Relentless Curiosity, Heights, Camera, Action! George Steinmetz Honored with Distinguished Alumni Award
A self-described accidental environmentalist tells photographic stories about Earth, agriculture, and community, often from a glider and always with an expansive view, both literally and philosophically.
“I’m a photographer who flies, not a pilot who takes pictures,” said George Steinmetz, the internationally recognized aerial photographer who has captured some of his most iconic images of expansive remote landscapes from the seat of his motorized paraglider. For more than 35 years, his extraordinarily detailed, sweeping shots have helped illuminate our understanding of the natural world and raised awareness of the perils of climate change.
On Oct. 20, Steinmetz, ’79 Geophysics, received the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability’s 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award. The award recognizes alumni who have made highly significant, long-lasting contributions to civil, government, business, or academic communities. While on campus, Steinmetz spoke about his work as part of the Career Conversation lunchtime talks series.
Presenting the award to Steinmetz, Arun Majumdar, the Chester Naramore Dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, said, "George embodies the critical thinkers we want our students to be. His photographs show us not only beautiful insights but deliver strong messages and encourage us to get out into the world and really see for ourselves." (story continues below gallery)
Steinmetz set his sights on Stanford University early in his life. His mother, Class of 1945, loved her alma mater, and the family used to joke that she slept wearing red shoes. As kids, Steinmetz and his siblings visited campus often, followed Stanford football, and were Jim Plunkett fans.
“When the time came for college,” he said, “Stanford was my first choice. I felt lucky to be admitted and jumped at the opportunity.”
He’d intended on studying engineering but was inspired to explore other subjects, such as physics, anthropology, and literature, and decided on Earth Sciences after taking Professor Jim Ingle’s oceanography course. Eventually, the ever-curious future photographer ended up with enough requirements for a geophysics degree.
“A friend had said geophysics was the second-highest paying career going,” he said. “I thought, at least I can make a good living until I figure out what I want to do after graduating, so that became my major. Stanford was an intellectual hothouse in the best sense, and I loved how I could explore almost any discipline.”
He said the fundamental tools of being analytical and learning how to write well were essential to his success as a photographer traveling in Africa. Steinmetz became close to English professors Nancy Packer and the late Ian Watt, an expert on Joseph Conrad.
“It was remarkable that these people at the top of their games in English literature would invite me – the adventure photography dude – to dinners in their homes,” he recalled. “To be able to make and keep those kinds of ties has been extraordinary. I visited Professor Packer when I was in Palo Alto for my last reunion.”
Epiphany in the desert
As he approached his senior year at Stanford, curiosity about the wider world and a burgeoning interest in photography led Steinmetz to a life-changing decision.
“I still didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to get out, go someplace different, and Africa was about as different a place as I could imagine. I got a map, a French dictionary, and went out into what was, for me, the unknown.”
He bought a one-way ticket to London, hitchhiked south to Algeria, took a bus to the edge of Algiers, and started out across the Sahara with just his camera and other essentials. It was a vagabond experience, taking pictures and sleeping in villages, sometimes even under trucks. He loved it.
After returning to Stanford to finish his degree, the idea of a future in photography was beginning to take shape for Steinmetz. Student life was a bit of a struggle after a year of unstructured existence, but he considered his degree an insurance policy in case photography didn’t work out. A summer job with GSI, which does seismic exploration, funded his second trip to Africa, this time for a year and a half.
“I went back to Africa with a little more knowledge and better cameras,” he said. “I was able to get some fledgling assignments from magazines, based on photos I’d taken on my first trip. And I decided this is what I want to do.”
A career begins
He came back to San Francisco in need of a job and lived with Stanford friends while doing some local work as a photographer, before eventually freelancing for publications like Business Week, Fortune, and Rolling Stone.
“Classic journalism – you work your way up the food chain,” he said with a grin. For Steinmetz, the top of that food chain was National Geographic. He proposed a story to the magazine on how oil is found, and it was accepted.
“It was about photographing the inside of the industry,” he explained. “My geophysics degree and work experience gave me the right background. I knew where the pictures were and thought I could talk my way into situations as needed.”
During the 18-month assignment, he traveled to eight countries – scuba diving in the Red Sea, donning a polar suit in Alaska, flying in helicopters over Papua New Guinea – all while documenting what he encountered with his eagle eye and trusty lens. The experience informed his approach to photographing the natural world and led to more than 40 major photo essays that he’s since completed for National Geographic.
Unidentified flying artist
Anyone familiar with Steinmetz’s vast portfolio knows that at the core of his stunning portraits of the planet and humanity – from large-scale overheads of sprawling natural landscapes to intimate views of factory workers on assembly lines or families in tiny villages – is the powerful intersection of art and science.
“I take pictures to tell stories, but to tell the story, you first have to understand it,” he said. “Starting with my first job with the Geographic, I had to understand the science and history before I could photograph it. It’s not like you just go out and take cool photos.”
His goal is to explain, demystify, and show how things work with his photographs, and to do that requires a lot of homework. In photographing the Sahara, for example, he needed to understand the geologic forces that shape the desert and how people lived there before he could tell the story with images. His extensive research included consulting NASA satellite maps and European geologists in preparation for his award-winning photographs of that part of the world.
This informed, insider approach led him to learn how to fly a motorized paraglider, a foot-launched aircraft with a backpack motor and parachute-style wing – a sort of flying lawn chair. It gave him a unique low-altitude, wide-angle view of Earth’s surface, and he took pictures from it in over 30 countries.
“The glider allowed me to understand the physical geography in a way I couldn’t from the ground,” he said. “I could also fly places that wouldn’t have been possible in a plane or helicopter, like Libya and Iran.”
Interestingly, the glider also enabled him, from the air, to make very personal connections with people on the ground. “I’d be seen, I’d wave, and I’d land in a small village or on an island,” he recalled. “I’d be invited to lunch. It was like a Martian had landed in their backyard – and he spoke French!”
Those encounters offered context for the stories portrayed by his photographs. “The people in these communities understood that the flying photographer had skin in the game,” Steinmetz said. “I was risking my neck to take pictures of these places. They got that and respected it.”
His paragliders are now reposed in his New Jersey garage, replaced by the drones he now uses for aerial photography. There are important advantages to using drones, and they’re a lot safer, particularly because many of his current photographic subjects are in more urban or industrial environments where he can’t take off or land. On one of his last glider outings, Steinmetz was arrested for trespassing and briefly saw the inside of the Garden City, Kansas, jail. While he hadn’t needed permission to fly over the area he was photographing, he had done his running takeoff on an unmarked patch of land that turned out to be the private property of an unsympathetic local feedlot owner.
Steinmetz described himself as an accidental environmentalist who didn’t set out to document climate change, yet his photographic stories of Earth’s surface over many decades make an indelible impression. He said he got into his current work for National Geographic – about meeting humanity’s future food needs – almost accidentally.
“An editor thought it would be interesting to apply my photographic approach to agriculture,” he explained. “I agreed and proposed to look at large-scale food production. I knew from my work in Africa that a zebra under a tree doesn’t tell an interesting story, but 10,000 zebras migrating in the same direction gets pretty interesting. I thought focusing on mega-farming would be a good way of communicating the challenge of feeding 9 billion people.”
The research he undertook to understand the intricate global food web had Steinmetz delving deep, both close to home and far from it. Starting with the United States, which has the world’s most industrialized food system, he went on to investigate Brazil, the world’s fastest-growing food system, and China, the world’s largest food importer. The project also brought him back to Stanford, where he lectured in a course taught by Professor David Lobell, EARTHSYS 185: Feeding Nine Billion.
“George came to my class and left students with a strong understanding of his professional trajectory and his journey researching the topic of climate and large-scale food production – how he got out into the world and understood things and developed a nuanced perspective,” Lobell said. “The students really appreciated that. He is a great role model in terms of listening to your gut and going your own way.”
Steinmetz’s fact-finding was exhaustive, and working on the global food production story was like unraveling a sweater. He kept finding more connections, more intricacy, and more opportunities to use photography to facilitate understanding. He believes his images can help explain and demystify a complex system so that people can make more informed choices about the food we consume.
“We’re clearly reaching the limits of sustainability, and if we don’t understand the ramifications of our choices, we can’t make intelligent decisions,” he said. “Pictures can communicate and teach. If people believe in the veracity of the picture, it’s incredibly impactful.”
When asked about his message to Stanford students, Steinmetz said, “I think you have to follow your passion. I’ve got kind of a relentless curiosity. I think it’s good to be curious and energetic and fair. It’s easy to take a cheap shot and make somebody look bad. I don’t want to do that. I want to tell an honest story and be fair to both sides. If you tell a story fairly, it’s more impactful, and people come to their own conclusions.”
Our alumni are changing the world.
Each year, we recognize alumni for their highly significant contributions to addressing today’s sustainability challenges and celebrate their long-lasting impact on the Stanford community and on the world. Submit your nomination for the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award today.
James C. Ingle, Jr., is the W. M. Keck Professor of Earth Sciences, Emeritus. David Lobell is the Benjamin M. Page Professor at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and the William Wrigley Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
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