Interview with Joe McNally | GBPW Episode 97

One thing you should keep in the back of your head is that there’s many different ways to do a particular photo assignment. Always remember that you haven’t necessarily embraced the best way right away.

Joe McNally

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© Joe McNally

We have a very special episode for you this week! Our guest is a Nikon ambassador who has worked for the National Geographic, TIME magazine, and many other famous publications. He recently published a book called The Real Deal: Field Notes from the Life of a Working Photographer, which is all about his incredible life and the images he’s taken. That guest is the very talented Joe McNally!

We talk about:

  • the photography experiences that left the biggest impression on him
  • the advice he’d give to aspiring photojournalists
  • the inspiration behind his photography book, The Real Deal: Field Notes from the Life of a Working Photographer

& much more!

It was an honor for us to interview the legendary Joe McNally. I’m sure that this interview will help you look at photojournalism from a new point of view.

Here is a preview of our conversation with Joe McNally.

© Joe McNally

Q: How do you know if you’ve told a good story through your work?

Joe McNally: You can feel it in your gut. First and foremost, when I trip that shutter at a moment that I feel is crucial or significant, I kind of know it. Not to be lyrical about it, but there’s a skip in your heart or your head. The idea of a good photograph… there’s a surge in your head or in your heart where you’re just like, “I’m getting to the heart of the matter. That’s a picture that I needed. That’s a picture I came for.” That is powerful stuff that is all internal.

Beyond that, people responding to your story. What you want is reaction. Eddie Adams, who was a very famous photojournalist, always said that “the best pictures are the ones that reach right into your ribcage and rip your heart out”, which is powerful language. Carl Mydans, who was a marvellous photographer with Life Magazine and a mentor to me, always said that “the camera is the greatest force for social change in history”, which, again, is a powerful statement. When you think about it, it’s really true.

If you do a good story, and make good photographs that involve people, there’s a reverberation there, and people will pay attention. This is a visually oversaturated world, right? We’re super busy. Our job increasingly – in this highly fast-paced visual world of ours – is to get somebody to stop and think, and react, and cry, or laugh, or pause, or redirect, or lose a night’s sleep, or think about things. That’s really the achievement of a good story. It’s like a good meal, it sticks to your ribs.

© Joe McNally

Q: Do you have any tips for photographers who want to create their first book?

Joe McNally: It’s especially hard for me because I’m a field person and not so much a computer desk person. For me to screw myself into a chair and have the discipline to stick with a book, that’s a lot of work.

Similarly, in terms of advice or caution: be careful what you wish for it. It gets exponential. You think, “Maybe I have a framework for this book” and then there’s divergent paths that occur. You start to write about something and you come up with new ideas or a different path, etc. Understand it’s a process. Understand you have to be patient. Don’t be satisfied with your first draft.

My first chapter in the book – I had that written and rewritten in my head – writing it and altering the timeline was probably two years. It provided the gateway. It opened the door where the rest of the book launched from. I don’t know if that’s an exactly appropriate analogy, but it provided a base in my head of where things started. That gave me the fortitude and the discipline to go forward and keep writing.

© Joe McNally

Q: Is there a particular image of yours that stands out to you?

Joe McNally: There’s a photographer named Nick Ut, who worked for the Associated Press. He was on assignment in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and the United States’ presence in Vietnam. There’s a riveting photograph, that is very famous, of a young girl running down the road, horribly burned with napalm. She became known as the the Napalm girl.

Many years later, I photographed her. She’s an incredibly lovely person, she survived her wounds. Actually, Nick helped save her life. Her name is Kim Phúc. She lectures and travels the world as an emissary for peace and understanding.

I had to historically connect the events. I was very honest with Kim. I said, “Kim, I really have to see your scars.” She was nursing her baby, Thomas, at the time. He’s all grown up now. I made this photograph of Thomas, on his mom’s shoulder, which is horribly burned. There’s a connection there between the events of her life and the fact that her terribly scarred body produced this beautiful new baby and life goes on. Things like that, when you connect those dots, that is a way of telling a good story.

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You can purchase The Real Deal: Field Notes from the Life of a Working Photographer on Rocky Nook, Amazon, B&H, Barnes and Noble, and Target.

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