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.





52 thoughts on “Chris Johns – Editor, National Geographic Magazine”

  1. As friends, colleagues, equals, you revealed Mr Johns essentials. It’s what I wanted/needed to know. His journey to editor-in-chief is not just an apex for him-he is still wanting, looking for the next story. Photographers must have, or find, that grit, just as their subjects do, to get up and keep going. Often wonder if we want/need the recognition, as all humans do, that says we are here-to make it last and our human plight known.
    Thanks, David and Mr. Johns, (and so many others here) for continued inspiration to persevere, for those of us not on that platform, but need it/that just as much.

  2. Life lesson, not photography lesson, as so many times with this game.. hunger, passion and hard work.. you gotta believe it.. and for photographers: have your voice. So, not easy, but easy!

    Thanks, Mr. Harvey and Mr. Johns.

  3. Thank you for such a refreshingly honest appraisal! It’s important to know that along with the highs one has to fortify oneself against the lows as well.

    And thank you, Chris Johns, for bringing National Geographic into the 21st century; it’s interesting to look at AND read now!

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  5. Perhaps the greatest photography lessons after all are lessons on life in general?
    Thank you Mr. David and Mr. Chris for sharing all this knowledge with the rest of us. A wonderful reading experience.

    – Frida

  6. Thanks Dave & Chris , Thanks for the reality , Thanks for the wake up call…Nice to slip in a Johnny Cash Lyric as well ” In the mud & the blood & the beer “…sounds like my life working on the Top End.

  7. ALL

    i cannot promise Chris will answer your questions but he might…let’s try because i know you have some…Sidney, please re post your question or i will….Chris is a straight shooter from all that i know…he will tell you straight up what he thinks about this or that or why he does this or does that…

    ask away , he might jump in…..

  8. Great interview,David, but that picture. Geez!!

    Surely you could have gotten him to remove his shirt and positioned him in front of the window
    for that sexy backlit wraparound glow.

    Oh right. This ain’t RIO. :)

  9. Wonderful interview- Thanks so much Dah and Chris.

    OK- my questions
    1. Can I have a job? :)
    2. From your vantage point do you think there is room for still photography to grow or continue to be strong. I love the variety of multimedia out there as a consumer and am very interested in what will come next. My interest in personal production, however, is strongly still photography. Can someone realistically expect to be in the field without it all? What options could you see otherwise?
    3. I often mull over the historical and wonder about innovations in the field over the spectrum of photo (journalismarts). Is there any compelling work out there you see hinting to innovations you hadn’t expected? What imagery has surprised you the most lately?
    4. What are the main gaps in the industry you really wish someone would fill or cover (in imagery/ stories/outlets etc).

    Thanks for any response- if you can!
    all my best, Milli

  10. a civilian-mass audience

    Welcome home…MR.CHRIS JOHNS !!!

    Ouzo,wine and olives on MR.HARVEY…today.
    ok,I am reading now…

  11. a civilian-mass audience

    “My family is number one.”

    …pay attention BURNIANS…!

    ok,back to reading…

  12. a civilian-mass audience

    “Editing is selection and choice of materials…”

    MR.CHRISJ…do you believe that you have abused this “power”…?
    civilian is just thinking …out loud :))))

  13. I began to read this thinking that Mr. Johns would likely discuss the nuts and bolts about the things a photographer might do to get into National Geographic.

    I am glad I was wrong. It is so much better to read a passionate interview about… passion.

  14. Chris, David, first of all thank you both for your interview: very special and, as Jeremy says, straight from the heart. David, you often write about the hunger required for photography and here Chris confirms it. Your refining thought that you (and we) just can’t help ourselves hits the nail on the head.

    My first photograph was taken on transparency film because I’d read that National Geographic only accept transparencies and I used Kodachrome because National Geographic (then) only used Kodachrome. I shot (and shoot) everything as if it was for Nat Geo.

    My question to Chris: with National Geographic somewhat bucking the decline in many areas of photographic publishing, how do you see the future of photojournalism (some already say it is dead)? Are you positive for the future? Do you view technology as a threat or an opportunity?

    Thanks again,


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  16. What is the hardest part of your job? to edit down and distill and refine or after it’s been all set in stone and printed that it could have been better?

  17. Interesting read David, thank you and to Chris.

    Nobody has commented on the Allard photograph on the wall. Always interesting to see what photographs those people in the business have on their walls.


    Justin P

  18. Chris, still hoping that you’ll jump in here: do you look at photographers portfolios? What is the process of getting your photography noticed at Nat Geo i.e. someone sends a link to their work; what happens, if anything; who sees the website initially, is there a “chain” that promising work follows or does Nat Geo not even look at speculative offerings from photographers?

    If Nat Geo does not look at speculative offerings, how do you notice new talent? When you do look at a photographers work, what are you looking for? Photographic competence taken as a given but do you look for the ability to get involved with human subjects above an affinity with the landscape (geography)?



  19. Great, great interview.

    Chris, cheers from the Northwest.

    Having worked as both a conservationist and a journalist I have often been struck by the separation people perceive between humanistic photojournalism and “nature” stories. While working in the conservation field 20 years ago, I was often frustrated by the lack of interest by some organizations in forming true partnerships with local communities in addressing conservation needs. This often led to us vs. them situations that were in many cases unnecessary. This has greatly changed in the last two decades and now we have relatively new terms like “community conservation” and acknowledgment that you cannot have sustainable conservation efforts without addressing the underlying social and economic context of communities that are inextricably linked with the natural world surrounding them.

    I wonder if this now translates, in general, to a change of approach in media coverage of both social and environmental issues as well, a blurring of the separation between strictly cultural stories and natural history stories, and a better understanding of the linkages between them. Obviously, National Geographic has always been a leader in the telling of stories within the geographic context but I wonder if you see increased opportunities for National Geographic to approach stories with this nexus of the cultural and the natural world in mind? What about forming teams of photographers to approach stories from these “separate” disciplines? Or, are you looking for photographers who are adept at a wider range of story telling?

    Thank you again for giving us your thoughts in the interview with David.

  20. i am same age as DAH. i gotta shoot everyday! i gotta. i gotta fix my portfolio.i am retired from the daily grind, but there’s so much still to do!a novel,part fiction, my B/W work negs t scan, my new work, things to go-see,go-shoot. There is not enough hours in the day. Yeah, i’m retired but..Loved the interview. So true!
    Masters of photography are not simply creative, you need perseverance, dedication and a whole lot of obsessions.

  21. Another question, Chris, we hear so many stories of photography and photographers being devalued and seemingly able to be replaced by citizen journalism (the general public with cell phones) but I (we) know from experience that for a real, involved experience of life in any particular situation: told photographically, it can take many months to be accepted and to be thus able to show a particular truth, regered in a photograph – the picture worth a thousand words. In contrast the writer seems to be on much safer ground and valued for his literary skill. I’m reminded of this by a quote in a Kevin Moloney post


    in which photo blogger Jörg Colberg aptly put it, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”.

    Why do you think that photographers and photographers are seen as additions to written articles when hardly anyone can remember the written article but everyone can remember the photograph?


  22. I’d like to add my voice to the chorus of loyal Burn readers who would love for Chris Johns to dive into the mix here. It’d be a great follow-up to David’s conversation at NatGeo headquarters.

    @Tom Hyde – You raise a superb point re: how environmental problems are essentially social problems; that we won’t be able to tackle the Green challenge until we address the Human one. I thought National Geographic did a nice job in its recent story about Cities because it attempted to address this very idea.

    Also: David encouraged (above) Sidney Atkins to re-post his questions about (a) greenwashing, and (b) the pressures on Chris Johns to shy away or even ignore certain subjects. I’m with David. Those are important issues for the future of journalism — and photojournalism – and it would be wonderful if Chris would address them here with the Burn community.

    Thanks all for a lively forum…
    Alan Mairson
    (former staff writer & editor @ National Geographic magazine — and a collaborator, on a few stories, with our host, DAH. >> Hi, David!)

  23. Just over three decades ago, I published a three-part article of photographs and text in National Geographic and I will you how I managed to get in there. I had been publishing the tribal newspaper of the White Mountain Apache and knew I had the makings of a National Geographic article. I also knew that if I wrote a query, I would receive a form rejection letter and that would be it. So I wrote a letter to an editor by the name of Robert Jordon, told him I would be in Washington, DC, on a certain and that I would stop by and see him. He told me to call before I came over.

    I did not have much money, but I took what I had, bought a plane ticket, put the remainder in my wallet and pocket and flew from Phoenix to DC in the morning, with the return reservation in the evening. When I got to DC, I climbed into a cab, gave the driver all the bills from my wallet and the coins from my pocket and told him to get me as close to National Geographic as that money would allow. He dropped me off four blocks away.

    I had no more money for a pay phone, so I walked to the NG building and asked the receptionist to call Mr. Jordon, let him know I was in town and see what time he could see me. Instead, she told him I was here right now, ready to see him. He told her to send me up.

    The instant I walked through his door, he started to scold me harshly. Did I not know he was busy? You can’t just barge in on my like this! I told you to call first. Then, I accidently knocked a coffee can full of pencils that were red on one end and blue on the other off his desk. So I had to pick those up off the floor. After that, he calmed down and we talked. I had his attention now, so I told him what I wanted to do. He told me to go home and write a one-page query letter and if he liked it, he would present it to the larger group of decision makers for consideration – for the written part only.

    He stated that National Geographic photographers were the best in the world and he doubted I could make the grade. I knew better, but you must go from where you are at. Pennyless, I worked my way back to the airport, returned home and wrote the query letter. It survived the first hurdles and I was given a modest advance to write a story. That story was accepted.

    National Geographic still did not want to believe that I could do the photography, so they sent David Hiser. He came to my house, sat down and looked through my collection of Fort Apache Scouts – the tribal paper. He then called Robert Gilka and told him that he should not be there and that I could shoot my story myself.

    That’s how it happened. I got my spread. Both good and bad followed.


    are you totally forgetting my first letter from NatGeo after i did a test shoot at age 23? now, pretty famous rejection letter


  25. this is our last day of the photographer’s annual gathering of the tribe in Washington…our final fiesta tonight…i will ask Chris if he can jump in for at least a couple of comments….again, the man is busy and i just do not know…anyway, i am trying….for sure the mood towards Burn at NatGeo is rather amazing, so if he has any time at all or any inclination at all, then i think he may just do it…fingers crossed….

  26. David takes a little change of tone in this conversation to what I’m normally used to. Instead of the mentor loft-party host, his role here is one of an equal, discussing with Chris Johns what it feels like to walk that mile in those shoes. The flow is a real treat to read. Sometimes there is a shorthand present; a realization, and then an expansion of a thought for our benefit. A great experience.

    Mr. Johns:

    David often asks that emerging photographers submitting essays here at BURN send him a soft edit, so that he may recommend a different approach to image selection and storyline. I noticed his edit for your Magazine’s Rio story was fairly tight, given what we saw being produced during his last trio to Brazil. I don’t know if Sarah Leen was involved at that stage, or if it was edited just by David, but it left out all of his signature “tilt” shots.

    David has said that NGM is rare air, and we get the drift that you are challenging the norms of photography all the time at the magazine. My question is whether the Magazine’s editors want a soft or hard edit from the field; does it make a difference if the photographer is staff or freelance; does it change for the photographer who works with other writers, or who writes the story as well?

    It’s not that I have any issue with David holding back images for a future book, or images that have no editorial connection to the Magazine’s Rio essay. David has admitted that your readers and his book buyers are two different audiences. Back in the days of film the NGM photographer would have mailed in rolls for in-house processing, I think. Today electronic transfer allows for the first-stage cut on location and as well, self-censorship of content and technique. I wonder if this sort of holding back is today within the norm of the editing process, or if it handicaps your role in pushing the trends and boundaries of photojournalism.

  27. No, David, I wasn’t forgetting anything – I was just telling how it happened with me. After your rejection, you went on to make a huge career with NG and Magnum and to become a master, celebrated throughout the world, and now a teacher and mentor like no other as well.

    I went on to do that one NG shoot only, and to create some pretty good photojournalistic publications in Alaska covering vast, very sparsely populated regions with tiny distribution numbers (3000) but very popular among my readers. Now I turn to you for inspiration, and to see if I can find a way, not back to NG or any other publication, but to bring my work to a larger audience under my own terms, and to survive, too.

  28. Jeff, with digital, photographers had the chance to edit in the field and to make an initial decision what photo editors saw. Before digital, the photographer used to send the unexposed film back to Nat Geo for processing and sometimes wouldn’t see the slides until the assignment was over; relying on the assigned picture editor for advice as to how the story was progressing and equipment working correctly etc. I’m sure that picture editors would rather see everything rather than have photographers make the first cut.


  29. Mike:

    Check out the story of Thomas Hoepker’s 911 B-roll slides in “Magnum Contact Sheets”; his self-editing was a huge mistake, luckily rectified over time.

  30. JEFF

    good question for Chris…he may come on this weekend to answer…i too completely messed up my fast edit for my pictures shot on 9/11….thinking originally that only the work at immediate ground zero was important , i left out a lot of really interesting things happening a few blocks away..


    i am ready to work with you to this end..we just need that skype call to get things rolling..perhaps while i am in new york starting late next week to work with rio on the wall would be a good time..stay on my case….

  32. @ ALL:
    I’ve just read this wonderful interview, and curiosity is the key as well as gut feeling.
    By the way is you read Magnum photographer quotes in the web site, is all about that…

    “Emotion or feeling is really the only thing about pictures I find interesting. Beyond that it is just a trick.”
    Chistopher ANDERSON

    The photographer is filled with doubt. Nothing will soothe him.”
    Raymond DEPARDON

    Enjoy the rest of the Sunday


    Sidney Atkins
    January 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm Edit

    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!

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