• PROOF:
  • May 14, 2015

Ninety Days in Ninety Seconds—A Photographer’s Journey in the Blink of an Eye

David Guttenfelder is a National Geographic photographer who is used to spending countless days on the road. While most people think of it as a dream job, the reality can be a lot more complex. So to share what it actually feels like to be on assignment, he made a video with a unique approach.

The whimsical 90-second video (at the top of this page) captures both the excitement, and the doldrums, of his three-year assignment exploring the impact of dams along the Mekong—showing one second of video per day. Conceived by Guttenfelder and his editors Pamela Chen and Sarah Leen before he embarked, it’s full of tiny visual trinkets that individually might not mean much, but together tell a whole story.

Picture of a colored bag of water in Cambodia
A bag of brightly colored water, which locals say is used to scare away insects, hangs in a restaurant along Cambodia’s Tonle Ch’mah Lake.

“It was a long journey, and I was trying to find a way to make people feel what it’s like to do [an assignment] and invest so much time,” said Guttenfelder.

“I tried to shoot video of things we ate, and people we met, and getting stuck in the mud, and swarms of bugs dive-bombing your lunch, and all the mundane and difficult parts of being in the field.”

Picture of a boat in Laos during a rain storm.
The Laos National Coordinator of Fish Bio, Sinsamout “Nyae” Ounboundisane, protects himself and his team’s gear with plastic sheeting on a Mekong River boat during a rainstorm.

While he initially thought he’d shoot the video on his iPhone, a few tests made him realize his regular camera was a better choice. He could shoot images for the magazine, then switch to video mode and capture the same scene in motion. For Guttenfelder, one of the hardest parts was just remembering to shoot something every day. For his video editor, Pamela Chen, it was a different challenge.

Picture of a Laotian fisherman
A fisherman in Laos leaves wet footprints on a long pole, used to connect giant fishing weirs over dangerously fast Mekong River rapids.
Picture of fisherman in Vietnam
Fishermen and fish farmers unload their catch at a market in Long Xuyen city, in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, near the Cambodian border.

“After every trip, David would send in a hard drive containing the bounty: one to thirty individual video clips per day, every day while on assignment,” she said.

“We realized that one-second-long video clips are a lot like still photographs: a glimpse of a deeper story, contained in one quick moment. A card game played in the summer heat, a local stranger making the universal gesture for ‘please eat,’ balancing on a narrow log above the raging rapids. A piglet sniffing, a translator singing in the rain, endless airports. Adding one new day’s clip to the sequence meant revisiting all the other clips from the days before it, to better reveal what an endurance race it is to be in the field for National Geographic magazine.”

Picture of women at a restaurant in Bangkok.
Two South Korean tourists have a drink on the “Vertigo” rooftop bar and restaurant at the Banyan Tree Hotel in Bangkok.

And the ups and downs of that endurance race is exactly what Guttenfelder wanted to show. Not just the moments of beauty, but also the moments of boredom. Saying good-bye to his daughters. Coming home. Saying good-bye again.

“I tried to shoot the same scenes that would ultimately end up as still photos in the magazine, and then all of those weird photos along the edges,” he said.

“But I like the [moments] that don’t have much to do with the story, but with how it feels to be out there in the world.”

A man crosses the Mekong in China with a cable.
A man crosses the Mekong River in China using a cable (where there was once a bridge spanning the river) near the newly constructed village of Tangjian, built to relocate villagers displaced by the rising waters that inundated nearby villages during the construction of the Gongguoqiao Dam.

The final result is a (mostly) chronological, fast-paced, fascinating look at a very long and complicated journey. And it’s almost impossible to watch just once. Each viewing reveals a different overlooked moment—a gem of joy. And it’s not just a voyeuristic exercise for anonymous viewers—Guttenfelder says he loves watching it too.

“I look at the video and think: ‘That was so great. Why was I so miserable out there?’ When you are doing the story, you are so freaked out that you are going to blow it, you forget how wonderful it is.”

Fishermen place nets in Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.
Fishermen place nets in Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.

“This was an issue that I really cared about and took deadly seriously for the magazine, but the video will always remind me of the adventures and experience I had,” he continued. “It was so magical, and it was so great to be able to report on the story, and my own life.”

“Everyone always says: ‘It’s my dream to be a National Geographic photographer.’ And it’s my dream too. It still is.”

Picture of David Guttenfelder
David Guttenfelder takes a self-portrait while on assignment on the Mekong.

*****

David Guttenfelder’s photos exploring the impact of dams along the Mekong are in the May issue of National Geographic.

Guttenfelder is a National Geographic Society Fellow who has spent all of his career as a photojournalist working and living outside of his native USA. He recently moved back to the States, and is working on a story about Yellowstone National Park for National Geographic. Check out his website and his ever-popular Instagram feed.

There are 71 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Danial
    October 21, 2015

    Its nice to see the story behind the pictures. The little things, all so true

  2. grace
    May 23, 2015

    Wow Super

  3. Jeff Bomer
    May 23, 2015

    I think 3 seconds per video would be better.

  4. clement
    May 22, 2015

    Mekong, so rich !
    No wonder it is a land of the earliest civilization

  5. naveed ahmed
    May 22, 2015

    waaawwwww , its marvellous

  6. Fintan Dooley
    May 21, 2015

    You privilege us to see moments of Mekong life .

  7. Arthur Walter
    May 19, 2015

    A worthwhile photo-shoot exploring our World and recording places and people most of us will never see in person – gives dreamers fresh visions for understanding.

  8. Rolando Cabrera
    May 19, 2015

    Unbelievable! I had two strong emotions! Wonder at your wonderfully great accomplishment; and a great and deep envy at not being able to emulate your deeds; thanks for allowing us mere mortals to have a glimpse at greatness.

  9. Sasa
    May 19, 2015

    Woooooowwwwww!!!!!!

  10. Sajal Kanti Barua
    May 19, 2015

    I’m so lucky. I’m in my home, but when I see your picture, then I’m in Mekong. It’s a wonderful work. Thank you.

  11. Mardi
    May 18, 2015

    What a life you lead… hard as it may be, it is one only few of us an attain.
    your daughters will be so proud of the accomplishments for humanity that THEIR Father made.

  12. Bruce Blondin
    May 18, 2015

    I’ve been a pro-photog. for over 50yrs.
    and have done S.E.A. Your images are GREAT! Live the dream.

  13. Debbie Britnell
    May 18, 2015

    Thank you for a different prospective. “I got it!” Life as a photographer isn’t all glamor…it’s a daily challenge. I saw life behind the camera in a different way. You did an awesome job of sending the message…through your eyes to ours. Thank you…well done!

  14. H. L. Thibault
    May 18, 2015

    Merci beaucoup, David Guttenfelder, for sharing “Ninety Days in Ninety Seconds”:: an instantaneous amazingness -I’ve seen it 3x♬

  15. Opio Ronald
    May 18, 2015

    Amazing pictures!!! Especially that of the Man crossing Mekong river using cable

  16. efrain gonzalez navarro
    May 18, 2015

    Great job, awesome photos, great world.

  17. JANET
    May 18, 2015

    BEAUTIFUL/AMAZING

  18. Brooks de Wetter-smith
    May 18, 2015

    This is so rich in human warmth, cultural respect, wonder and sensitivity. The grit and challenges faced by others, just to “keep going” and survive are inspirational. The still images displayed are also so compelling. It is hard to take my eyes from them and read on toward the next.

  19. Margarette Ellen Chalk
    May 18, 2015

    Fantastic! Thanks to people like David we can enjoy everything in the National Geographic.

  20. sajida farnam
    May 18, 2015

    i m an environmentalist i enjoy it

  21. sasikumar
    May 18, 2015

    wow..what a beautiful video compilation. Very nice

  22. S Manoharan
    May 18, 2015

    Dear David, It’s a wonderful video all put in a nutshell for the viewers. Thank you

  23. TAhmad Yahaya
    May 18, 2015

    I am in retirement now and had the time to enjoy the show!

  24. Aaron Kapp
    May 17, 2015

    WOW ! I’ve spent quality time with and on this awesome river many times. David you nailed it… in 90 seconds! I’ll be back there in a few months. Thanks for re-whetting my love of this region until then.

  25. Richard Stampfle
    May 17, 2015

    Terrible. This MTV approach does not capture the calmness one feels along the Mekhong River.

  26. Nancy Martin
    May 17, 2015

    I loved this! It reminded me of all of my adventures in the world when I didn’t take pictures or was hot and dirty or worried or just enjoying the kids and the adventure. You’re a lucky man. Seize the moment and share it with your family.

  27. Geneva
    May 17, 2015

    Awe inspiring! Thank you, and your family, for the sacrifices you all make so that we may share in the land and life of others. Also, gratitude to the people in your travels that allow us into their daily life. My family and I hope to see more from you and NG.

  28. Ricardo Anderson
    May 17, 2015

    Wwwwwwww amazing, really great job.

  29. joan Teresa Lyons
    May 17, 2015

    Nice job! A thoroughly great effort.

  30. Robert Carter
    May 17, 2015

    I live in Costa Rica – would love to work with Nat. Geo. – any opportunities?

  31. Pierre Malette
    May 17, 2015

    It’s soo beautyfull. To have people like you to show us does pitchers T.Y.

  32. Milagros
    May 17, 2015

    Demasiado bello el video, logró transportame por 90 segundos a esos lugares que no conozco. Felicidades a David, extraordinario trabajo!

  33. Seema Bakhshi
    May 17, 2015

    There’s a wonderful timelessness in the photos – David was able to capture the essence of this part of the world. The video is fun!

  34. Joan Churton
    May 17, 2015

    You do amazing work, David, I am in awe of you. Thank you

  35. Julie Hall
    May 17, 2015

    Thanks for your dedication and observations of the world. Many people walk through without really seeing the slices of life you have captured. What a story. Thanks.

  36. MK Kureshi
    May 17, 2015

    Excellent Davud
    Your hard work and that relentless sacrifice helped us see the diversity
    Thank you
    MK

  37. JORGENELSON
    May 17, 2015

    PRETTY AND HARD PHOTOS…MY CONGRATULATIONS FROM COLOMBIA

  38. james
    May 17, 2015

    beautiful insightful self portrait keep up the good work David

  39. Ameet singh
    May 17, 2015

    As an explorer and adventurer who’s traversed and climbed 6 continents – your a lucky sod and keep at it while you have it in you to bring the rest of the world to those who don’t have it in them – you know

  40. Dr. Carlos Him González
    May 17, 2015

    Very evident the amount of sediments on the river, The watershed must have big water erosion problems.

  41. Laura Bergang
    May 17, 2015

    I suppose I could be called greedy–but as I was watching I kept thinking–couldn’t you redo this and give us at least TWO seconds of each day, or even three?!! Please turn this into a N.G. documentary! Thanks.

  42. Dr Annie Schlebaum
    May 17, 2015

    Love your reverence, joy and absorption in what you’re doing,David.One of the most worthwhile jobs in the world,showing all of us the miracles and majesty of this amazing world.We must love,cherish and care fore this precious world.I travelled around China in 1977 wearing my yellow T-shirt:”FRIENDS of the EARTH”.When our guide translated this,people smiled and clapped-they too understood.Bravo!
    x Dr Annie Schlebaum,Sinney,Oz.

  43. thomas sebastian
    May 17, 2015

    so beautiful

  44. steve campbell
    May 17, 2015

    Thank you …the 90 sec review is a great idea which i plan to copy on a trip to yosemite in the future.

  45. Paul Grossman
    May 17, 2015

    It’s people like David that help to make NG the outstanding source of life that it is. Thanks.

  46. Phil Block
    May 17, 2015

    Obviously great photography comes with great vision, patience and sacrifice.

  47. Sylvester M. Shelton
    May 17, 2015

    Outstanding fotos. Captures the human scene with intense empathy.

  48. John Lowell Walker
    May 17, 2015

    Wow, cool

  49. Mona
    May 17, 2015

    Thank you.

  50. Rebecca
    May 17, 2015

    Vital information about the rest of the world that we don’t get from regular news or TV. Thank you.

  51. Ramhari Kc
    May 17, 2015

    Beautiful idea

  52. Sudipta BandopadhyS
    May 17, 2015

    It’s not only balanced, it’s really a well observing shot to hold this perfect momentum. Learning style also.

  53. Joan Podel
    May 17, 2015

    ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC STORIES AND IMAGES!!!!!!! I CONTINUE TO BE EDUCATED BY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  54. Desiree Hirdman
    May 17, 2015

    Amazing eye for beauty! I am inspired to leave my iPhone for a ‘real’ camera! Thank you N.G. and Mr. Guttenfelder for the Sunday Stills <3

  55. Rajesh Choudree
    May 17, 2015

    Splendid testament to photographic creativity and spirit!

  56. Susan Briody
    May 17, 2015

    Each one-second snippet are pearls on a heirloom strand; the ones of his daughters moved me to tears.

  57. reed
    May 17, 2015

    The quick vids give an impression, but pass by to quickly to tell a coherent story I feel.

  58. Mete
    May 17, 2015

    All of them wonderfull. Good video and shots

  59. David Gilliland
    May 17, 2015

    One can sometimes get envious of the talents and courage bestowed upon some blessed individuals. Thank you for enriching our lives with photography of such high standard.

  60. Surinder Jain
    May 17, 2015

    Beautiful armchair travel in 90 seconds!!

  61. Jane Bosler
    May 17, 2015

    Frozen moments in time-Beautifully edited, as well! 🙂

  62. ilde
    May 16, 2015

    this is so great!!

  63. ilde
    May 16, 2015

    this is so great

  64. viral shah
    May 16, 2015

    Cool water assignment. And David’s selfie is like cherry on cake.

  65. euis rahmawati
    May 16, 2015

    Its my dream too, to be a Nat Geo writer 🙂

  66. Yvette Garcia
    May 15, 2015

    AMAZING photos! Love the story behind the photos 🙂

  67. rohit
    May 15, 2015

    real photography very hard work bessst of luck

  68. Drew Hyman
    May 15, 2015

    Thank you. Thank you. For ‘enduring’ the hardships so we can experience your photos.

  69. Naldi Leonen
    May 15, 2015

    David’s work is kinda sad and rewarding…sad because because you are away from home most of the time but rewarding because of the unique beauty he saw everytime.

  70. davida paul
    May 14, 2015

    Pictures so beautiful about a real place. David’s work & life is so worthy.

  71. Adam Waugh
    May 14, 2015

    Super inspiring! Great shots! How do I get on assignment for Nat. Geo.!!!???

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