Peter Muller/National Geographic Creative/Prime

5 Leading Photo Editors on the Most Powerful Images of Today

Our friends from BuzzFeed, The California Sunday Magazine, Mashable, National Geographic and Vantage share visual stories that make an impact.


Photography is advancing rapidly and, as a result, so is the ability for storytellers to tell powerful stories through multiple platforms and media. But what are the images that really make an impact today? And how is visual storytelling evolving in the future?

As a global community of over 15 million photographers, our aim is to enable new talents to get their work noticed. So we asked 5 top photo editors and directors what recent stories made an impact on them and what their vision for the future looks like — so you have all the insights to get your photos published next.

Kate Bubacz, Senior Photo Editor, BuzzFeed

Humans are naturally curious, and images are a great way to show the poignant, the weird, the funny and the tragic in a single frame

Two photos made me stop in my tracks at BuzzFeed. The first is by Bradley Secker in the story This Gay Man Sold a Kidney to Escape Iran. It shows the scar from where a man named Danial sold his kidney to escape Iran. It was a story that sounds so unreal you don’t believe it, and then you see this massive scar tracing across this man’s belly and you realize the depths of his desperation to escape.

Bradley Secker for BuzzFeed News

The second is a portrait by Sima Diab showing Abdel Rahmoun, a teenager in Syria who lost both of his legs in an airstrike from the story Russia is Bombing Syria’s Children — Here are Their Stories. Syria is a hard story to cover in general, access is insane and there is a sense of visual ennui that is horrible: there are very few photos to show, and the photos of bombed-out cities and streams of refugees have almost ceased to shock, so it’s a hard story to tell.

Sima Diab for BuzzFeed News

This photo of Abdel erases any sense of complacency, he’s looking directly at you, his eyes blank and his legs gone, not even asking you why he has to endure this but forcing you to question it anyway. It completely humanizes the damage that is being done in the country in a way that I haven’t seen with too many war photos recently.

In the future I see visual storytelling becoming an even more powerful tool. There are so many platforms now that are image based: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and traditional websites all rely on imagery more than print ever did, and print is not dead yet. The wide variety of options means that we will see more images than ever, which has risks of image saturation, but also has rewards of good work being seen by more people. Humans are naturally curious, and images are a great way to show the poignant, the weird, the funny and the tragic in a single frame.


Jacqueline Bates, Photo Director, The California Sunday Magazine

I suspect that some image makers will slow down to take time with their photographs — moving away from the “instant” world that we’re in now and towards a more focused sensibility.

Last May we ran a photo essay by the South African photographer Pieter Hugo, who was in the Bay Area on an art fellowship. He visited the Tenderloin on his wife’s urging, and ended up shooting a series of photographs there. The tech economy is transforming the city, but the Tenderloin has remained startlingly unchanged.

Pieter Hugo

A sense of place is so important to us, so we paired his photographs with short dispatches from all corners of the neighborhood. The stories are really poignant — a memoir of life in a single-room occupancy hotel, a visit to a soup kitchen, an evening at a 24-hour convenience store, and a report from the off-night scene at a local drag bar.

Pieter has photographed some of the most devastated, heartbreaking communities in Africa. In the Tenderloin, the setting is starkly different, but a similar theme emerges: a fractured society as seen through the lives of those who have been left behind while economic advancement occurs all around them.

Pieter Hugo

Pieter says that he wanted to capture “an anarchic community in the midst of a crazy boom.” The portraits in this series show the reader the tragedy but also the humanity and spirit of the neighborhood.

We can shoot and upload pictures so quickly now. With such an explosion in image-making, it’s hard to imagine where visual storytelling will go, which is incredibly exciting but also uncharted territory. I’m happy about the recent resurgence of long-form storytelling. I suspect that some image makers will slow down to take time with their photographs — moving away from the “instant” world that we’re in now and towards a more focused sensibility.


Dustin Drankoski, Photo Director, Mashable

It’s not enough to take a dozen excellent frames and have them thematically tie together. Crafting a narrative and watching a full story play out in images is where everything is leading.

One of my favorite photo stories that Mashable has published in the last year is Mike Belleme’s Broken Pipe Dreams. It’s a series that takes a nuanced look at what we give up as we grow up. It’s heartwarming and hopeful, at the same time as being a massive gut punch.

Mike Belleme

Belleme has a wonderful way of translating a truckload of emotion into a photo. His combination of lighting, timing, visual creativity, and ability to fully invest in a story are what make his images stand out.

On top of that, Broken Pipe Dreams is especially powerful because it’s a story about himself as much as his friends. The reader see him and his friends start off with a youthful sense of abandonment, running head long into this dream of being pro-skaters, then looking at what happens when the ebb and flow of life push those plans to the side. That’s a story we can all relate to on some level.

The coolest part is watching how they’re still making it work though. Belleme has been shooting his friends and this lifestyle for so long that these guys are finding ways of folding skating back into their lives, but now as adults, with all of these other responsibilities to juggle!

Visual storytelling has a very clear future to me. People want to read stories; they want to be immersed in, and share the experience of the photographer. It’s not enough to take a dozen excellent frames and have them thematically tie together. Crafting a narrative and watching a full story play out in images is where everything is leading. Visual storytelling won’t limit itself to one or two formats for creating this level of immersion. You’ll find everything from double exposures, VR programs, 360° images, high definition GIFs, film scans, embedded Instagram photos… you name it, it’ll end up being a part of the new visual language we’re only now starting to define.


Sarah Leen, Photo Director, National Geographic Magazine

We need to think of how every story we make can work on the phone and what kind of experiential video we can create to further enhance the story.

There are two stories we did last year that I felt were very powerful, and are great examples of how to cover topics creatively in both print and digital.

The first story was about traumatic brain injury in wounded veterans, Revealing the Trauma of War.This is a syndrome with no visible signs of damage. Science stories overall are very difficult to illustrate but one of my senior photo editors, Kurt Mutchler, is a master at figuring out innovative ways to make them visual.

Kurt worked with photographer and National Geographic Photography Fellow Lynn Johnson to create a series of portraits of these wounded veterans wearing masks that they made in a program at Walter Reed Veterans Hospital in Washington DC. These masks represent how they feel inside. It was a very powerful way to make visible the invisible.

The story also had a great online treatment with audio from each of the veterans. It’s a powerful and moving piece that is equally strong in print and online.

This story has a very creative way of using portraiture and audio. You can begin to feel what the person wearing the mask is feeling. I also like the use of the square format to further differentiate it from the more usual 35mm documentaries. And this one was shot all on film!

The second project I am very proud of is our Ebola story photographed by Peter Muller and edited by Kurt Mutchler. As the Ebola crisis was raging, we were looking for a way to cover the story but also well aware that by the time we were able to publish it in print it would be months later and the crisis could be over or waning by then.

So working with the digital team, and senior photo editor for NG News Nicole Werbeck, we did a series of three online stories in January while the crisis was raging and we followed up with a big story in print about the search for origins of Ebola in April. I love this type of thinking, of doing something more immediate online and following with a deeper larger piece in print. And I look forward to creating more pieces like this in the future. I think it’s a great way forward for us.

Peter Muller/National Geographic Creative/Prime

This Ebola story is just strong photojournalism. The images are up close and personal. You are right inside this dark and scary episode. They’re very emotionally driven images. The story takes you places as well. It goes right to the heart of the origins of this crisis. It pulls in the causes of how the crisis began and was being played out. I think it’s very important for us to bring this type of larger context to our readers. They expect that of us.

Most of us are accessing our news and images online and on our phones. Video is becoming an increasingly important way of telling stories. We need to think of how every story we make can work on the phone and what kind of experiential video we can create to further enhance the story. These are all great opportunities for us to widen our audience and get our amazing photography in front of more people. Its very exciting times for storytelling and photography.


Pete Brook, Editor, Vantage

I’d like to see more long term projects and deep reporting and less throw away image making.

One story from the last year that really caught my eye was Dania Maxwell’s Little Man, the story of Ethan Arbelo, who was ten when doctors diagnosed him with terminal brain cancer. This is the story of Ethan’s journey from boy to young man and his pursuit of happiness along the way.

Stories, particularly extended news stories or human interests profiles of individuals with terminal diagnoses are relatively common, but here Maxwell found in Arbelo a subject that really took the message, the impact and the emotion of the work to a new level.

Arbelo was between childhood and adulthood and so his bucket list was a hotchpotch of things — some very predictable and others very surprising. For example, the photo of the woman kissing him as an 11-year-old is seriously dicey, but then you must remember that the things we see in the photos are things Ethan had discussed with his mother beforehand. Some dying wishes could be attained and others not.

Furthermore, over the course of the images we see the changes in Ethan’s body; we witness his death in pictures. But in each frame his personality bursts through. The story in each frame trumps the desperate circumstances Ethan is in. In that sense, Maxwell has achieved what all good photography should attempt to do — to really capture the subject’s spirit. Maxwell does this without trivializing, or patronizing, or sugarcoating.

The images are made in the spirit that Ethan wanted to live out his life; they’re optimistic and try to hone in on the common optimism we all surely have.

I think our future will be better if we start to agree as a community what storytelling is. It seems now that the term storytelling is a descriptor for everything. The term has been diluted. Are casual Instagrammers storytellers? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Is Humans Of New York storytelling? Yes, but the captions do the telling and the photos are not needed. Are selfies storytelling? What about still portraits? Storytelling has become a synonym of too many things to the point I don’t know if we’re all on the same page. For me, this is to storytellers’ and audiences’ detriment.

I’d like to see more long term projects and deep reporting and less throw away image making. I’d prefer one year long well-researched story than 3 or 4 in a year. I want to see huge silences on photographers’ social media, because then I know (I hope?!) they’re away reporting. Let’s make images to make stories visible, not just to feed the channels and try to stay visible ourselves.

Also, the GIF. I think the GIF, and to a degree the looped video have huge untapped potential for telling stories in a clever way. Brandon Tauszik’s Tapered Throne is the best example I’ve seen of GIFs being used for documentary purposes but there’s all sorts of applications. Get over cat GIFs and memes and there’s a lot to be made, told and discovered.


A huge thank you to Kate, Jacqueline, Dustin, Sarah and Pete for participating in this. To get your photos discovered, published and sold, join us on EyeEm.