The Story Behind the Photo That Inspired Walter Mitty’s Journey

Picture of displaced people in Congo
Displaced people make camp in Goma after fleeing fighting in Karuba and Mushake villages in Congo. This photo played a significant part in the new film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (Photograph by Marcus Bleasdale)

In the newly released film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller plays Walter, an introverted photo editor at a magazine who frequently daydreams of being somewhere else or someone else entirely. When he can’t find an important photo negative taken by an acclaimed photographer (played by Sean Penn) for the magazine, he decides to take a leap of faith (quite literally, at certain points) and travels around the world just to find that missing photo.

I won’t spoil the movie for you, but one critic has said that the country-hopping scenes feel like “flicking through an old copy of National Geographic.” And as it turns out, there’s a good reason for that.

In a defining moment in the film (which you can see in the trailer), Sean Penn’s character suddenly comes to life in a photograph and gestures for Walter Mitty to come toward him. The original photo (without Sean Penn, of course) was taken by National Geographic photographer Marcus Bleasdale. We talked to Bleasdale about his photo’s big screen debut.

How did you initially get involved with the film?

They contacted my agency and asked if there were photographers who have covered conflict situations and humanitarian crises that would like to be involved in the film. The main image they featured is of a displaced camp in eastern Congo. I think they have about four or five of my images in the film, and most of what they chose is from a series I did in Congo and some images from Kashmir.

Had your photos in the film been published elsewhere before?

Yes, they were published in 2009 in a book called The Rape of a Nation. That project looked at the impact of natural resource extraction on the Congolese population. Some different images from that series were also published in the October 2013 anniversary issue of National Geographic.

Were you surprised when they contacted you?

Most of the process went through my agent so actually, I only found out when my photo editor at National Geographic contacted me to say she’d seen a preview of the film and she thought that they were using some images of mine. That was the only notification that I had, really. I didn’t know that my photo was going to be the one that entices Walter Mitty to do what he does, which is very cool.

Picture of Sean Penn in Congo
Marcus Bleasdale’s photo as seen in the trailer for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (Screenshot courtesy the official movie trailer.)

Have you seen the film yet?

I haven’t. I’m currently in a very remote part of the UK with my family so I’m sure I’ll be able to see it once I get back to civilization.

Did you get to see the trailer, at least?

Yes, and it’s nice to see the images there and kind of see how they’re used, but it will be interesting to see exactly how they’re featured in the film.

What is your photography process like? Do you work with photo negatives?

I do, and I switched to digital very late in 2007. But sometimes I still shoot film, and most of the Rape of a Nation project was shot on film.

Have you ever lost a negative?

I have not lost one, but I’ve had them confiscated in eastern Congo by the authorities. Four rolls of film. I still remember it and I have nightmares closing my eyes, thinking of the images that are on those rolls of film.

Tell me more about your assignments for National Geographic magazine.

The most recent assignment was was about natural resource extraction and this war in eastern Congo. We were documenting the gold mines and looking at the source of electronic products that is creating that conflict and the need for the natural resources that are used in the electronic products that we use every day.

I also did a story about the dying whaling communities in northern Norway, because I live in there. Norway is the last country in the world that commercially hunts whales. I was working on those whale boats with the whalers to document what they’re still doing.

What inspired you to become a photographer?

Humanitarian issues and human rights brought me to photography. I was an investment banker for many years before I became a photographer, and I left investment banking during the conflict in the Balkans so I could go there and try to understand the Balkans a little bit more. I took a camera with me and the rest really is history, as they say.


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Meet the Author
Sonia Harmon is the blog coordinator at National Geographic. She has also written for Ladies' Home Journal magazine and Washingtonian magazine.