Last night, National Geographic was named Magazine of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Editors, and it won the single-topic issue category for the April 2010 edition, devoted to the subject of water. We asked senior photo editor Sarah Leen, who led the creative team responsible for that issue, and story development editor Barbara Paulsen to share their perspectives.
Why "water" as the topic?
Leen: Water is the most essential element for sustaining all life on the planet. That alone makes it a worthy subject for a single-topic issue. But there are also many issues swirling around this most precious resource about access to clean water, usage, availability, and control. Nearly a billion people do not have access to clean drinking water, and two billion lack adequate sanitation, leading thousands to die from waterborne diseases. Many experts believe that future global conflicts may ultimately be fights over water access, rights, and usage.
Paulsen: It’s beautiful, sacred, purifying, essential to life—and we are waking up to the ways we need to change our relationship to water in order to move sustainably into the future. No other resource issues is as important.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in putting together a single-topic issue on water?
Leen: On the photographic side it was a huge challenge to find ways to create visual variety and to address our chosen topics with fresh visual approaches. Our success with accomplishing this—and I feel we did—is a testament to the great photographic talent we assembled for this issue and the photo editors who worked with them.
Paulsen: The challenge was to give our readers a palpable sense of urgency but also to show that there are solutions—as long as we stop taking fresh water for granted.
What was your favorite photograph or story in the issue?
Leen: Very hard to choose; I am too close to it. But I loved the cover, the smiling turtle in the “Freshwater Species” story, and the exploding boots in the closing essay. I also just loved the underwater swimming baby.
Paulsen: I would say the feature called “The Burden of Thirst,” which we internally called “the water slavery” story because it highlights the servitude of girls and women in less developed parts of the world to the simple task of hauling water many, many hours of their day. The article by Tina Rosenberg and photographs by Lynn Johnson conveyed the strength and endurance of women in a way that for me evoked admiration rather than pity.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about water while working on this project?
Paulsen: That we have the same amount of water on the planet as we ever did—and that the water we drink today is the same water the dinosaurs drank. At the beginning of working on the issue I thought we were “running out of water” the same way we’re running out of oil. But water is a replenishable resource courtesy of the water cycle, so the problems are more about having fresh water where we need it. Another surprise: Less than 3 percent of the world’s water is fresh, and of what’s fresh, most of it is locked up in ice!
Leen: How much water Americans consume versus the rest of the world. The average American goes through 100 gallons of water a day, while an Ethiopian uses three or four gallons. How heavy a jerry can filled with six gallons of water actually is: fifty pounds. How really, really precious fresh water is. Really.