“Explore Your World.” National Geographic couldn’t have said it better for Tom Nebbia, who was a renowned free-spirited, innovative and dynamic photographer for National Geographic and major publications between 1958 and 1985.
He has received a myriad of recognition from the media, exhibits, and galleries including honors from the Walt Disney Resort and an award from the National Press Photographer’s Association. He continues to convey his passion for life and photography in his community while living in the mountains of Western North Carolina. When I first met Tom back in 2001, his energy and upbeat outlook on life mesmerized me and has remained one of the most influential people in my life.
Out of the hundreds of cities and countries you have traveled to, what are your three favorite places in the world and why?
1) Western North Carolina: Away from the maddening crowd where one can still get lost in the wilderness whistling Dixie. I can’t say that of too many places left in the continental USA.
2) Southern Italy: Anywhere in Southern Italy from Bari on the Adriatic to Sorrento on the Mediterranean known as the Amalfi coast. Home of wine, women, and song and Sophia Loren–otherwise known as Sophia Chiccalini.
3) Kenya: Home of the one of the great wonders of the world, the wildebeest migration, where nature is displayed in all its majestic glory. No wine, women, or song here, just a whole lot of babies being dropped along the way. My place in the sun for beauty and peace as nature was meant to be. I was so smitten by it all that I got married at Victoria Falls, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). (Africa’s last Paradise on earth for the white man), now defunct, kaput, and never the twain shall meet except our love for one another which has been eternal.
At what point, did you figure out you wanted to see the world and why?
First of all, I was a history buff in school. Then, I was in the Korean War in the infantry, which meant I was first in line to go full blast into battle, so I had a better idea: Become a combat photographer – go to where the action is and return to the safety of headquarters at night, for that’s when the boogeyman starts to crawl out of his hole. It saved my life – not to be in the front line! There were only a few magazines at the time where people got their news, and LIFE magazine published one of my photographs, which was the begging of my professional career. Seeing your work published in LIFE magazine was, at that time, the ultimate compliment for any hungry young camera buff.
How did you start working for National Geographic?
I was working in South Carolina from 1954 to 1958 as a newspaper photographer where I met a very influential man named, James F. Byrnes, Governor of SC and former Secretary of State under Harry S. Truman, President of the United States. When I asked Byrnes who he knew at the National Geographic, he said he knew the editor, and wha la, he recommended me for a position with them and 3 weeks later got the job as a world wide-basified-whacky eyed fotographer who had visions of grandeur of the highest platitude named Mother Earth. My first test assignment was in Charleston, South Carolina. I told National Geographic I had never shot in color before. They told me to “just look at the photograph and forget the color!” National Geographic liked my work and the rest, as they say, is geographic history because I was now a staff photographer for the magazine, and away we go!
So, you just went for it, even when you didn’t have the formal skill level?
I could visualize things. If you study enough through a microscope, you will know what you are looking at. I studied people. I observed their emotions, which was what I thought was authentic and worthy of a photo.
How did this help you grow?
This taught me life skills and how I learned about manipulators. It’s not about what they say; it’s about what they don’t say. You have to be the judge of it. Like politicians, they tell us what we want to hear.
Who were your influences?
Normally, photographers ahead of me. Basically, they were the European photographers who always looked up to the American photographers, but it should have been the other way around due to their innovations, like the Germans and their cars (*chuckling*)! One of the great influences in my pursuit of photographic excellence was my deep interest in the field of Art, that mighty but illusive bit of spine-tingling channel which baffles even the experts who have always baffled me on what’s great and what’s not. As a consequence, all you gotta do (like getting married) is to hold your nose and jump in. You never know what will transpire, for life is full of surprises, but you will never know unless you give it a little push. And who knows, one may snare the brass ring; mine was a colored red, great Dane from Copenhagen, Gitte, the love of my life.
What moved you about photography?
You are creating something, an image, your own Michelangelo.
A lot of people are born with talent, but they never do anything with it? What are your feelings on this?
The first thing I think of is all of these school shootings in the past decades. People are taking their anger out on others. They blame others for their problems; they blame the world. Therefore, they don’t know how to use their talent to cope. What is this teaching our children? People will never know what happiness is if they don’t start taking responsibility for themselves.
You have had an ample opportunity to travel on assignment. What is one experience that sticks out more than others?
There was a time in the mid-1900’s when it was forbidden for outsiders to enter Tibet. You had to be a government official to get in, but there was an exception in my case. National Geographic wanted a story on Tibet, and they let me in. I was the second American allowed in Tibet during that time. They treated me like royalty!
Why do you think they treated you like royalty?
My wife and I were treated like royalty in Tibet, for it was a time in which China was looking for a positive image to invite the world to come visit and more importantly, business. Today, China is interested in making money and has already paid the price for Westernization. The lack of human relationship within China has vanished. We had what China once had, a hard-working warm relationship, a time in which we had everything and enjoyed it less. On the other hand, China had nothing and enjoyed it more. In any event, the Chinese went way out of their way to accommodate my wife and I because they went out to a small village, stopped everyone from working, and they put us in a beautiful old-fashion horse race, medieval costumes and all. I really felt like Little Lord Fauntleroy.
However, our great treat was yet to come, having lunch with the Chinese Army somewhere lost in the High Mountains of the Himalayas. We, at that time, were the foreign devils, enemies of China. We were quite refreshingly flattered because most of the Tibetans as well as members of the army never saw a redhead before. It was then that I realized that I had a real bonafide guardian angel sitting beside me at 16,000 feet playing footsie with the Chinese Army.
Most of the pictures taken on this assignment were published in a book called Journey into China in 1981, the first of its kind in many moons due to its long isolation from the outside world. By chance, I made the cover image. This assisted in the economic growth of the country.
How do you describe your state of happiness?
Be good to yourself. You can’t go through life saying “it’s all for me.” Life is about sharing it with others.
How do you maintain quality of life?
When you wake up in the morning, don’t worry about what he or she is doing. Instead, worry about what YOU are doing and what YOU are going to do.
The media creates a mold of how people perceive the world, which results in how they perceive their own quality of life. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s like the people who eat gravy and mashed potatoes every day. They are taught to do what is comfortable for them and not go out of their comfort zones. They are afraid to take risks and are controlled by fear. Also, the value of disrespect is glorified. In one of Obama’s speeches, a fellow called Obama a “boy” referring him as a worthless black slave, and the media infringes on people’s sex lives; you shouldn’t even talk about it. It’s no one else’s business and does not affect people’s duties trying to help others. It gets people riled up. The media is looking in the wrong place to help fix problems. There is so much hype about things that aren’t positively influential.
How do you think the media could help improve personal growth and encourage quality of life?
They should concentrate on what is important. Now, the media exemplifies through politics how it’s all about money and how much it can and can’t control things. America’s people need education. It needs to be a priority. We need to help our own country, like creating and maintaining jobs in America. We need to provide those opportunities here. We are getting left out! The media needs to teach people how to be responsible for themselves. We are living in a bubble. We need to break the cycle. The media needs to teach reality. People need to start thinking for themselves! People need to wake up and grow up. Once you go into combat, you WILL wake up! Do you wonder why there are just a few great names in our history books (especially of the ones who have documentation)? We don’t have enough of them. We need more.
What helps you cope through your emotional challenges?
I don’t enjoy putting my camera in peoples’ faces!
Ha. That sounds like another way of saying you don’t want to create drama.
I don’t like it, but I do it, and that is practically seldom because there are other things in life worth having besides stealing someone’s misery. I would much rather give them a big hug, which I do during my presentations. Besides, the real drama is on the battlefield, not the bedrooms which have toppled more governments that time can remember. I also divorce myself from negative people and negative energy.
You are 84 years old and have had little to no chronic conditions or take any chronic medications. Some call it genetics, but what is your secret?
My mind is still racing, and I have a lot of ideas. I am full of life, but I cannot deny my body is starting to slow down now. I have a good tutor, my wife Gitte. I tell her, “Don’t die on me. I’ll kill you if you do!” (chuckling).
It’s just your outlook on your life. You’ve got to be positive about life. There are a lot of individuals personally and on a governing level who want to tear you up. You can’t let those people get to you. People have too many things like BMWs and multiple homes, and they wonder why they have problems. Get out. Go do something. Stop being afraid. Roosevelt had it right, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Just look at a tree. See the beautiful life. Some people look at a tree and see nothing. I sit on my porch and each tree has character.
How do you practice a good outlook on life on a daily basis?
Learning. It’s exciting. We have misconceptions about things, but if you go out or look it up on the Internet, you learn about it. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there. You just have to go for things in life and deal with things as they come. People make these set plans, but why plan for the future when it never ends up as planned?
When the author, Margaret Mitchell, wrote Gone with the Wind, she said in an interview that she liked to write about people with gumption, for gumption was a means of survival, (her Scarlett O’hara in the book), what makes some people come through catastrophe, while others just as strong and brave go under. I only know that this quality is called gumption, so I wrote about people who had it and people who didn’t.
If you are unhappy with the movies, the music or the environment that surrounds you, then go create your own! Just do something about it.
I also love doing nice things for people, especially if they deserve it. An example is when I honored Annarae Hunter, a local woman from Mills River, North Carolina who in 1941 was taken prisoner along with her missionary parents who spent 3 years behind bars. I sent this story to Barbara Volk, mayor of Hendersonville, NC who promptly, at a ceremony at the Henderson County Library, presented Annarae with a city proclamation. Western North Carolina’s local newspaper showed up and wrote a big article on it. Annarae cried and told me no one had ever done anything like that for her before. She deserved it. I felt she needed to be recognized. For the full article in Western North Carolina’s local newspaper: http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20140522/ARTICLES/140529957
I have had people cry and laugh whenever I am presenting a program which has social redeeming value, not the mindless dribble being shoveled out by the empty-headed executives of TV networks. I must be doing something right for I am making senior citizens feel young all over again.
In your community, what do you try to teach others about quality of life?
There is something you feel, but most people don’t feel what you feel. We (the photographers) talk about color, composition, and lighting, and sometimes I give a lecture at the local library. They want to know if I like a photo or don’t like a photo. If there isn’t feeling; it isn’t there for me. It’s like the taste in cooking. You can make a damn good meal by adding this and adding that, but it has to communicate with what you feel.
There is no right or wrong way. It’s about how you feel.
Up Your Ability TIP:
You have the choice to live your life the way you want to, and you have the right to figure what is good for you. Don’t be afraid to get out and explore. Take the risk. Your happiness is the best reward.