Published: August 2009
Focus on People
National Geographic photographer Mark Thiessen is your expert mentor in the People category.

"All photographers need a personal project," says National Geographic photographer Mark Thiessen. "Shooting people outside your everyday experience allows you to experiment without fear of failure." Thiessen has made a lifelong personal project of portraying wildland firefighters.

To capture the firefighting life, the photographer needed to establish a bond of trust, and learn the dangers of the world he was entering. Fire school gave him access to a tightknit community, and taught him the essentials of safety and survival.

"Being informed and prepared means you mitigate the risks and can focus on making the pictures, even when all hell breaks loose. You learn from the expertise of your subjects." Theissen has photographed firefighters from California to Siberia. "Wildland firefighters are a breed apart," he says, "I wanted to tell their story from the inside and by doing the training, I became embedded as one of them."

Even amid the chaos of wildfire, the photographer considers composition. "Whatever the conditions, if you are prepared and patient, you'll be there when Mother Nature conspires to help set up your portrait," he says. "You try to predict the fire, the wind, the light, the direction of the smoke. When it comes together, you'll know … you breathe deep and take your perfect portrait."