National Geographic’s Chief Storyteller Maps Her Career Back to Humboldt

A cartographer by trade, Kaitlin Yarnall (‘05, Geography and Spanish) believes that maps are more about power and history than borders and roads.

A cartographer by trade, Kaitlin Yarnall (‘05, Geography and Spanish) believes that maps are more about power and history than borders and roads. Mapping her own travels–Yarnall has crisscrossed the globe too many times to count–Yarnall’s story starts at the “X” marking Humboldt State University. Today, she is the Chief Storytelling Officer at National Geographic, where she first arrived as an intern from HSU’s Geography department 16 years ago. 

Today, Yarnall’s focus is on the philanthropic side of photography through the National Geographic Society, a nonprofit organization which is the largest funder of individual storytellers and journalists in the world. Yarnall’s day-to-day work is helping freelance photographers, writers, filmmakers, and youth broadcast their stories to the world. 

“We are trying to diversify who is behind the camera of the visual stories we all consume,” Yarnall explains.

As a young person growing up in Humboldt County, Yarnall wasn’t very sure of her future career plans but fell into a rhythm in her Spanish class at Eureka High School. “It came easily to me,” she recalls. 

Yarnall’s grandfather, Jack Yarnall, was an HSU Biology professor and both of her parents are alumni. As a child, she often visited campus and HSU’s Marine Lab in Trinidad, and fondly remembers adventures at the beach and forest with her family. After graduating from high school, Yarnall’s transition to HSU was a natural fit. 

On campus, Yarnall continued to study Spanish literature, spending a semester abroad in Quito, Ecuador. “It was so valuable to gain a different cultural perspective as a college student,” she remembers. “My experiences at HSU definitely sowed seeds for the work I’m doing today.” 

Returning from Ecuador to Arcata, Yarnall stumbled into a Geography class during her junior year. Fascinated by the blend of art and science in mapmaking, she went on to graduate as a double major in Geography and Spanish. “The world makes sense to me through a geographic lens,” Yarnall explains.

At the time, HSU’s Geography department could nominate one student each year for a three-month internship at Nat Geo–Yarnall was the 2005 pick. She packed her bags and headed to Washington D.C.

“My education in cartography at HSU was so hands-on that it helped give me the confidence I needed at National Geographic to dive in and start making maps,” says Yarnall. 

She also remembers how environmental sustainability and social justice were “in the water” at HSU. In particular, Yarnall vividly recalls September 11 happening while she was sitting in class. “An open-minded college campus was one of the best places to be, emotionally and intellectually, during 9/11,” she explains. For Yarnall, it was a formative lesson in learning to explore a complex world, and in the power of listening, which she says is a crucial skill for a cartographer. 

“Maps are a powerful narrative tool to understand how the world is changing,” says Yarnall. “Layers of information can tell a very different story.” 

As a former senior editor at National Geographic’s world-famous magazine, Yarnall has traveled with the world’s most talented photographers. She has sat with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, watched gold pulled from the earth in archaeological digs, and helped DACA Dreamers document their stories. 

“It’s the quieter moments that help you see the world in a more expansive way.”

Photo courtesy of National Geographic Society.