21CF Chats: Nat Geo Photography Fellow Cory Richards talks about the new book ‘@NatGeo: The Most Popular Instagram Photos’


Turning a collection of Instagram photos into a hardcover book may seem a strange concept at first, but that’s exactly what National Geographic has done with “@NatGeo: The Most Popular Instagram Photos” – and for good reason. The new 336-page book offers readers a chance to engage with a handful of National Geographic’s 12,000+ Instagram photos in unique and intimate fashion, according to National Geographic Photography Fellow Cory Richards.

I talked with Cory about National Geographic’s new book, for which he wrote a foreword. During our conversation, he explained the logic behind turning digital photos into a tangible product, how @NatGeo has evolved since its inception, how his own Instagram account has served a profound purpose and more.

Before we get to the book, can you explain how National Geographic’s Instagram account was born?

It was late 2011 when I was sitting in an office in the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., and we were discussing an upcoming expedition to Everest. I was with a climber named Conrad Anker. We were talking about outlets for media and how we could sort of making the expedition a little bit more contemporary, outward facing and real-time than we had historically done at National Geographic. One of us basically said, “Does Nat Geo have an Instagram feed?” And they said, “What’s Instagram?”

How times have changed. Now the account has more than 62 million followers.

Naturally, @NatGeo would have happened eventually – there’s no doubt. So we can’t take ownership over the @NatGeo feed. But we were the ones sitting in that room that said, “Hey, we should secure @NatGeo,” and we set it up right there. That sounds so funny, because Instagram has become such a prolific piece of our culture, specifically our storytelling culture.

Some photos featured in “@NatGeo: The Most Popular Instagram Photos.”

And now the book is a result of that.

We went to Instagram because we wanted a digital platform where we could reach more eyeballs and tell stories to a broader audience, yet the book itself has gone back to a very analog place: print. So we took something that is inherently digital and in order to make it tactile, in order to perpetuate the experience, we actually went back to print. There’s kind of a cool irony there. People say, “Print is dead.” But print is just proving how special it actually is. The way we’ve made the National Geographic Instagram feed so special and so digestible now is by printing it in a book. I just think that’s the coolest inverse relationship.

It was nostalgic to see these digital photos placed into this, like you said, analog vehicle.

Yeah. I think it’s the most appropriate place for our Instagram photos to end up. And I hope to see us continue to do this. Since the images for the book were pulled, several thousand more have gone up, and it just keeps growing all the time. It has sort of an infinite feeling at this point.

In terms of putting the book together and bringing it to life, what did that look like? Did it involve a lot of tough decisions making calls on what goes in the book and what doesn’t?

Several editors at National Geographic sat down, looked at the most liked photos, looked at the most commented-on photos, then looked at the aesthetic and came up with these four pillars and designed the book around them: Wanderlust, Curiosity, Beauty and Marvel. There are, I’m sure, thousands of images that got left on the editing room floor, and that happens. You can’t put them all in – the book would weigh too much at that point and nobody would be able to buy it because it would be thousands of pages.

National Geographic Photography Fellow Cory Richards.

Photo credit: Mark Stone

One of the particularly enjoyable things for me was how some of the pages had likes and comments on the opposite page. What did you think of putting those elements, which are very much Instagram and very much social media, into the book?

I love that component of it. I think it’s imperative that some of that is in there because, like you said, Instagram isn’t just pictures. In fact, the point of Instagram for National Geographic at large isn’t just pictures, it’s about messaging. Comments and likes are as much a part of this platform as anything else. To exclude them would be a drastic oversight on our part. It really does give the book a broader context and allows people a nostalgic look back at the post itself. It takes people back to the time they saw it on the screen rather than it just being a pretty picture. I wouldn’t want it on every page – I’m happy it’s not – but I do love seeing that there. It makes it feel like you’re still somehow engaging.

From your view, having had a hand in launching the @NatGeo Instagram account, how do you think the account has changed and evolved over the past five years? Has the purpose and intention of the account remained the same?

Our account has evolved just like Instagram has. When we started, the idea was that we’d all use our phones. And then Instagram itself took a turn and people started uploading DSLR photos – these much more curated kind of galleries. With that, some of the instantaneous – the “insta” – was lost, but what that did was create a platform for impact. When you’re putting images that have been shot on professional cameras up there, the colors are jumping out at you and those moments are much more intimate because they were shot in a way that’s much more photojournalistic. These things bring people in – they draw people in a much more profound and prolific way, and in that you’re able to share messages much more effectively. I think this evolution has been a very positive thing. I think there’s a good mix between people who upload archival images from their DSLR and those who shoot strictly on their phone. I think it’s nice to have both – it makes it feel very authentic.

Turning more to you specifically, as a photographer, adventurer and storyteller, how has having an Instagram account changed the way you work and tell stories?

It hasn’t changed the way I work, but it’s changed the impact I can have. Instagram is just a part of my ecosystem as a visual storyteller. I don’t really think of it as a separate component. It’s just wrapped into what I do. But the messaging can go so much further so much faster. How it’s impacted me personally is it builds a larger platform to reach a separate audience that doesn’t necessarily read print magazines the same way I do, and it gives me an outlet to reach them instantaneously. So it’s positively perpetuated messaging and storytelling beyond a magazine article, newspaper article or film that you wait for.

Some more photos featured in “@NatGeo: The Most Popular Instagram Photos.”

And what about the responses you get whenever you post a photo?

The great thing about the comments section is that it allows for discussion. I can post a photo that I think has one message attached to it, and I can get a tremendous amount of feedback that says, “Actually, this is what I’m getting out of this photograph.” That can be opposition, it can be support, it can be anything, really. But what’s really cool about that is that it continues my evolution with visual language. So I might think it’s translating, transmitting or saying one thing, and other people will say, “This is how I interpret it.” Then I learn something about my own photography, and that’s really cool.

What do you hope the reaction to the book will be? How do you hope people will receive it? How do you hope people will view and enjoy it?

Naturally, I hope people will receive it with as much excitement as they receive our daily posts on Instagram, and I hope the way it will be received is with a desire to sit with the images for longer, to touch the images, to get into them. They’re a little bigger, they’ll have that ink and that depth that comes with the page. It’s really an opportunity to indulge in what makes National Geographic so amazing, which is the photography. Above all else, that’s what I can hope for, that the book will act as an inspiration and give people an impetus for change. That’s my dream for the book, and that’s my dream for photography: to use images to engage, enlighten, educate and hopefully activate people.

@NatGeo: The Most Popular Instagram Photos” is available to purchase today.

On Nov. 10, National Geographic is celebrating its incredible @NatGeo Instagram community and the photographers who inspire them with a full day of social activities to bring the two closer together. During the day, tune in to Facebook Live sessions featuring National Geographic photographers from around the world every hour from 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. ET; and Instagram Stories featuring photographers behind the @NatGeo account to dig deeper behind the photos of the newly released @NatGeo book and get a sneak preview of the brand new @NatGeo interactive museum exhibit opening Nov. 11.

Participants include Steve Winter, Beverly Joubert, Brian Skerry, Paul Nicklen and (of course) Cory Richards.