Randy Olson is a photographer in the documentary tradition. His more than 30 National Geographic projects have taken him to almost every continent. For the last 10 years, Olson has concentrated on population issues, resource issues, and disappearing cultures. He has received numerous awards, including Magazine Photographer of the Year and Newspaper Photographer of the Year—one of only two photographers to win in both media. He is married to fellow photographer Melissa Farlow, with whom he frequently collaborates. They live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Q & A
One of your areas of specialization is disappearing cultures. Talk about “genetic islands” and why it matters that they don’t disappear.
People tend to look at seed stocks and endangered species, like pandas, and that seems to make sense to them. But when you start talking about pygmies being valuable because they have GPS’ built into their heads, people are not so sure. Pygmies have this ability to go anywhere in a forest that they’ve never been in before and all meet up in the same spot. They are one of these old groups that are valuable in the same way endangered species are valuable. I’ve also photographed new, isolated groups of people with dwarfism in remote areas of Ecuador who are immune to cancer. They are valuable to all of us. So I’m trying to come to grips with these two types of groups: the old world genetics and the new world, isolated genetics. There are still places where people are all color blind or where women are all having twins or there are a lot of albinos. These genetic islands have been part of my work over the years.
What inspires you in your work, Randy?
If I look at a photograph and it moves something inside me, then I’ve done my job. It doesn’t much matter what the rest of the world thinks. It just has to feel right to me. The other important thing is making images that are of some use. Before I worked for National Geographic, I spent seven years photographing a family with AIDS. This was before they knew there was AIDS in the family. It was a new plague that people were only just understanding. I photographed their deaths and, during that process, I felt I was doing the right thing. I hang on to that whenever I’m looking for story material, or shaping a story.
National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Randy Olson By Simon Worrall