A conversation with National Geographic's first field photographer editor
By Steven Werner, Photography by Chris Johns
The National Geographic Society and its magazine have long been a patron and showcase for some of the world's most respected photographers, particularly in the categories of geographic exploration and world cultural and natural history. The magazine embarked on a significant overhaul this year, engineered in large part by its new editor. Chris Johns not only holds the distinction of being the current editor-in-chief, but in being the first field photographer to be named to this position of responsibility in the history of the magazine with its characteristic yellow border. This is a point that Johns seems quick to dismiss in modest fashion, but it's apparent that his agenda involves a take-charge, can-do approach to revamp the magazine for the 21st century. For obvious reasons, we at Outdoor Photographer find the photographer-turned-editor story line to be particularly noteworthy and timely.
Subsequent to his new position, Johns made time in his schedule to meet with us in the magazine's Washington, D.C., headquarters. The man, who entered his office fresh from a staff meeting, wore a crisp white shirt and "D.C." blue tie. His physical deportment and bearing was more suggestive of, say, a fit submarine commander turned Secretary of the Navy than what one would expect from a rough-and-ready field photographer known best for gritty African assignments. As we fumbled to get our voice recorder to work, Johns looked on with considerate patience, but you knew that such a malfunction would never happen on his watch, coming from a profession where meticulous preparation and a constant state of readiness were compulsory, where a misfire meant missing the shot.
While National Geographic is known for its explorers and adventurers, its scientists and documentarians, the magazine's responsibility to journalism mandates that its content answer to a higher purpose of reportage beyond that of picture book or chronicle. To that end, it's consistent that Johns comes from a background of edgy, socially conscious journalism, from an age where the 35mm-toting photojournalist became the highly mobile eyes of a generation faced with the issues of a controversial war in Southeast Asia and, at home, civil rights and personal freedoms. For Johns, the modern issues of environment and conservation represent conflicts as profound as any world or regional wars.
So it is that we began our conversation with Johns at the beginning. Johns listed many photographers who inspired and influenced his career path, most having a reputation for impactful war and socially conscious work: W. Eugene Smith, Robert Capa, Philip Jones Griffiths, Larry Burrows and fellow Oregonian David Hume Kennerly. Not long after attending Oregon State University and the University of Minnesota, Johns was named National Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1979 while working at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Other credits include a staff position at The Seattle Times and freelance work for LIFE, Time and the National Geographic Society. It's this latter association that made Johns into what so many amateurs and professionals envy and wish for themselves.
Outdoor Photographer: Let's start with the big question. What would you label as your breakout assignment for National Geographic?
Chris Johns:Over time, as a photographer, you find your own vision, and at Geographic, there are seminal assignments that are instrumental in influencing your career path. One of my first was on Frederic Remington, where I had a terrific editor, David Arnold—an advantage that has become a common thread throughout my life. Also, it was fortuitous because it was a story about an artist. Being a photojournalist, I was heavy into storytelling pictures, but I knew that if I was going to do a story on an artist, I needed to ramp up the artistry of my pictures. David helped me to make that jump.
Another seminal story for me came in early 1988 when the editor, Bill Garrett, sent me to the Rift Valley [in Africa]. That was my first exposure to serious work on wildlife and, of course, I dove into it with the same principles and the same consciousness that I had developed with photojournalism—the concerned photographer, the soulful documentarian—a role that I was comfortable with and felt passionate about.
I came to realize that there was an incredible story about biodiversity, the health of ecosystems and endangered species that wasn't being told all that much [in those days] and had every bit as much merit for the concerns of the world as war and social upheaval. I had grown up with that concerned social documentarian mindset from the '60s and '70s. I took those same principles and applied them to the artistic storytelling of environment, biodiversity and cultural diversity.
OP: Certainly the wildlife and landscape photographer can't report on the animals and the land without tying in the people and the social pressures. CJ: I couldn't agree more. We cannot address the threats, the challenges, the issues facing an endangered species without talking about human beings. The mission of National Geographic is to make readers aware of the choices that humans are making and the ramifications that those choices will have throughout the world. The big story is where the human aspirations and the requirements of an ecosystem are at play, where the balance between human needs and the needs of wildlife meet.
One thing I feel strongly about as editor-in-chief of National Geographic is that I don't want to do the endangered species of the month; I'm more interested in this constant interplay among human beings and wildlife and ecosystems that holds the key to our survival on the planet for generations to come. I also don't want our readers to be bludgeoned with a constant narrative of hopelessness where humans are bad and wildlife is good. Of course, wildlife remains a great hook, because if you introduce people to a magnificent wild dog or cheetah or other charismatic species, they will say, "This animal is incredible; the world would be a much lesser place without this animal." Once you've hooked readers, you can start to talk about the challenges that face this creature or the ecosystems in which this creature lives. It all rests on the photojournalism principles that a lot of us at National Geographic are grounded in. That's why you'll never see me digitally manipulate one of my photographs. I'll make a digital print or color-correct it, but you're not going to see me add cheetah cubs or penguins to the picture. That's a complete antithesis to my career, to where it started.
OP:For all the fear that digital created in the beginning over the unchecked potential for overenhancement or pictorial fabrication, relatively little of that has come to take place, perhaps controlled as much by the savvy of consumers of photographs as the integrity of the photographers themselves. Digital concoction is rarely as exciting as reality. If anything, one would like to think that digital technology will help photographers find new and interesting ways to document the real world. Now a photographer is the editor of National Geographic. CJ: There have been some other editors who have been accomplished photographers, but I was the first field photographer. Bill Garrett and Bill Allard were both very good photographers, both published, but they didn't come up from fieldwork. OP: Nick [Michael Nichols, National Geographic staff photographer] was saying that being a photographer at Geographic is like being the coach's son. You have to work that much harder.
CJ: Well, I mean, let's be honest. They may have tried to pull the wool over my eyes a couple of times, but I know most of the tricks. People constantly ask me, "Do you miss the field?" I've never regretted a day in the field, though it's not always fun and games. But I've found that the satisfaction I get from coaching, teaching or being on the sidelines watching photographers grow is a wonderful stimulant.
OP: Will you get out in the field, if even on occasion? CJ:Right now I can't think about that. I have to be focused on the job at hand. We've made some substantial changes at National Geographic, and we'll continue to have the magazine evolve to become a bolder, more fearless magazine, but never losing the accuracy of the content or the trust of readers.
[At this point, the interview is interrupted. Two men enter Johns' office, grinning and holding the bust of a very young and effeminate King Tut destined to appear on the magazine's cover. The window to the past is eerie and astounding, and the collective staff pride in the creation is palpable. At their departure, the interview resumes.]
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