Famed photographer rediscovers America's beauty after 2 decades abroad

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Photographer David Guttenfelder 

CBS News

This story originally aired on “CBS This Morning” on August 26, 2016.

More than a thousand people gathered on the National Mall in Washington Thursday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Last year alone, more than 300 million people streamed through the gates of our national parks to take in the pristine beauty of our country. 

But for one photographer, the national parks hold special meaning.

100 years of national parks 02:17

David Guttenfelder became a star on Instagram, thanks to photos of a country that doesn’t even allow it. His stunning images of North Korea gained him followers around the world. But after two decades overseas, he returned home, trying to tell America’s story for National Geographic, reports CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor. 

“I think we all have the compulsion to interact with the world in some way, to do something with our experience, whether it’s to write in a journal or paint something.”” Guttenfelder said at Yosemite National Park. 

For Guttenfelder, that interaction has been through a camera lens. And for the past 20 years, he’s been making up for lost time. 

“I grew up in Iowa. I had never been anywhere. I had-- didn’t have a passport. I had never seen the ocean, and I just really had a hunger to go and see something for myself,” Guttenfelder said.

In his 20s, Guttenfelder went to Tanzania to study for a matter of months. He ended up staying for seven years, covering the Rwandan genocide and nearly every other conflict that came up for the Associated Press. 

After that, he spent a decade in the Middle East, including war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Guttenfelder adopted the then crazy concept of taking professional photos on amateur devices. 

“And I published them. And people said, ‘What is he -- is he crazy?’” Guttenfelder said, laughing. “This was 2011 in Afghanistan. ‘How could -- why would this guy take a phone to the front lines of the war in Afghanistan?’ Fast forward to now, the argument seems absurd. There’s a half a billion using Instagram. Everyone’s a photographer now. Our country is more visually literate than ever before.”

But it wasn’t until Guttenfelder helped open the Associated Press’ bureau in Pyongyang, North Korea, that his photography made him famous. 

“No one had ever, ever really worked there, ever really seen it,” Guttenfelder said. 

“People here have their own ideas of what North Korea is. How is the North Korea that you saw different than what the perception in North Korea is?” Glor asked.

“It’s a rough, tough, isolated, controlled place... so all of that is true, all of the things that we think. At the same time, because of that, we think in America that there’s no life there at all,” Guttenfelder said. “It’s like, ‘It’s a facade’ -- it’s like that, ‘There’s nothing, it’s the Truman show, and behind it there’s absolutely nothing there.’ And through photography, I realized that it wasn’t. There were real people with real lives, there were real people trying to live like everybody else in the world.”

In the summer of 2014, after two decades of constant travel around the globe, Guttenfelder accepted a new assignment with National Geographic to photograph Yellowstone. 

“I feel a little like I’m rediscovering my own home,” Guttenfelder said. “It was my entire reason for coming home -- 20 years after I left -- was to come home and photograph a national park.”

Before that, Guttenfelder had neither photographed in America nor been to Yellowstone. 

“I’ve never seen a bison, I’ve never seen a bear,” Guttenfelder said. “It really felt like the perfect homecoming. I went pretty far away to try and find purpose for myself as a photographer. And so that’s been, I think, the thing I’ve been thinking about the most, which is, I’m photographing my own country and the things that are wrong and right about my own country.”

Since then, he’s photographed his family’s Fourth of July party in Iowa, covered the Trump campaign in Florida and President Obama’s visit to Yosemite for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. 

“This is something that America can be very, very proud of. And this is something that I’m proud of,” Guttenfelder said. “I wanted to celebrate this and to try and explain what’s important about it. And to try and convince others how important it is to have this kind of place and to protect it.”  

Guttenfelder will also have a feature on Cuba in the November issue of National Geographic.