An Interview with Geoff Livingston
You might think that America’s national park system wouldn’t need much in the way of marketing. Those incredible vistas and majestic skylines pretty much sell themselves, right? The millions of people who visit the more than 400 national parks, monuments and historic sites promote the parks every time they post an image to Facebook or Instagram.
But educating the public about the fragile ecosystems found in the national parks and the need to preserve the physical structures at historic sites is not something the National Park Service and its associated National Park Foundation take for granted. The Find Your Park campaign, #FYPX, is aimed at raising awareness about the need to protect the national parks, as well as building connections with young people of diverse backgrounds who will one day be the stewards of America’s treasured places.
As part of the #FYPX campaign, the National Park Foundation sent eight millennial social media influencers on an expedition to some of northern California’s national parks. Tagging along to document the trip was Geoff Livingston, a photographer, marketer and an early social media evangelist who lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
For Livingston, the trip gave him a chance to connect with a new generation of digital storytellers.
Focus on the Story: The NPS’ #fypx campaign seems like a really smart way to connect with today’s Instagram generation. What story did this year’s participants tell?
Geoff Livingston: I think they found a sense of exploration and awe, and then an unexpected serenity. Because this generation is so visual, the group seemed to have quite a bit of photographic talent, and they were able to tell their stories in very personal ways.
When we saw Rosie the Riveter/World War II Homefront National Historic Park and of course Golden Gate, you could tell how awe inspired folks were by the incredible power of the American mind. Our commitment to incredible things, from women building ships to defeat Axis powers during World War II to building this incredible expanse in the midst of the Great Depression, just inspired the heck out of everyone.
There were great cultural moments, too, that highlighted some more unknown stories. We visited the San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park, where we learned about the arduous journeys of some our early merchants. And then we saw Alcatraz, and learned about the Native American protests in the 1960s and, of course, saw the life of prisoners in the middle of the 20th century.
Then we went to the John Muir National Historic Site, and heard about the foundation of the parks, and Muir’s incredible love for nature. This was the last stop before we made it to Yosemite, really just an incredible prelude to one of the most amazing places I have seen in my life. I think I spent three days walking around with my chin on the ground.
As a first generation social media influencer, it was pretty cool to see these new jacks do their thing, and really show me a trick or two. My Instagram account is growing steadily now for the first time in several years. I always featured decent photos, but now I really focus on the personal and add pictures with a human element.
‘The National Park Service can tell you how awesome their parks are, and it sounds interesting. But when you witness this through a friend or a trusted contact’s online media, well now you are a believer.’ ~ Geoff Livingston
FOTS: Your job was to tell the story of the storytellers. How much planning did you do i.e. did you have a vision of the types of images you wanted in advance or did you see your role more of just documenting things as they happened?
GL: Let me tell you, the folks at the National Park Foundation had their stuff together. They had a recommended shot list that was pretty strong, and was meant to supply them, the influencers, and the sponsors with a wide variety of shots and assets they could use in their various takes on the trip. This gave me a good framework to capture shots as we moved through the various locations. Whether it was a photo of a ranger pointing or a well-timed product placement, I was able to capture the shots. There were a few moment pictures that stood out. The full group of FYPxers – Mario Villaneuva, Victoria Ramos, Victoria Gonzales, Edgar Woo, Juan Flores, Jacob Fu, Faith Eve Bee, and Erin McGrady – posed at Alcatraz for a killer shot. The shot was orchestrated by Woo (as we called him), and I captured it for him/them.
Then there was the one of Victoria Gonzales at the Rosie the Riveter Site next to a Subaru. It just wrapped all the nostalgia and the purpose of the trip together in one shot.
Of course there were the patented Jacob Fu jump shots. These were sick and fun to photograph. This Golden Gate one was the first, and his hang time just left me amazed!
And there was this shot of Faith, which really seemed to capture the mood of the country in a weird kind of way.
Finally, there was Half Dome from Glacier Point, which just made all of us stop everything and click non-stop on our phones and cameras. An amazing intro to Yosemite.
FOTS: What role does storytelling play today in the way organizations and companies promote their brands and how have you seen that change over the last 10 years?
GL: As you can see, it is highly visual now, and while social media has really always been about the personal experience, we are in the show and don’t tell era. So I think blogs and twitter and all of those things only work well now if you have great visuals or if you are able to hijack the trend du jour (or you are a rogue political candidate who rants with many typos). Most people aren’t good at newsjacking so they need the visual element to their story to compel people to pay attention.
That’s why I think third person experiences – shown through their own eyes and actions – means so much to brands. The National Park Service can tell you how awesome their parks are, and it sounds interesting. But when you witness this through a friend or a trusted contact’s online media, well now you are a believer.
FOTS: In the last two years, we’ve really seen social media become as much of an avenue for storytelling as it is a way for people to connect socially. Who out there “gets it?” Who are the people we should be emulating and learning from when it comes to digital storytelling?
GL: I don’t know, really. That’s a very personal question in the sense that what works for me may not work for you.
If I had to say anyone individual, follow the FYPxers. They were amazing people offline as well as online, and I still love seeing their stories online. For me, there is an authenticity factor that just appeals to me. I can smell people canning BS online a mile away after more than a decade working in social media. If it’s not real, I don’t care. All eight influencers were good eggs who have real stories and interesting takes on the world. They are all good at communicating them, too.
From a brand perspective, check out Red Bull. Still the best, and incredibly visual!
All images © 2016 Geoff Livingston. Geoff is a semipro photographer in the Washington, DC Area. He provides photojournalism, portraits, and event coverage to brands, and likes to think he can produce a fine art photo or two. You can see his work on his website.