Award-winning photographer for National Geographic and other international magazines, Vincent Musi has a sharp wit, a preference for sly humor, a keen eye and a never-ending desire to showcase natural beauty in all its forms. A resident of Sullivan’s Island, Musi is highly sought after both as an artist and speaker. His most recent project, portraits of South Carolina’s ACE Basin, appeared in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine and in a concurrent exhibit, Lowcountry Legacy, at the Charleston Library Society. To view his work, visit vincentjmusi.com.
Briefly describe your professional route.
I attended a university for many years but never graduated. My degree would have been in journalism, although it should have been in fine art. I do have a driver’s license from LEGOLAND and a lapel pin that says I am a Certified Photographic Counselor. I worked for five newspapers over a 13-year period. When the last one went out of business, I became a freelance photographer, which is code for “deadbeat.” I’ve worked for myself ever since.
How long have you worked for National Geographic? And how many covers have you had?
I started doing work for the National Geographic Society around 1993 and have since had 11 covers of the magazine. I was honored recently to have one of my photographs featured on the cover of a book about covers of the National Geographic magazine.
You’ve been all over the world. When and why did you come to the Charleston area to live?
I’m from Pittsburgh and live south of the Mason-Dixon line because of my wife, Callie Shell. She spent her formative years here as a child and later returned as a student at the College of Charleston. Before moving to the Lowcountry, we lived in Washington, D.C., which is sort of like living in the food court of an international airport. Everyone is always coming and going. We wanted to be part of a community, not just live in one. We knew coming here would give us that.
What do you like most about living in the Lowcountry?
I really like the way we still say hello to a stranger on the street or acknowledge the people seated around us in a restaurant. I’ve always felt this was a living, breathing place where your actions have a great impact. The way we are all connected to the landscape and how it shapes everything that we are as a community is very special.
Have you worked with video? If not, is it something you have considered?
I do work in video but wouldn’t consider myself a filmmaker. Video is something I reach for like a painter might choose oil over watercolor to tell a story better. I know just enough to get into trouble.
During your speech at TEDxCharleston in April, you talked about how animals can teach us something. What can they teach us?
Everything we are learning about animals teaches us something about ourselves. Meeting a primate that can communicate using words or sign language is pretty humbling. We are not alone. Animals think and feel as much as humans do.
Do you have a favorite “subject,” an animal you worked with that you will always remember?
I really don’t have any favorite places, pictures or subjects. My life runs together at this point and when you start to compare or choose, you diminish the experience. I have some stories or pictures that are better than others, but they are like my “children” and I adore them all equally.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by my son, Legos, great writing, Arthur Stubbs (our UPS delivery man), good food—and nice people.
Tell us about your work in the ACE Basin.
The most elusive assignment for me in my career has been just 50 miles from my home. In 2006, I was commissioned to create a portfolio celebrating South Carolina’s ACE Basin. It took eight years, but I’m proud to have finally published a story about South Carolina in the National Geographic magazine. I made over 14,000 photographs during the ACE Basin project and only a few are good enough to show anyone. I’m proud of the ones they chose to publish. Making photographs for National Geographic is hard because people never throw National Geographic magazines away. I think it’s illegal! If you publish a bad picture in the magazine, you’re stuck with it forever. The real story in the ACE Basin, however, is in how the community came together to preserve this treasure. In my mind, I’m still not done with the project.
What is one of your most memorable experiences working for National Geographic?
I’ve had several lifetimes of experiences working as a photographer, everything from near-death to life-altering. Most of my life has been spent as an observer in these situations, so the memorable part tends to be how you unpack and use those experiences in your own life.
I’m getting ready to launch a personal project to photograph pets as artwork for people’s homes. It’s going to be called The Animal Commission and I’m going to approach it the same way I would do a portrait for the cover of National Geographic. I’m very excited about it and the potential for collaborating with charities on it.
How do you spend your leisure time?
I’m not sure what that is yet.
Kira Perdue is a public relations professional and freelance writer based in Mount Pleasant.