Interview with Sadie Quarrier: National Geographic Magazine’s Sr. Photo Editor of Expeditions

March 28, 2014

Charlotte Kesl: What draws you to adventure and expedition storytelling?

Sadie Quarrier: What I love about my adventure and exploration beat is the community of photographers, videographers and athletes (adventurers, climbers, mountaineers, etc.) that this allows me to work with daily. They’re high energy, driven, and talented as artists but also push themselves often to their physical maximums. I admire the fact that they have to wear two hats, both to be able to pull off the expedition (in the most extreme, high­–risk cases attempting to summit K2 and Everest means facing life and death decisions), but they also have to tap into a deep mental and physical will to shoot their hearts out in freezing temps, high winds, on the side of a wall hanging from ropes, when the rest of the team is getting warm or sleeping, etc. 

Adventure stories are often not about getting to the summit. I’ve edited many stories that have an adventure component but encompass much more: Mustang Caves (a great mix of archeology, culture, landscape and climbing to these difficult-to-access caves), Bahamas Blue Holes (surreal underwater landscapes, extreme diving adventure, archeology, paleontology, climate change, and new species discovery), and Yasuni National Park (5 photographers were dispatched on an expedition to document the wide range of biodiversity – from big cats to 10 kinds of primates, and other rare and threatened species, indigenous people living off the land, and the impacts of oil development).

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Sadie Quarrier (left) and climber Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner editing as Everest’s base camp in 2012. Sadie edited the story of Gerlinde’s ascent of K2. Photograph by Andy Bardon

CK: Can you talk briefly about the scale of preparation that went into some of the stories you mentioned? How long are the shooting schedules and how much time you spend editing with the photographer? What’s the timeline from pitch and approval to publication? 

SQ: The Bahamas Blue Holes and Everest stories were two of my most memorable stories and were both very large–scale operations which required extremely extensive logistical planning, had large expedition teams with scientists, athletes, and media, and both had multiple media end products (ie not just Magazine stories). We put a lot of staff and resources into our Everest iPad app, which was the home for a live blog fed by those on the mountain as well as by a staff of about 15 people at Headquarters who met daily to discuss, edit, and plan that coverage; there was also a daily Instagram feed from the field (in fact this expedition launched our @natgeo Instagram account which now has 4.5 million followers), a Magazine article and a Book.

We started planning both stories at least 1 year before fieldwork began and both were partially funded by NG Expeditions Council grants which financially helped pull them off. As with all stories, at the beginning of the process, I met with the photographer, expedition leader, writer, designer, and editors of text, maps, graphics, and multimedia to put together a coverage plan, shoot list and budget which we then took to the Editor and his Executive Team for their approval.

Blue Holes started with a scout trip, which isn’t typical, but for this story was the most economical use of time so the team could check out which holes would be the best choices both for the heavy science that was driving this expedition and for best visuals. There were a total of 4 to 5 10­–day trips for this story. (When on deep dives on rebreathers you only want to go about 10-14 days max before the divers need a mental and physical break). The photographer, the late Wes Skiles (who is and will always be my hero for his guts, humor, drive, love of life, child-like enthusiasm, and endless creative energy), flew up to DC for both the halfway show of pictures and final show (one week for each to edit his pictures with me). Then we worked together with the designer for a few days on the layout. It appeared in print about 6 months later as a cover story in August 2010.  

As for Everest, we’ll come back to that if you ever interview me again because that’s a whole other story worth telling!

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Sadie walks in the snow at Base Camp during the Everest Expedition in 2012 . Photograph by Andy Bardon.

CK: Project Cordillera believes exploration breeds empathy – do you agree?

SQ: I do think travel and exploration opens your eyes to other cultures. You see how different people live, what they value, how they dress, and what their customs are. I have found this continues to expand my understanding and worldview.

From my own experience, encountering and interacting with other cultures first–hand has always endeared those people to me in a way that I can’t quite fully appreciate when it’s just through images or reading. I see this kind of “exploration” as a very positive thing all the way around. All of that said, there are travelers and adventurers who just blow through towns en route to a destination. It’s really up to each person, obviously, what they want to get out of each experience, and there may be barriers or limitations, like time or language, which may prevent deep interactions. I think organizations like Project Cordillera are great because they allow conscious adventurers to directly give back to the communities where they are climbing or trekking.

CK: Thank you so much, Sadie. I look forward to talking with you again!

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Sadie is a Senior Photo Editor at National Geographic Magazine where she is in charge of adventure and exploration stories. She also serves as a voting member of our Expeditions Council and Young Explorers Grant Committees. She started working at NGM in an entry-level position right out of college and first realized her passion for photo editing when she assisted on a story about the History and Culture of Sports. After six years at NG including a position in NGM Design Division and editing numerous books, she went to Smithsonian Magazine for two years as a Photo Editor and Designer. In 2000, she took a full time job as Photo Editor for NG Books and two years later moved back to NGM, where she’s been an editor since 2002. 

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While NGM eagerly embraces epic, large-scale, in-depth stories, they use all mediums to get out shorter, relevant stories hourly on the NG news site, daily on the photo-driven Proof Blog, through videos on the newly launched video site, and multiple times a day on Instagram.

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Want to give adventure storytelling a try? Whether you’re new to climbing or a seasoned technical mountaineer, Project Cordillera offers unparalleled opportunities for climbing in the high Cordilleras of Peru. Please visit Project Cordillera’s website for information about our climbs, treks and mountaineering courses in Peru. 

Posted by Charlotte Kesl, Friday 28th March 2014

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