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National Geographic: Exxon Valdez cover story

From: Creative Inspirations: Natalie Fobes, Photographer

Video: National Geographic: Exxon Valdez cover story

(Music playing.) Natalie Fobes: I was at home recuperating from knee surgery when I first studied about the Exxon Valdez. A friend of mine called and told me that there is a massive spill in Alaska. I immediately called National Geographic and talked to my editor there and said, "Hey, there's a huge spill. Send me up there," and he said, "Oh come on, Natalie. No, no, no. Don't worry about it." Then I called the fishermen up in Alaska and talked to some of them about what was happening, and they were telling me how horrible it was, how already it had spread unbelievably.

National Geographic: Exxon Valdez cover story

(Music playing.) Natalie Fobes: I was at home recuperating from knee surgery when I first studied about the Exxon Valdez. A friend of mine called and told me that there is a massive spill in Alaska. I immediately called National Geographic and talked to my editor there and said, "Hey, there's a huge spill. Send me up there," and he said, "Oh come on, Natalie. No, no, no. Don't worry about it." Then I called the fishermen up in Alaska and talked to some of them about what was happening, and they were telling me how horrible it was, how already it had spread unbelievably.

So at that point, I called an air taxi service in Valdez and booked an airplane for the next day to do aerials. Then I called the National Geographic again and talked to my editor. He was a little bit more interested, but still not enough to send me up there. And then I did a little bit more research. I booked a hotel up there and then called back and said, "I've got to get up there. It's massive." And at that point he said, "Oh, Natalie. Go, just go." So I went downstairs, I packed all the film that I had. I packed my cameras, and I was on the next flight out.

I arrived there at the day after the spill, and already the town was in chaos. (Music playing.) Because of my experience on the salmon project, I knew that the fishermen would soon be heading out to try to clean up the spill, and so I started working with the Cordova District Fishermen's Union to see if I could ride along on one of those boats.

The beauty of who I was working for at that time, for National Geographic, was that I didn't have to file everyday. I could file every two weeks. I could file every three weeks if I wanted to. So, I could afford to just go out on a fishing boat and hitchhike my way around the Sound on the fishing boats, or the mail planes or the helicopters that might touch down where I was. And one day I was on the fishing boat, and there was a plane that flew overhead, and they said, "Hey, is Natalie on your boat?" and then the skipper said, "Wow Natalie! Yeah, someone is asking for you." And basically the pilot dropped down and said I know where there's an animal rescue boat, and I'll take you out there.

I don't know if they'll let you onboard, but I'll take you out, so you can photograph that aspect of what's happening. It's really horrible. He said, "I want you to get out there," and so he picked me up, and we flew over to this other bay, and we landed. I asked the skipper if I could come onboard for a few days, and he said, "Hell yes, you can. I want people to see what's going on out here. This is horrible. This is horrible." (Music playing.) Now of course, I also interviewed people along the way, because my experiences were so different then what the riders experience would be, and I really wanted my photographs to have as much information with them as possible.

I kept my journalistic notes separate from my personal notes, from my personal journal. I did that by having my journalistic notes in the front of my notebook, but then at night, I'd write about my feelings and what I saw and experienced on the back part of it. So, I really have kind of like a dual personality going on in that, in that notebook of my coverage, but that was the only way I could keep it from overwhelming me.

(Music playing.) It was happening so quickly that there was no chance whatsoever to do anything outside of gather information. I mean, I felt very strong that I was part of history, and that it was my job to photograph this, so that generations from that time would be able to view these photographs and get a sense of what was going on.

My editor back at Geographic had been looking through it, and had been editing it during the time, and I flew out there, presented the photographs to the editor, and there was just stunned silence when people were looking at the photographs. So the spill happened in March, and the first set went in in August, in the August edition. And then the full story went in January of 1990, with a picture of a dying bird on the cover, that I took.

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Creative Inspirations: Natalie Fobes, Photographer

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Natalie Fobes
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