Editor National Geographic

This is the entrance to National Geographic and this is the Editor of National Geographic Magazine. Yes, Chris Johns a field photographer with “more than 20” published essays to his credit who became THE editor of NatGeo. We are on our way to his office after being cleared by 7 year security officer D’Won Addison, 35, who grew up right here in Washington and served in the U.S. Army. Chris hung up his cameras and now has an elegant office with a nice view of downtown Washington and about 5 blocks from the White House. Johns has a power job. You will read my exclusive interview with him right here on Burn just as soon as I can get it transcribed. He will tell you from his viewpoint what it takes to make it as a photographer shooting for a major magazine.  Stay tuned.

15 Responses to “Editor National Geographic”

  • This is a wonderful opportunity and many thanks to David and Chris Johns for this… anything they will tell emerging photographers about the story-building and picture editing process at Nat Geo will be valuable and helpful information.

    My understanding is that Chris Johns grew up in Roseburg in the Rogue River Valley of Southern Oregon, an area that I have some familiarity with. I lived in Eugene in the early 70s and have passed through Roseburg many times since. The transition from there to Editor-in-Chief at NatGeo must have been an interesting road, filled with epiphanies about the larger world and the business and politics of communications.

    The questions I would most like to ask Chris Johns about are not directly related to photography, please forgive me, but rather ones he might prefer not to talk about publicly in this forum, about the overall direction and balance of the magazine, and the political struggles over those things for the last 30 years or so… my impression is that the magazine was a bit more gritty and activist under the stewardships of first Bill Garrett and then later Bill Allen, both of whom were forced out by the board of directors. There seems to have often been a tension between hard-hitting social and environmental stories and more conservative backers (and possibly audience as well?). We have entered an era in which large segments of the political and industrial establishment have a vested interest in quashing science-based environmental policies and denying the mounting evidence of environmental deterioration across the planet. Some of these people are major advertisers in Nat Geo. So what I am really curious about is how as editor he balances the pressures that I know must be on him to “go easy” on certain topics, or avoid certain topics, or create a certain mix for the magazine that must try to maintain a mainstream agenda but must also be accurate, relevant, and aware.

    While in general I am a big fan of Nat Geo, there is one thing in particular that has bothered me for decades. Many of the major advertisers are car companies, and their ads often show their cars displayed prominently in “adventurous” locations and situations… fragile environments where no responsible person would take a motor vehicle. Other ads by big energy or chemical companies are clearly “greenwash,” PR attempts to sanitize their impact on ecosystems. If one looks at the environmental stories in NG, and then looks at the ads, there is a very mixed message being sent out.

    Over the last 20 years or so, the strictly “geographic” focus of the magazine, its original mission, has broadened to include many other kinds of stories, some with little geographic content or focus. Many of the science, technology, medicine, and health stories are great… but in a country where there has always been a serious deficit of knowledge about geography among the public, I really regret that one of the very few significant outlets for that kind of information has scaled back its coverage.

    Sorry for the rant, but I am a former geography teacher! Many thanks again for the interview!


    January 4, 2012 at 10:08 am Edit

    David, did you find it easier or harder working from home or was it pretty much the same. Personally love local work but find home life very distracting.

    A stupid technical question for Chris Johns. How on earth did he get the picture of a mosquito drinking out of the eye of a bird. Also does he think he’ll get back to shooting?

  • David:

    From the “It’s a Small World, Isn’t it?” file:

    About 15 years ago my best friend (also named Jeff) invited me to his girlfriend’s house in Toronto for Easter Dinner. She (Catherine) had invited her best friend Cathy up from Washington. Cathy at the time was a photo editor at NGM; a lovely woman who told us many hilarious stories of the foibles of “running” the photographers. I forget exactly the details, but it seemed her job, which she loved, gave her no small amount of grief – although she wouldn’t want it any other way.

    I often wondered if you were one of those responsible for her hair-pulling. As I said, I forget the specifics of the “troubles” – frankly, I was just too mesmerized by her voice that I just didn’t listen that much to what she said. (Sound familiar?) But I do remember she grew up in the Brandywine area, because at that time I was smitten by Andrew Wyeth’s egg tempera technique, and knew that he lived there.

    I had always thought it likely she was the one who initiated your National Geographic story on Wyeth, and I was tickled to see in your eulogy to Wyeth that you share my appreciation for his work. From the symmetry of two Cathys and two Jeffs sharing dinner some 15 years ago comes this synchronicity – one of the many things about you and everyone else here on BURN that I love.

  • If I was to ask a question, it would be “why and how?” Why the switch from photographer to editor? While it is true that a (lucky) photographer is also, to a certain degree, an editor, being an editor of and for others, not only picturewise in this case, is a different beast.. any regrets? What is the most frustrating/rewarding thing in being THE editor?

    Anyway, looking forward to read the interview!

  • Sidney,
    I share your view completely. Your write-up is excellent and to the the point.
    Thumbs up.



    working from home is both the best and worst of shooting environs…best because you are home…worst because you are home…the obvious problem is of course just getting up and getting into a “work” mode when you have your feet propped up on the porch railing with a cup of coffee…if you are staying in a hotel you KNOW you are working…you KNOW you must go to the dark parking lot at 4am, get in your rental car, and drive three hours to a location you have scouted and be ready for the early morning light…that is not happening at home where you notice the back steps need painting and the cat needs to go to the vet and well one more cup of coffee won’t hurt and friends are stopping by later in the afternoon for a friendly chat…it is easy to get lulled into a sense of being at “home” rather than a responsibility to photograph your immediate surroundings for a magazine….so yes, this is the hard part..

    however, i have worked from home on several essays….my first essay at 14 was from home, my early grant from the Va.Museum of Fine Arts was to photograph home, and this is my 4th NatGeo essay to shoot very close to where i live….despite the disadvantages of shooting in your own backyard, i prefer it to all other environs…reminding yourself when you are at home to pick up the camera while you are having coffee is way more satisfying than getting fired up overcoming all of the obstacles of foreign travel which would take all day to write about…i think travel reduces the odds of great work way more than getting off your butt when at home…

    a whole whole whole lot of energy is lost in the logistics of travel, and permission getting, and losing your malaria pills, etc etc etc…when you are traveling or spending a lot of time in any culture that is not yours, i think about 80% of your energy is going into adjusting to it…yes, even when totally immersed….the “newness” can be exhilarating and can be a stimulus as well, but is much more likely to be a long term hindrance to pure creativity than a help…same as with any “novelty”….wears off fast…

    if you are not at home, there you are in the dark parking lot searching for your rental car that you cannot remember what it looks like at 4am or hoping you can find a pharmacy in the next town so you can get some treatment for your dysentery, or sitting in a lonely chair for 6 hours of beyond boredom at the Ministry of Communication just so you can have a little plastic pass that will allow you into whatever you are trying to get into where maybe there is a picture to be made…

    while i prefer the mix of working at home sometimes and seeking the knowledge gained in faraway places, for sure everyone is different in this regard…some never leave home, like Sally Mann and Bruce Davidson, and some never stay at home like Susan Meiselas and James Nachtwey…so whatever works, works

    cheers, david

  • EVA

    of course i asked Chris Johns these kinds of questions…my interview with him and his enlightening/informative and perhaps very provocative answers will be published here just as soon as is possible…

    please also remember that this is the first in a series of interviews with the decision makers in our craft…the ins and outs of NatGeo, always a mystery to most, will be a bit less mysterious by next weekend when the final layout for OBX will be done…you will be there in the layout room when it all “happens”….

    then i am off to New York for a couple of weeks to work on RIO, and during that time i should be able to do the same with other publications….for sure NatGeo has the most interesting “behind the scenes” just due to the nature of the place…yet, i am sure you will learn something from all of the editors with whom i speak…

  • JEFF

    you must have met Kathy Moran….she is from very near the Wyeth “compound” …Kathy and i have been friends for many years, yet she and i did not work on the Andrew Wyeth piece…matter of fact, she and i have never worked on the same story…so any stories she has about me would be mostly social but differentiating between personal and professional is/was always a gray area at NatGeo….we all are very very close all around….she would surely feel she has had to “deal with” me as a photographer over the years even though we have never had the same project..Kathy has been a central figure in the photography arena my whole career…

    for many years we were a particularly close close pack, family , and Kathy was definitely a part of it, and still is…for the Wyeth story i worked with Susan Welchman , another old friend…most of my leading edge essays have been done with Susan…now for the first time i am working on OBX with Sarah Leen who is just rocking it, a fireball, and a careful caring editor…Sarah , like Chris, is a working field photographer turned editor so she KNOWS

    by the way, none of these three strong women let me get away with anything…i have tried, i have failed….my fate, my salvation

    cheers, david

  • Hello there. For those of you interested in such quotidian minutiae [am I even spelling that right, I wonder?] I am slowly crawling out of the hellhole of pain I have been vacationing in for the past month or so and I am on the the very long road to recovery. Everyone tells me that I am getting better and when ten men tell you you are drunk, it’s time to lie down, even if you still feel like shit and, let’s face it, I do. Still, I feel better than I did at this time last week, although the only I could feel worse than I did at this time last week would be to set myself on fire, a thought that does not appeal to me because I don’t think my homeowner’s insurance covers this situation and also because of the frustration factor; cracking matches are one of the many things I find next to impossible to do these days, along with scratching my bald spot and doing the tango. I’d like to thank everyone for their kind wishes and thoughts, and to wish everyone a very belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. My apologies for the rushed tone of this note; this is the first time I’ve been near a computer with a Net connection in over a month and I’m trying to say hello to as many people as I can before I have to return to the cave of woe for what promises to be an equally painful recovery. 2011 sucked and 2012 promises to suck even more, I fear. In any case, my regards to everyone.

  • David; Would this be the first time that Nat Geo have allowed a “sneak peek” of the images for an upcoming story?

  • David..

    looking forward ‘to be’ in the layout room, my experience is mostly limited to immediate sports news, where immediate is more important than anything else… the opposite of what’s hapening here for sure!

    Glad to read you, Akaky, hope you’re on the up for good!

  • What did you say to get that laugh?

  • “come on, I’ll post on Burn and you’ll be famous” :))

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