60 Minutes With Chris Johns

A conversation with National Geographic's first field photographer editor

60 Minutes With Chris JohnsThe 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.

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.

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.

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?

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.]

OP: What many readers have come to expect from National Geographic is that there’s always one or more pictures that are visual surprises, photos of something stunningly new or taken with an entirely fresh viewpoint. Of course, we’re biased, but it seems that the photographers in the magazine have always overshadowed the writers; photographs have always been the magazine’s cache. Is that safe to say?

CJ: This is the way I would categorize it: We’re a storytelling magazine; we try to tell stories that people will receive no place else and give them context to help them understand a very complex world. The way we do that is hugely visual. Certainly, we pride ourselves on beautiful maps and great artwork, as you just saw with Chris Sloan [one of the men who brought in Tut’s head]. Still, the strongest part of our foundation is great photography, but also great images. They can’t be just a series of what we call point pictures, to make a point. There has to be lyricism, memorable pictures that don’t just show you what it’s like to be there, but what it feels like to be there, or to be that animal or that person, or in that landscape. Photography is a real driver in our storytelling, and it also motivates our relentless pursuit of excellence. Every issue has to be better than the one before it. To me, it’s analogous to the way I used to feel in the field. Every day when I woke up, I would think, How can I make the best pictures of my life? I’ve got to do better than I did the day before. It’s the same every day I walk into the building at National Geographic.

OP: National Geographic always has been a fertile ground for new, budding photographers. Of those who have remained on staff at the magazine, all are reasonably advanced in their careers. Where are the future nature and wildlife photojournalists?

CJ: There are a lot of exciting photographers out there. Our new director of photography, David Griffin, and assistant director Susan Smith are making a much stronger push than we have in the past to identify young, emerging talent. They’re not necessarily age-specific either. Often photographers start to find their traction in their 50s. We’re open to different and passionate ways of seeing things. We’re very open to international photographers and much more diversity in ethnicity, race and culture to make our magazine richer and to take a leadership role in photography.

OP: With all the “senior” talent out there and with all that has been done by so many with so much ability, the bar has been raised so high that it must be difficult for new photographers to distinguish themselves.

To quote one of my best friends David Allen Harvey, “the cream rises to the top.” I know that a photographer has breaks in his or her career, but the best photographers keep doing great work and getting better all the time. It’s up to us to identify that talent. It may be more competitive, and a lot has changed with digital photography. I think that a photographer can grow more quickly with digital photography; they can get more feedback. Once you’ve made the initial investment of a camera, a computer and some memory cards, you don’t have the ongoing expenses that you used to have. Digital photography is a great opportunity for photographers of all skill levels.

OP: Has National Geographic gone digital?

We use whatever medium tells the story best, but we’re increasingly finding that digital works really well for us. We’ll have a parallel track of shooting film, but increasingly we’re publishing more digital photography and, in many cases, we’re making pictures with digital photography that we couldn’t make on film. It’s a technology that we want to embrace and that’s why we hired [senior editor of technology] Ken Geiger from The Dallas Morning News, who’s a terrific journalist with excellent technical expertise.

OP: Have the natural history photographers been among the slowest to adapt or adopt?

CJ: Some of the reasons for that have been simple things like battery charging, dust, camera reliability, being in remote places or the inability to charge a computer to download. Most we find are shooting digital, unless they feel they can still accomplish the assignment better with film. It has rejuvenated careers. I think it’s wonderful to see a veteran photographer like Bill Allard who’s just nuts about it, or David Allen Harvey who just shot some work in Africa for us. It’s all digital and you know David’s on fire!

OP: Your tenure as editor-in-chief comes at a time when media is more visual than ever before and young people are less inclined to read than watch television or surf the Internet. Do younger photographers see pictures differently, or take pictures differently? Is there a difference attributable to the MTV generation of quick learners, instant gratification, news bites?

That’s a good question. There have been some huge technological advances. When I was at Oregon State University, I used to go out on the overpass of Interstate 5 and practice focusing on passing cars so I could get sharp pictures of football. When I started photographing wild dogs in the mid-’90s in Botswana, that’s the first time I really jumped into autofocus photography with both feet, and it took me a while to learn how to use it. You could make pictures that you couldn’t make before. And it may be with young photographers that it takes them less time to become comfortable with new technology because of the environment in which they’ve grown up. I want all different kinds of visions, and the reality is that younger people, probably because of their background, see differently.

OP: Many of the modern-culture magazines have promoted the “snapshot” look. Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of reality TV.

CJ: Who would have guessed a few years ago that people would be using cell phones to take a picture, and this sort of technology has certainly promoted the snapshot mentality. Occasionally there may be some room for that in our magazine. But we’ve all been around long enough to see a lot of styles in photography come and go, the flavor of the month. At National Geographic, we’re pretty well-grounded in photography that’s steeped in great storytelling, pictures that you can’t forget.

On the other hand, when you speak of reality TV, we have to be careful that our pictures don’t look too produced, too slick. That’s one of the many beauties of Nick Nichols’ photography, that there’s an edge to it. There was a point in my career when I was keen to take “perfect pictures.” Perfect pictures don’t interest me; what interests me are energetic, curious, fascinating pictures. A photographer who works for us has to go out and take risks, calculated risks. I’d rather that the pictures be a little rough, but more honest, more revealing than postcard cliché or calendar perfection.

OP: Those pros who have migrated to digital have commented how digital is useful, allowing photographers to see the result, know they have the shot. But this safety factor also can promote complacency. “I’ve got the shot, so I’m done, I can move on.”

CJ: It’s an interesting point and something that we struggled with at first with those who were reluctant, who were skeptical about digital photography. Many said, “It’s not so good because the photographer will know what he or she has.” There’s a real mystery to shooting film and shipping film from Timbuktu into D.C. You keep hammering at it because you’re never quite sure, you’re a little insecure. What I’ve found with shooting digital is quite the opposite. I would look at the picture and say, “That’s a bit better than I thought I got, but I can make it better.” Then, when I’ve refined it to where I want it, I can move on. So I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful device for growth and for keeping myself honest in the field. It’s a terribly useful tool for the future of photography and for photography here at National Geographic.

Professional Influences

Larry Burrows, www.pownetwork.org/bios/b/bx13.htm

Robert Capa, http://photo-seminars.com/Fame/capa.htm

Philip Jones Griffiths, www.noorderlicht.com/eng/fest03/homage/jonesgriffiths/

David Hume Kennerly, www.kennerly.com

W. Eugene Smith, http://photo-seminars.com/Fame/eugesmith.htm