Photo: © Chris Johns/National Geographic
FL: What special sensibilities do you, as a field photographer, bring to the position of editor-in-chief?
CJ: Part of it is a pretty practical no-nonsense way of getting the job done. Because if you're a field writer or a field photographer, and you don't bring home a publishable story, you don't feed your family. You're not getting the job done. So you come to a job like mine with a very practical notion: The last thing I want to do is set any photographer or any writer up for failure. I want to do everything I can before they leave the office to stack the deck in their favor to produce a story that is just a killer story that people will respond to, that they can become immersed in, that is a good match for them personally.
Then, to take it to the more micro part of your question, I want National Geographic magazine to be beautiful—that's pretty important to me. I think as a photographer I bring a sense of what will work visually for the magazine, how to push the envelope visually and journalistically, and I think I also bring a deep appreciation for aesthetics. But never at the expense of great content. I mean, it's great storytelling that drives us.
FL: What are some of your favorite photos you ever took?
CJ: This photograph is a pretty good example of the ends to which a National Geographic photographer will go to make an image. That picture is taken at Lake Assal, which is about 150 meters below sea level, one of the hottest places on Earth. I'd been to Djibouti, where Lake Assal is, and I'd wanted desperately to shoot aerials. There were no airplanes because of an intense conflict in northern Somalia. I went to a longtime pilot friend of mine in Nairobi and chartered a plane for a week and we flew all the way from Nairobi to Djibouti, and we went up.
This pilot, I might add, was if not the best, certainly one of the best pilots I've ever flown with in my life. His name is Dick Knight. And so Dick and I very early in the morning had taken off from Djibouti, and we're flying over this incredible volcanic landscape, certainly one of the harshest landscapes on Earth. And we see these camels crossing. What I do is I have a climbing harness on—I used to mountain climb a lot—and I've got the two back cargo doors off a French highland airplane so I can lean out and not fall out of the airplane. But I've got a lot of freedom to move with this big shooting platform. And the turbulence, because it's so hot and it's early in the morning and the desert's just starting to heat up, the turbulence was outrageous. I could see the picture down there, but I didn't know if I could get it.
If you went through the film I was shooting, there are pictures of my feet and pictures of my thigh, pictures of the camels for a second. We were being knocked all over the air. It came down to one frame—there was one frame that worked.
I tell that story because it made one of our most popular images I've ever made for National Geographic magazine. I had so many requests of people asking for prints of it because of the mysterious nature of the picture, I think. But it also goes to our commitment to spend tens of thousands of dollars to get a plane to Djibouti with the best pilots you can fly with, and then doing everything you can when you see a picture to get it right. In this case it worked.