July 15, 2020

WAVe Presents: #WomenWhoInspire

A Conversation with National Geographic Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg

3 min

It's long been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Indeed, some images are so powerful that they can convey everything we need to know about a person, place, or moment in time without requiring a single word of explanation.

This was one of the central themes explored in a recent WAVe event featuring Venable partner Celeste Brecht in conversation with Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic. Susan stepped into the role seven years ago after an accomplished career in print journalism – becoming the first woman to hold the top editing job in the magazine's 132-year history. To illustrate the power of visual storytelling, Susan shared an image of herself alongside the nine male editors who came before, a photo she keeps in her own office. "You do not need to read one word," said Susan. "You already know the back story." At one glance the picture reveals just "how long it can take for women to break through and succeed."

To reinforce the importance of imagery in revealing and shaping the world around us, Susan also shared a selection of pictures from her recent book, Women: The National Geographic Image Collection, which looks at representations of women around the globe over a century. Among the images she shared was a photo of a Zulu bride taken in 1896 (the first image of a woman to appear in the magazine); the famous "Afghan girl"; Jane Goodall working with chimpanzees in Africa; Peggy Whitson, the astronaut who set the record for the most time in space; social commentator, writer and professor Roxane Gay; and the controversial cover featuring Avery Jackson, a nine-year-old transgender girl from Missouri.

Susan also shared images of lesser-known or unknown women in various guises, which revealed just how much the narrative arc surrounding women's lives has changed through the decades. Until the 1960s, women were typically presented either in very traditional roles or as props used to display either themselves or some product. However, from the 1960s on, photographs of women became more nuanced, as they were featured doing actual jobs and displaying real emotions. Susan noted that a key factor in bringing about this more evolved depiction was getting more women, and more diversity generally, behind the camera. In 1966, 93% of the stories in the magazine were produced by white men. In 2015, one year after Susan took over as editor, that figure was still at 76%. But today, through her creation of programs to train women and minorities in highly skilled camera work, the figure is inching closer to a 50/50 split, with much greater diversity among the ranks of National Geographic photographers.

Over the course of the conversation, Susan also shared some of the most important lessons she learned in her 40-year career. Her advice for any woman, person of color, or anyone trying to break into a competitive field is to simply show up: "Fill a vacuum, don't be on the sidelines, raise your hand, volunteer, get involved, and speak up." It's important to be bold enough to put your thoughts forward and to keep doing so, even in the face of rejection. Tellingly, when Susan needs inspiration, she looks to one of her favorite photographs, featuring Gabrielle Green, a fiercely determined young female marine, walking up a steep ramp with a 200-pound man slung over her shoulder.

"The quality of resiliency has helped me enormously in my career, she said. "Like everybody else I have good days and bad days, but that bad day never is going to lead to a second bad day in a row."

To view the full webinar, please click here. To learn more about our events and programming, please visit the WAVe webpage.