National Geographic editor-in-chief Chris Johns
For more than 120 years, National Geographic magazine has brought the world to its readers with some of the best writing and photography of all time. In honor of the release of The Complete National Geographic —a searchable DVD-ROM containing every issue of the iconic magazine ever published—editor-in-chief Chris Johns talks to about the past, present and future of National Geographic …and how he became the first field photographer at the magazine to move through the ranks and call all the shots.
Fritz Lenneman: Was it always your goal to work for National Geographic?

Chris Johns: My father was a geography teacher and eventually a school principal, so National Geographic had always been in our home. I used to read it and be transported all over the world. It really captured my imagination as a child. But I grew up in southwestern Oregon in a small town, and I never dreamed that I could have a job taking photographs. In college I was going to be a veterinarian, but I took a photography class and around that same time took a journalism class, and I was just completely hooked.

I'll never forget the first black-and-white photograph I took. Processing the film and then watching the picture after the negative was in the enlarger, watching the picture come up in the chemical bath. It was just magic to me; I just loved looking through the viewfinder. And then I was just curious by nature—it gave me an excuse to go all kinds of places and see all kinds of things.

The more I worked in newspapers when I got out of grad school, I could see that I wanted to spend more time in places. I loved being a newspaper photographer. It couldn't have been better training for what I eventually did, but I wanted to go places, go further and really spend more time and do things in more depth. I freelanced for a lot of magazines—Time and Newsweek and Life and People, and the magazines you would expect me to—but I was really drawn to the Geographic because of that experience, I suppose, growing up with National Geographic. My father always encouraging travel and open embracing of the world. That big thing about time—if I worked for them I would really get time to go places I always wanted to go and become immersed in that place and the people, the landscapes, the wildlife.

FL: How did you go from photographer to editor?

CJ: I'm the first full-time field photographer to become editor-in-chief. I started as a freelance photographer, did my first story in 1979 for the magazine, and did it near my hometown of Medford, Oregon, and did it on a forest fire fighting crew. I basically became the 21st member of an interagency hotshot crew for the forest service. A few years [later], I did another freelance assignment and sort of took off from there. I became a contract photographer in about 1985, staff photographer in 1995, and then in 2001 I left the field and became director of picture editors. I supervised picture editors for National Geographic. I eventually, after two years of that, supervised all of the visuals for National Geographic magazine. And then became editor the year after that.

Camels in Lake Assal, Djibouti
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.

A lion in the Kalahari Desert
Photo: © Chris Johns/National Geographic
CJ: The lion in the dust storm is a much different kind of story, because that's the story of a good ending to a bad day. I was working in the Kalahari Desert, right on the Botswana-South Africa border, quite a remote area. I'd gone out early in the day to meet a meerkat researcher because I wanted to photograph meerkats. It was very hot, stinkin' hot, and on the way I saw two magnificent male lions at a watering hole that we drove by on one of these sand tracks out in the Kalahari. And I thought, "Boy, those are good-looking lions." But the lighting was terrible and I needed to meet the scientist, so I just sort of logged it: "I hope I bump into those guys again."

I went to meet the scientist, but the scientist didn't show up. His assistant showed up, and then his assistant said I couldn't do anything because the scientist was gone. It seemed like a wasted day, almost. Sort of discouraged, my assistant and I were driving back and a big storm started to boil across the Kalahari in the late afternoon. And the sky started to turn black and the wind started to blow. And of course, a photographer loves bad weather—I mean, bad weather almost always gives you better pictures than good weather. So I thought, "Let's try to find those lions."

The light's fading; we're not too far from the water hole where we saw them. And here's this magnificent male. He's one of the most beautiful lions I have ever seen. He's headed into the wind trying to find shelter out there in the Kalahari and the light's going fast, the wind's howling, the sky's dark. It's getting late in the afternoon, and again, I mean, you're just shooting like a maniac.

Of course, I had to get relatively close to him because the dust storm was so thick that I couldn't cut through the dust to even see him. He was so preoccupied with the weather that he wasn't really paying much attention to me. It was one of those cases too, like the camels, where you're shooting and shooting and shooting and you've lost all sense of time. You know you have this great opportunity in front of you and somehow you've got to figure out how to capture it on film.

The Complete National Geographic
FL: In compiling The Complete National Geographic DVD-ROM, were you struck by any changes in the magazine over the years? Was there anything that surprised or delighted or even embarrassed you about the magazine's history?

CJ: Well, when Alexander Graham Bell and a group of highly respected gentlemen started the National Geographic Society in 1888 and the first magazine came out in October 1888, they said they wanted to cover the world and all that's in it. We still do that today. I think it's fascinating to look at The Complete National Geographic because you can see how the world has changed. And of course National Geographic magazine would be, in a way, almost irresponsible if it didn't change with the world.

One of the reasons I can say that with authority is because we at National Geographic from the get-go since 1905—that's when we first started running photographs in the magazine—have had this incredibly strong commitment to running cutting-edge photography. We were one of the first publications to figure out and publish pictures that were made underwater—and deep underwater. We were one of the first magazines to explore color photography and publish color photography. And now, of course, as photography has evolved, it's enabled us to put cameras in all kinds of situations and our photographers to capture much more on a digital file than they ever could on film.

I tell the photographers here, and the same goes for writers: "Show me and tell me what you see. But tell me and show me what you feel." I think this constant evolution of photography and the technical aspects of photography, what you can do with a camera now is much different than when I started in the field.

You can actually capture on an image now on a memory card things you could see but you couldn't really capture on film. That's really exciting. I use that example to say National Geographic has this 120-plus-year history, but it's my job as editor of the magazine to build on that rich foundation and continue to have it evolve and grow. We're dedicated to making every issue of National Geographic better than every previous issue. That's our commitment, and that driving force to excellence has been at National Geographic magazine for decades, and we're as committed as ever to take that commitment to excellence and push it to higher and higher levels.

FL: Do you see the magazine's mission as educational?

CJ: We know that the people who read National Geographic magazine aspire to knowledge. The media landscape has changed a lot, that's pretty obvious. That means that we're going to have to really go out and work with the most talented people worldwide we can find. We reach nearly 40 million people a month with this magazine, in 33 languages including English. It's incumbent upon us not just to educate, I would say, but we've got to be an exciting publication. We've got to be something that you just can't wait to pull out of your mailbox every month. That when you walk by it on the newsstand that you just can't help but buy it.

FL: "Educational" has sort of a dry connotation to it, doesn't it?

CJ: I believe when National Geographic magazine is firing on all cylinders we are inspirational. We make you want to go out and see the world. We make you want to learn more. You pick this thing up and it captures your imagination about places in the world and what the world is and what it can be, and what you can do in the world.

We're a nonprofit organization. I answer, obviously, to my boss and his boss and his boss and to our board of trustees, but I don't have to answer to stockholders. I don't have to come up with big quarterly returns or anything. I'm very fortunate because my bosses and our board of trustees want us to make a positive difference in the world, to inspire people to think and do the right thing for all of us and for future generations.

So you ask me if the magazine should be educational, I say, "Yeah, but it's got to be a lot more than that." Again, my experience as a field photographer is the world is an exciting place. Let's get that on our pages. Let's get that on our website.

Look at the December issue . You really want to know about the Uighurs, the people the Chinese clamped down on in July of this year? Well, the magazine to pick up is the December issue. You want to be taken to a place you probably never want to go? I mean, you want to go, but it was just hell getting there? South Georgia Islands. You want [to know] what's going on with one of the last hunter-gatherers left in Africa? Meet the Hadza in Tanzania. There's a pretty interesting mix of stories in that December issue that I would hope you'd enjoy and find interesting and, in the best of all worlds, inspirational.

FL: You've got me excited.

CJ: Well, good. That's what I'm supposed to do. It's part of my job.

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