Chris Johns – Editor, National Geographic Magazine

A CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS JOHNS                                                        FIRST IN A SERIES ON “DECISION MAKERS”

Chris Johns was named editor in chief of National Geographic magazine in January 2005. He is the ninth editor of the magazine since its founding in 1888. His extensive redesign of the magazine and focus on excellence in photojournalism and reporting have revitalized the magazine into a timely, relevant read for people looking for deeper insight into environmental and energy issues, world cultures, science and the natural world.

Johns’ editorial efforts have been recognized with 13 National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors in the past five years, most recently for Magazine of the Year and Single-Topic Issue in 2011.

Born in Medford, Ore., Johns began his career in photojournalism when he joined the Topeka Capital-Journal as a staff photographer in 1975; in 1979 he was named National Newspaper Photographer of the Year. In 1983, after three years on the Seattle Times as picture editor and special projects photographer, he embarked on a freelance career and worked for Life, Time and National Geographic magazines.

Johns’ books include “Valley of Life: Africa’s Great Rift” (1991), “Hawaii’s Hidden Treasures” (1993) and “Wild at Heart: Man and Beast in Southern Africa” (2002). He wrote the foreword for “In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits” (2004) and the introduction to the National Geographic book “100 Days in Photographs: Pivotal Events That Changed the World” (October 2007).

Chris was awarded an honorary doctorate from Indiana University in 2010. He studied photography at the University of Minnesota and holds a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism with a minor in agriculture from Oregon State University.

He lives on a farm in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains with his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children.


David Alan Harvey:  You, Chris, are the Editor of this magazine, of National Geographic Magazine.

Chris Johns:  Pretty shocking development actually.

DAH:  Well, this is the thing. When I met you, you were an aspiring photographer. Am I recalling that correctly?

CJ:  That’s right I met you…gosh you and I met a long time ago. You had come to town on an assignment for the Geographic and you came into Topeka and I think we went over to KU together, didn’t we?

DAH:  Yeah we met at a restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas.

CJ:  That’s right.

DAH:  So you were a student.

CJ:  No no, I was working for Rich (Clarkson)  then. I went to the University of Minnesota.

DAH:  Oh that’s right.

CJ:  That’s where I went to grad school.

DAH:  Ok. So you were working for Rich as a staff photographer at that point, right?

CJ:  Right. I had come over as a summer intern from Minnesota.

DAH:  Were you an intern when I met you, or did you already have a job?

CJ:  No I think I had just joined his staff. You had left Topeka a few years before.

DAH:  You had just joined the staff when I met you and you had an assignment in Lawrence?

CJ:  Yeah I did a really bad job on the assignment and I can’t remember why I was there. Rich was giving me hell about it in front of you, which was probably completely justified but I was mortified at the time. It was a picture I’d taken at Storemont Vail Hospital.

DAH:  Oh my. Well you know we can’t have this entire interview be about Rich Clarkson, although he would love it, but we do  have some parts of our background somewhat similar…there’s some crossover there.

CJ: Absolutely.

DAH:  Midwest universities  and same boss out of college. We both worked for Rich right out of grad school.

CJ:  You finished grad school and I didn’t though.

DAH:  No I didn’t finish either.

CJ:  Oh you didn’t?

DAH:  No I had Cliff  (Edom) as an adviser, remember?  He didn’t know how to get people to do their masters thesis. So there’s like twenty people out there who became significant people in the business, but all of them did not actually get their masters degree.

CJ:  So you’re like me.

DAH:  Same road map

CJ:  Well I’m a grad school drop out.

DAH:  We are both college dropouts. Laughing. No we just didn’t finish our thesis. Nor did anyone in my class. I am waiting for an honorary degree, laughing.

CJ:  I wanted to get to work.

DAH:  Well same here.

CJ: Of course I had Smith  Schuneman…at Minnesota

DAH:  Cliff did a lot with the Missouri workshop, well he invented/created the whole world of photo workshops, Cliff did, Cliff was a catalyst, yet Schuneman was a force in another way. Not better, just different. Same values.

CJ: That’s right.

DAH: Things that get established when your young, getting started, and those things don’t change. Your first hero, your first boss, I mean, you know, nobody occupies those places at any other point in your life, right?

CJ: Well, that’s right.

DAH: Well, ok, so right now, right this minute, you’re the editor of National Geographic Magazine, and yet you are a photographer. I know you as a working photographer. Tell me about this. Now this is a first for somebody who has come right out of the working photographer gene pool and into a position of making decisions. The series of interviews that I’m doing is on the decision makers. Everybody wants to know what the editors of these magazines, these top magazines, are thinking. And so that’s why I am here. I’ve got access to you, I’m going to take full advantage of that, and because the readers of Burn are interested and I’m always interested.

CJ:  Well we are  just snoopy by nature, David.

DAH:  Well we are journalists, we are curious. I think If we weren’t we wouldn’t have this kind of work. But tell me about this relationship between you as a photographer and now as an editor. What does that mean? Tell me about that.

CJ: Well you know I have been editor now for believe it or not seven years and its interesting for me to think about just sort of how my thinking has evolved and I think that the longer I’m editor, probably the more I’ve come to appreciate my roots of a photography creative person. When I became editor of the magazine I had a lot of catching up to do because I’d only been out of the field three years and I’d had a great opportunity that Bill Allen had given me to come in and basically supervise the picture editors at National Geographic and then eventually the last year I did that job, the third year, I also worked with Kent Kobersteen, the director of photography, as well and came under my supervision, but the thing I didn’t have a lot of experience in was of course managing a big staff of contract free lance people and staff people, and I didn’t have a lot of experience in the business end of magazines and then again I was very fortunate that I had John Q. Griffin who was the president of publishing group who really, really helped me quickly get up to speed, especially on more of the business end of things.

DAH:  Business side or the managing side?

CJ: Well I’d say both, but especially the business side. You know, I mean we had some other people helping me a lot on the managing side. You know, and that’s one of the things you learn as a field photographer is if your going to be a successful field photographer, you’ve got to develop alliances really quickly, everyday your building them in the field, and you better be very honest with yourself about what you know and what you don’t know and you just said it a few minutes ago, we are by nature curious, so when your curious, you want to learn, you want learn more, you want more experiences, and I think that was a real advantage. I would make the case that there’s no better training for me to be editor of National Geographic Magazine than to be a field photographer. I can’t think of how I could have had better training in many ways. You become self-reliant. You learn in the field that there is no point in making excuses. Its completely performance based.

You know, you’ve got to get the job done and you’ve got to figure out how to do it, and your going to have to figure out how to do it quite often with the odds seemingly against you. You’re going to be told no a lot. No doesn’t exist in your vocabulary. I mean your pragmatic, you know to not beat your head against the wall, you know that’s not what I’m saying, but you’ve got to take that story somewhere, you’ve got to refine your vision, you’ve got to be trustworthy, you’ve got to be authentic, you’ve got to know who you are, you’ve got to know what your strengths are, you’ve got to know what your weaknesses are, or your going to fail out there in the field, and there is nobody really there to pick you up. I mean, sure, you’ve got a good relationship, and a very trusting relationship with an editor, but its still your baby, and all the other things you’ve done in the past are important to you and you draw from them, but its still the pictures you produce during that assignment or during that personal project, whatever the case may be, and I say personal project for assignment because the longer I stay at National Geographic, just like you did, the more my assignments became personal projects. They were what I wanted to do.

One of the great things that happened to me in school was Smitty Schuneman, my professor at the University of Minnesota, gave me what I believe was a 15 hour class over the course of the year on the history of photography. We went from Fox Talbot to Daguerre all the way up through William Henry Jackson, Brasai , Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’ Sullivan, Jacob Reese, Lewis W. Hine, clear up to your work, to Ernst Haas’ work, to Don McCullin’s work to Gene Smith’s work. The sweep of the great masters of photography and I had reached a point in my career at the Geographic where you ask yourself well what I am bringing to the table? I’m deeply steeped in the work of those masters. I’m still studying Edward Weston’s pictures.

I’m studying all kinds of photography because I love photography. And then you say to yourself, just over time, it’s a very organic thing, you say, well what am I bringing to the table? Now I’ve been given this gift, this career, with incredible opportunities. How am I going to contribute to this profession, to this craft that I love so much, and feel so strongly about? Where’s my voice? What’s my voice going to be? How am I going to refine my voice and amplify it? Well by extension, that’s what I do everyday as the editor of this Magazine. My job is to find the voices along with my staff, along with Kurt, Ken Geiger, and you, and Nick, and Bill.

We’re always out there, looking for talent, looking for young photographers who’ve got that spark, who’ve got that promise, who’ve got the hunger, and then you say let’s work with them, guide them, not tell me, guide them, council them, support them, and let them develop their voice, like I was given the opportunity to develop my voice. So you know that right now I would say is the great place…

DAH: That’s it. But you’re all alone. You’re all alone in the field and your probably all alone here too in another way.

CJ:  Well what you do, is you’re constantly refining your vision. When I was a photographer it was constantly refining my way of seeing, my way of feeling, my way of transmitting that to film and to some cases into writing too. But we’re by nature visual people. There’s no denying that, lets embrace it. So yeah your alone, but your surrounded by people who…(pause) help, collaborate

DAH:   I mean psychologically, I don’t want to ask the leading question, but out on the field you have to make decisions that are based on the story, based on all that stuff. Based on the animal behavior  in some cases, in your case in particular because you’ve done a lot of street level people oriented photojournalistic work and you’ve also done a lot of natural history work.

CJ: Which I would categorize as photojournalism.

DAH: Oh yes of course fine, I’m just breaking it down, I’m just refining the definition.

CJ: Yeah, sure.

DAH:  Still, your having to make decisions based on place, time, money, and everything else. Now here you are, in this office, elegant office I must say, with an incredible view of Washington D.C., and you’ve got a lot of support, a lot of helpers, still…I would imagine, that like being in the field, even with the support that you have out there, that this job would still be somewhat similar in that you’ve got to make a call.  A lonely call. If you are wrong , everybody points…

CJ:  That’s exactly right. And how do you make a call in the field? Well, the more mature you become, the more seasoned you become, the smarter you become, the wiser. That’s probably a better way of putting it. When your working on the Outer banks David, or your working on Rio, or your doing one of your own projects in Rio, the day’s that you really feel the rush are the days when you feel like things are coming at you so fast, things are happening, and everything that you have ever experienced in your life, is coming to bear that day. You’re in the zone as athletes say. And when you’re in the zone, you’re drawing on all this life experience and what you’re doing, too, is basically following your gut. You’re thinking, sure, but you’re not over thinking. There’s a visceral, gut way of working. And what I’ve learned here is that as you become more confident, as you make mistakes because if your not making mistakes, man your not pushing yourself hard enough.

If you get afraid of making mistakes, you are toast. You’re done. You’ve got to have courage. You’ve got to believe in yourself and the people who you surround yourself with, that you can go ahead, and your going to weigh the options, your going to be decisive, but a lot of its going to be visceral. This is really important because when it comes too intellectual, it becomes too cool. But when it becomes more visceral, and I’m not talking about flying off the handle, but there’s a gut thing.

And you could be looking at a cover, and your going, you know, man that cover, we’ve worked and worked and worked on it, but it’s not right. It’s not there. And I can’t really quite tell you why. Then over time you can probably figure out why, but it goes for a layout, it goes for a lead picture, you know, how we open the ipad, what kind of video we use, and basically what I’m talking about is a refined throughout your life to grieve taste. A lot of what you do at National Geographic is you’re an arbiter or taste. And of course what we want to do, I don’t want to be elitist, unapproachable, inaccessible, but I want this to be an experience of high taste. That you cant get any place else, and of course when you tap into that gut reaction knowing that there are times you’re going to be wrong, admit your wrong, move on, learn. It’s very analogous to being a photographer in a field, and everyday making decisions.

DAH: And even managing people.

 CJ: Every one of us have had assistants blow up in the field, you know. Every one of us has gotten furious in the field. I mean, every one of us has had profound disappointments. Every one of us, David, has had days, if not weeks where you think you may never see a good picture again. You know and I know how low you can be.

DAH: Down in the mud, and the blood, and the beer

CJ:  Yeah. And you and I know how high you can be. And you learn to deal with it. And that’s not necessarily dissimilar to now. The thing I have to do though is, when you’re in the field and your low, you cant be down in the dumps with your assistant, your interpreter, your guide. You can’t be rolling up to somebody’s place to make pictures and start bitching about something. You’ve got to put on the face, and drag yourself out of bed, or whatever it is, and deal with it. You and I both know some of those days when its been so dark and you can barely get yourself going, turned out to be some of the brightest days of your life.

DAH: Yeah.

CJ: So what comes with that hunger, is a sense of curiosity. And what comes with that hunger is passion and caring, and your really wanting to take their photography and their story telling ability to the highest plane they can take it.

DAH: You can’t just want it. You must have it in other words.

CJ: Oh I hear about people who want it all the time. Wanting is easy

DAH: I mean yes people want it (laughing). They may not still want it after they walk a mile in our shoes. Or, they may want it even more..

CJ:  Well people say ” I want your job”…well so what? No I want people who are hungry and are walking the walk. I mean just putting it out there and they really believe in what they do. They care deeply about what they do. And they want to be better. Yet, they’ve got their voice and what they want to do is not be like everybody else, they want to take the voice they have, the experiences of their life, their soul, your life’s experiences, and refine it, and amplify it, and bring it to another level to share. To share what they see, to share what they feel. It’s just this sensational honor. David, you’ve got it. Hunger.

DAH: And you do too.

CJ: Absolutely. Yes, hunger.

DAH: All of us. Deep.

CJ:  I don’t know why.

DAH:  I don’t know why either. I don’t know if we’ve explained anything to anybody but its true. That hunger is the thing.

CJ:  It’s the same thing. It’s this drive. You know, when I became editor of the magazine, the drive didn’t go away, it was channeled in a slightly…

DAH: In a slightly different direction.

CJ:  I still work 60 or 70 hours a week.

DAH:  Well I didn’t think you took this job to take a vacation. I don’t think anybody did.

CJ:  And frankly at age 60 I have probably cranked up more than I ever have because one of the things you start to realize at a certain point in your career…

DAH:  You edit. I mean you edit your life .

CJ: Right. When you’re a photographer you start to realize at some point, in your career, that you’ve only got so many clicks left. You’ve only got so many more times your going to press that shutter, so you better start getting with it.

DAH: That’s so funny, I agree with you one hundred percent, and yet people would look at that and they would smile. I mean that you’re thinking that after you’ve accomplished so many things. And yet your thinking” I better get my act together now”. That’s crazy. Yet I think the same thing.  I mean, its kind of humorous in a way. How many stories did you do for the magazine?

CJ:  Oh, twenty some.

DAH:  Twenty some! How many books?

CJ:  I’ve only done two decent books and I’ve done a few crappy books.

DAH:  Okay, so you’ve got two books that we can talk about and twenty some magazine articles, and at sixty years old your thinking its time to get your act together. Now that is so weird. Nelson Mandela wrote your forward. Amazing.

CJ: I’ve got to do better.

DAH: Yeah, I know the feeling

CJ: I can’t be slipshod here.

DAH: No but yet at the same time, you value time with your family. I’ve seen you with your family. You value time with your friends. I’ve seen that as well. You have Elizabeth, who you met in Africa and Nichole, Louise, Tim who are just the nicest young people.

CJ:  My family is number one.

DAH: So you’re not just a maniac. But it’s a work ethic thing. It’s a work ethic, it’s a passion.

CJ: It’s a deep thing where you know, you talk to a great writer, you talk to a great photographer, and you can’t help yourself. You have to work. You have to take pictures. You have to create. These are things that you are…these are almost obsessions.

DAH: Wait a minute. Say that again,  you can’t help yourself?

CJ: You can’t help yourself.

DAH: That’s it. You just can’t help yourself

CJ: Sure.

DAH: So this whole interview comes down to that?

CJ: Absolutely.