part of who you are. And unbeknown to you, it grants you the command of word and authority only possessed by those who know their craft and have had a lifetime to learn it. And, if you are among the lucky ones, this knowledge is accompanied by clarity of sense and purpose.

Thanks for the time and advice Mr. Kobersteen 

I know now my purpose in life is that of helping others become better observers and documenters of the world around us. I am here to teach them how to shift their visual paradigm.