Photographer David Guttenfelder has spent more than 20 years covering nearly 100 countries while based at various times in Nairobi, Abidjan, New Delhi, Jerusalem and Tokyo.
An eight-time World Press Photo Award winner and seven-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Guttenfelder has built a reputation for covering countries not often explored by outsiders.
His trips to North Korea and Cuba in particular will be the focus of his National Geographic Live talk, which brings him to the First Interstate Center for the Arts on Wednesday.
But Guttenfelder’s first foray into photography was much closer to home.
While spending the summers with his grandparents as a child, Guttenfelder would travel with his grandfather, an insurance auditor, and take pictures for him using an old Polaroid camera.
Guttenfelder would take the camera home and take photos here and there, but at the time, he didn’t think about becoming a photographer.
Growing up in rural Iowa, Guttenfelder said he didn’t know any photographers or people who traveled, and it wasn’t until his time as a foreign exchange student at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania that he began to take photography more seriously.
When he returned to the U.S., and to his undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa, he used the photos he took in Tanzania to apply for a job at the college newspaper.
That’s when Guttenfelder began to consider a career in photography.
“I wanted to see the world, so photography was, at the beginning at least, a reason for traveling and for having experiences,” he said. “Photography didn’t just allow me to be on the front row of the football game, but it gave me a reason to walk into anyone’s life and go anywhere. That was what I think I liked most about journalism is that it was a passport into other people’s life and into other worlds.”
Guttenfelder first set foot into one of those worlds, North Korea, in 2000. It was near the end of the Clinton administration and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was traveling to the country.
Then an Associated Press photographer, Guttenfelder photographed the trip. It was the first time, he recalls, he realized how visually interesting the country was.
“I knew, because it was so isolated from the world, that if I was committed and tenacious enough, if I continued to go back there, that I could do something that was important,” he said.
He then, as often happens with Guttenfelder, became obsessed with photographing North Korea.
Over the next decade or so, Guttenfelder traveled to North Korea four to six times, sometimes as a tourist and others while covering events like film festivals and the New York Philharmonic’s performance in Pyongyang.
But in 2011, Guttenfelder got a chance to really explore the country when the Associated Press got the OK to open a Pyongyang bureau.
“From the beginning of 2012 until I left AP in the middle of 2014, I was traveling there regularly, almost every month,” he said. “In total, I guess I’ve probably made around 40 trips. If I added up all the days I’ve spent in North Korea, close to two years of my life maybe.”
It wasn’t much later that Guttenfelder became obsessed with yet another country: Cuba.
His first time to the country came as part of a National Geographic assignment at the end of the Obama administration when relations between the United States and Cuba were warming.
“They wanted me to photograph it from the perspective of someone who works in relatively closed societies and how that works and to look at Cuba through the same lens that I used to look at North Korea and other places where I’ve traveled,” he said. “I’ve somehow become the guy that goes to places other people can’t or won’t.”
The assignment found Guttenfelder traveling on the first cruise from the U.S. to Cuba in 50 years, leaving from Miami and stopping in multiple cities in Cuba.
“I was looking at what’s going to happen when this potential wave of Americans start showing up to Cuba,” he said.
Guttenfelder followed that cruise with multiple trips to Cuba, including a four-day trip through the country following Fidel Castro’s funeral cortege from Havana to Santiago.
Photographing countries like North Korea and Cuba comes with an interesting set of challenges for Guttenfelder because of their rules about freedom of the press.
He often has to travel with a guide and must put in a request for every place he wants to go, but censorship has never been an issue.
“It was always a constant conversation (between) myself and the Koreans about them better understanding what it is I was hoping to see and do and what a critical, independent-minded photojournalist is and how that works,” he said. “As imperfect as it is to work in a society that’s very restrictive, I think it’s very important because otherwise the window is completely closed.”
Guttenfelder’s talk will also include his thoughts on smartphone photography, a field he’s found himself at the forefront of, and how photojournalists use social media.
A smartphone camera has limitations, sure, but Guttenfelder, who was named the first Instagram Photographer of the Year by Time magazine, has found that it has a lot of advantages, like being small, disarming and familiar.
Plus, there’s the matter of traveling light.
Whereas many National Geographic photographers fly with drones or underwater equipment, Guttenfelder is proud that everything he needs fits under the seat in front of him.
He still uses DSLR cameras on assignments, but Guttenfelder has been turning to his smartphone more frequently.
“I think it’s been maybe my most surprising tool and one of maybe the most powerful tools that I’ve been able to use in these otherwise isolated places…” he said. “My camera is always in my back pocket.”
He’s never been to Spokane before, but Guttenfelder has been impressed by how informed and engaged audiences he’s spoken to in Seattle and Olympia have been and is looking forward to visiting Spokane.
“I was away from the United States for 20 years, so part of the great thing about Nat Geo Live events is it’s taking me around my own country,” he said.
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