Randy Olson (b.1957, USA) worked as a newspaper photographer at The Pittsburgh Press and received an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship in 1995 to support a seven-year project documenting a family with AIDS, and a first place Robert F. Kennedy Award for his story on problems with Section 8 housing in 1991. He was awarded the Nikon Sabbatical grant and a grant from the National Archives to save the Pictures of the Year collection. In addition to the National Geographic Society his work has been published in LIFE, GEO, Smithsonian and other magazines. Randy’s 30+ National Geographic projects have taken him to almost every continent. The National Geographic Society published a book of his work in 2011 in their Masters of Photography series. He was the Magazine Photographer of the Year in the 2003 Pictures of the Year International competition, and was also awarded POYi’s Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1991. In 2011, Randy founded The Photo Society.
Randy Olson on Creating The Tray for National Geographic:
“The question I get most often is: ‘How do I become a National Geographic Photographer?’ The answer to that is multi-dimensional, but I think my best answer is that you have to understand the concept of THE TRAY—a process unique to National Geographic Magazine.
We used to shoot 500 to 800 rolls of film on an assignment. Think about a dedicated photographer getting up before dawn, working through the day, and then repeat that day for two months or so to have as the final result 60 pieces of cellulose in cardboard frames in a circular piece of plastic. These photographers would then carry this Kodak-inspired invention through the hallways with such reverence because it represented so much commitment on their part. I remember when a photographer had a tray stolen out of his car which represented many years of work. These slides were original works and there was no way to replace them. You couldn’t just download them again from your Flickr account.
The best way I can describe the concept of the tray is that you are doing the storyboard for a small movie, but you never move on to do the actual movie. The storyboard is a slideshow that describes in great visuals as well as organized, conceptual detail, the place, culture, or critter you are doing a story about. There is a lot of work that allows this to happen. If you are in the field for one, two, or three months you have to keep track of all of the storyboards, either in your head, in notes, (or some kept Polaroids), and now we keep track of our storyboard as key digital frames organized on the computer. Each storyboard represents a basic concept of the place or people you are trying to document. Each storyboard represents a fact as you have come to know it and those facts are strung in inverted pyramid style in visual language.
As you are working you have to keep in mind the gaps in your storyboard. When someone from this place or culture looks at your story, will they see it as hitting all the right notes? When you go into a projection room and the lights go down and the slides go up, the sound bites should move you seamlessly from one visual idea to the next accompanying visual idea. The sad part of this story is that for all these years that these trays have been produced, the public only gets to see the subset—the lesser number of published photographs in the magazine—the storyboard without the connective tissue. This is changing with the web now and will change more as our electronic canvas gets bigger and bigger.